Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama: The hope, the contradiction

There are days that define a country’s history and which signal a sea-change in its national course. 27 April 1994 was such a date for South Africa, when against expectation and history; we turned our back on three-and-a-half centuries of racial division and political exclusion. 1 May 1997, less dramatically, marked a profound shift in British political history, as nearly two decades of unbroken Conservative rule were swept away in a tidal wave of change in favour of Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

Tuesday, November 4 2008, proved to be, at so many levels and in many different ways, a hinge day of change for America. Ironically, it was the rallying cry which the vanquished Republican standard bearer, Senator John McCain used in his frenetic and futile dash across seven states on the last day of the campaign, which accurately summed up the epoch-changing result of the US presidential election: “We never hide from history! We make history!”

As the results rolled in on Tuesday night, and were relayed with a degree of technological wizardry and television mastery which made me gape, America made history, but, from the Republican perspective, for all the wrong reasons.

On the back of a surging turnout, buoyed by the worst financial crisis this country (and the world) has seen since the Great Depression, Barack Hussein Obama was elected President with a huge Electoral College sweep of 338 votes to 163 and a slightly narrower, but equally decisive, popular vote haul of 51% of the ballots cast.

The most obvious and commented upon aspect of the remarkable achievement of the 47 year-old first-term Senator is his racial identity. As the New York Times exulted “he swept away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease”. For the candidate, now president-elect, it was a moment to savour. As he told over 200,000 of his supporters gathered on the balmy Fall evening in Grand Park in Chicago, “I was never the likeliest candidate for this office”.

Perhaps it was appropriate that it was the state of Virginia, which swung behind Obama and voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years, which assured Obama of his win. In many ways, the state of Virginia, known as the “Old Dominion“ symbolised the struggle for slavery and on its battlefields, the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War were fought. This was a true moment of American exceptionalism, which seemed, as the ballots piled up and the results were declared, to sweep away the ugly stain of a racially disfigured past and which in the words of one commentator witnessed, “tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim”. Obama’s improbable, but emphatic, election is certainly at odds with some comfortable and conspiratorial assumptions made about the United States. Steven Kull of the BBC recently reported on an international conference he attended in Malaysia where some of the delegates assumed that the US was controlled by “a cabal of white bankers and Jews who use police and fire hoses to repress blacks”. Obama’s rise will trigger “severe cognitive dissonance” amongst America’s detractors abroad for whom the excesses of the Bush presidency provided easy ammunition.

Cynics argue that it was only a-once-in-a-century economic crisis which got enough white people in America to vote for a black man. But this actually misses the wider point: Obama was a transformational candidate in many, perhaps less obvious, ways. When his quest for the presidency seemed somewhat vain and Senator Hillary Clinton was a prohibitive favourite to win the Democratic nomination, I happened to attend a rally he addressed just over a year ago in the urban parkland of the Boston Common. I thought the crowd was impressive, but the 10000 people he drew that night, was in the course of the long campaign which followed to be eclipsed typically by hundreds of thousands who flocked to hear a candidate whose campaign propelled him into the iconic status, and gave him the pulling power, usually reserved for rock stars. Although his crowds increased, his message never wavered: that night in Boston he never spoke about race, or his suffering, or his people’s struggle for equality. He addressed the future and offered hope for the resolution of the myriad conflicts in America’s national life and international projection. By turning his back on the sort of race-holding politics which has characterised the debate about transformation in South Africa, and which Jesse Jackson has preached unwaveringly in America, Obama got Americans to see beyond skin colour.

American voters in Tuesday did not simply turn a new page for a country whose racial history and current antagonisms are perhaps as severe as, or even exceed, those of South Africa. They also took a huge leap of faith. Half of the voters who cast their ballots told exit pollsters that they did not believe Obama had the experience to be an effective president, as opposed to 6 out of 10 that said that Senator McCain did. But an overwhelming 90% said that the economy was in bad shape and seven out of 10 voters disapproved of the job which President Bush has done. Thus the election of Obama, whose opponent was 72 years-old and a veteran law-maker and prisoner-of-war hero into the bargain, marked the end of a generational era as well. The public clamour for change, spurred by young voters who cast ballots in record numbers and older voters who are fearful as they watch 40% of their retirement savings being obliterated by the Wall Street blow out, proved decisive.

Taking a timeline of the polls, you can trace Obama’s victory and McCain’s defeat back to the third week of September, the day Lehman Brothers collapsed, a harbinger of the financial crisis to come. On that pivotal day, it is now clear, that the election would become, in large measure, a referendum on the economy. Campaigning in Jacksonville, Florida McCain made the fateful, and politically fatal, remark, “the fundamentals of our economy are strong”. Up until then the polls were even and his controversial pick of culture warrior Governor Sarah Palin had enthused the Republican base. But the financial fires of Wall Street which fanned across America and which saw, for example, General Motors announce (just the day before the election) its worst month of sales since the Second World War , sealed the deal. It says much for the discipline, the brilliance and the awesome financial power of the Obama campaign that it could exploit and magnify every misstep of its opponent and minimise the contradictions contained within its own ranks and hidden behind its message of “hope”: a candidate offering change and a new direction, anchored to liberal policies which looked decidedly antique given the enormity of the unchartered territory the American and world economy has now entered.

But America’s embrace of its most liberal president in two generations and the end it heralds to laissez-faire Reaganomics does not change another fundamental. This most adaptive of all nations remains 40% “moderate”, 40% “conservative” and only 20% “liberal” according to the polls. Obama is a shrewd enough politician to know that he will have to govern, as he campaigned, from the centre of the political spectrum.

Obama’s in-tray is overcrowded. He has promised to end an unpopular war in Iraq, and win a necessary one in Afghanistan; he has promised universal health care and to find alternatives to America’s crippling dependence on Middle East oil. He has to do all this against the background of record budget deficits and a looming crisis in America’s Social Security programmes which will soon be bankrupt. He has to divine a manner of satisfying the resurgent big government spenders in his own Party, whose ranks have now increased in both Houses of Congress who wish to spend a trillion-plus dollars to avoid a deep recession. But he has also promised tax cuts to 95% of the population. Former Democratic Party grandee, Mario Cuomo once archly observed, “You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose”.

However, Obama’s historic victory suggests that he has exceptional and disciplined talents to meet the challenges of extraordinary times and to balance, if not resolve, the contradictions he both epitomises and has already overcome.

*Published in The Star Newspaper, Johannesburg, 10 Nov. 2008

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