Barack Obama is the most famous living person in the history of the world.
I'm not trying to induce an acid flashback to John Lennon's infamous 1966 comment, "The Beatles are more popular than Jesus." But whether you measure fame in terms of saturation or sheer numbers, it seems indisputable to me that more people know at least something about the new American president than anyone alive, at this point -- or any -- in the planet's existence.
Who else could it be? One friend suggest Muhammad Ali, another Princess Diana, and a third said Bill Clinton. Surely all are global brands with enormous reach and broad appeal. But all fall short of the man-meets-the-moment frenzy unleashed by Obama.
To be sure, the digital revolution has made this feat of fame possible. Not only has it helped the son of an erstwhile Kenyan goatherd to become president, it has allowed a current Kenyan goatherd to follow the former's journey. And he is not alone. Exponential growth in access to the Internet, satellite television and radio, cell phones, and P.D.A.'s means that breaking news now reaches virtually every corner of the globe. At the same time, population continues to grow; there are now some 6.7 billion men, women, and children on earth, an historic high.
But technology and biology don't totally explain the Obama phenomenon. There's no denying that the world has been utterly captivated by the new American president with the international pedigree. His black African father, white American mother, Muslim middle name, and childhood spent partially in Asia make him more than the 21st-century embodiment of the classic American melting pot; his story makes him accessible to people the world over who might see in his life a few scenes from their own.
That someone like Obama could be elected president of the United States -- with its unrivaled power and prestige -- has begun to restore the country's and the world's faith in America as the land of opportunity. Gone is the hunkered-down defensiveness of the past eight years, the lock-the-doors, draw-the-curtains, load-the-guns-to-keep-out-the-bad-guys mentality that turned so much of the world against us. In its place is the restoration of that classic American optimism, eyes lifted to the horizon, reaching out across continents and oceans, not in fear, but with faith that we can help build a better world. It was no accident that President Obama's first televison interview from the White House went not to an American network but to an Arab one.
As Obama himself has acknowledged again and again, he begins his first term at a moment of profound crisis. The road ahead with be difficult, as gauzy goals give way to difficult decisions, and people from Chicago to Cairo, to Nairobi, find reasons to be disappointed. But at least for the moment, Obama has made America cool again -- and more than that, he's made his own brand arguably the most powerful the world has ever known.
Originally published in Vanity Fair.
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