Black is Beautiful

If Barack Obama has made history, he can change it too. Yes, he can

Sanjay Kapoor, Hardnews, Delhi

On November 5, 2008, Barack Obama, 47, was elected as the 44th President of the United States of America. The rest of the world, it seems, had already decided on him. As someone pointed out on the day of the voting, the world became America. Understandably, spontaneous celebrations broke out in different countries as if they had elected their own leader. Only in a small corner in India's ruling quarters at Raisina Hill in Delhi, which had publicly expressed their ‘deep love' for the discredited George W Bush, there seemed unease over this pleasant change. Hardnews gathers that this unease has lessened somewhat after it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the next US Secretary of State. Clinton, in recent years, have made a few trips to India and has some close Indian friends like Sant Singh Chatwal and Vinod Gupta. Chatwal, also, has close ties with India's ruling establishment.

Obama's victory gave expression to the yearning of the angry masses who wanted change. And this stretched beyond the American geographical zone - even as Bush became a hated figure worldwide. Expectedly, for the first time in many years, the pre-poll surveys conducted to find out the ultimate winner coincided, both in the US and rest of the world. It was apparent that inward looking America had finally globalised in its understanding what was good for them and the world. Indeed, their pain and anxiety at what the warmongering Bush had done to their lives was little different from those in the countries who had suffered from his militaristic neocon agenda.

That the majority of the votes went to Barack Obama, despite his colour and Muslim middle name ‘Hussein' in a largely white country, is a clear indication that the people of the US were willing to jettison past prejudices and stereotypes to back a person who rode on the plank of changing the way the country conducts itself.

Obama, a Chicago-based lawyer and a Senator of Illinois, ran a perfect election campaign. His masterful control over language and brilliant eloquence provided him the glitter and charisma that was starkly missing in his opponent. Republican candidate John McCain, despite his personal glory during the Vietnam war, just could not measure up to the high and taxing standards set by the senator from Illinois. McCain looked a person from a different age and time who seemed incapable of finding quick and efficacious solutions to the huge baggage of problems and blunders that Bush was leaving behind.

The democratic candidate showed poise, patience and intelligence to respond adequately when Wall Street collapsed. He displayed qualities of a leader who does not get fazed when the midnight call comes to convey a crisis. His decision to back the $700 billion bailout package, despite deep opposition from Main Street, showed he had the courage to take a stand and conduct himself in a bi-partisan manner. Obama looked very presidential during the run-up to the day of polling and that is what provided the necessary leaven to beat McCain.

This writer had little doubts about Obama's success when he met him last year in a Senate Hall in Washington DC. At that time he was not a "great candidate" - as he confessed later to his handlers - but he was growing every day. As subsequent reports in The New Yorker revealed, Obama worked hard to absorb what made him a candidate superior to all those in the democratic race. Self-confessedly a good student who takes the best from all around him, Obama improved with leaps and bounds. I recall how deferentially he listened to his senior senator Dick Durbin and added his argument to his ample armory. Even former president Bill Clinton revealed that Obama candidly admitted to his advisors that he did not know much about economics and wanted the best strategy to get out of this mess.

 

The US and the world are in a Big Mess. Blame for all this has to go to the US government's mindless unregulated profligacy, its expensive wars and military occupation, how it has wrecked the global economy and forced many countries to demand a second Bretton Woods to build a new financial architecture. People in the US are losing their homes and livelihood and this contagion is spreading to other countries too.

Emerging countries that were benefiting from hedge funds and easy money are finding dollars going back to the US. Countries like South Korea and India, with good economic fundamentals, worryingly see their foreign exchange reserves rapidly depleting. This bleeding can stop if the emerging countries, too, follow protectionism and stop the flight of capital. Such decisions would devastate the global trade and set the world economy behind by many years. It would be a deathblow to the multilateral trading system that has been put together under the rubric of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Obama has to contend immediately with the napalmed economy and his decisions would have a major bearing on many of his foreign policy promises. During his campaign he had promised quick return of the troops from Iraq. He had also made sorting out the Afghanistan turmoil the cornerstone of his anti-terror policy. Obama, if American media reports are anything to go by, has resisted advise from General Patraeus to keep the troops in Iraq for a longer period. It is Afghanistan where he wants to devote his energy. And this is causing a bit of unease in New Delhi.

In one of his interviews, Obama had said that Pakistan can devote more troops to fight the Al-Qaeda extremists at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border if it can be convinced that there was no threat from India. He had also hinted at appointing an intermediary to sort out the Kashmir imbroglio. All these noises hark back to the 1980s when the US was needling India on the fabled Valley and its abysmal human rights record. India will have to move fast to find a solution on Kashmir and the assembly elections could be a big step forward.

Obama's laziness in calling up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after his election also caused nervousness about how he perceived India. For the sake of record, Obama had called up Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari ahead of Singh. There is considerable speculation in strategic circles about how the new administration would countenance strategic partnership with New Delhi and whether he would build on the level achieved by Bush.

 

The real challenge for President Obama would lie in bridging the deep chasm that exists between the whites and blacks. White House, where he would spend his next four years - unless he gets elected again - was built by slaves. Blacks were not invited to any of the White House functions till 60 years ago. Although Obama does not have a slave lineage - his father came from Kenya - there were laws in America's south that would have stifled him, even if he claimed to be free.

In America's south, blacks continue to be the underclass. They hang out around street corners bumming money and cigarettes from passers by. Health, poverty and unemployment are big and traumatic issues for them. Many of them are obese and suffer from hypertension. In the absence of a good healthcare system, they just cannot get good medical treatment. Despite forced integration, whites continue to shun them. Every time a wealthy black takes up a house in a rich white neighborhood, most of them move out giving substance to a phenomenon called "white flight".

President Obama has been extremely careful about not conducting himself like a black. Being a product of multi-racial parents - his mother was white - he has been quite confused about his identity. His book Audacity of Hope clearly reveals his struggle to figure out who really he was, his self identity and sense of hope and dignity. During one of the debates in Washington's largely black university, some analysts pointed out that he was reluctant to ‘be a black' and never really articulated their problems. The coloured sympathise with him as they realise that he could win only if he conducted himself as a white.

Obama's finest moment was when he took the race issue head on and gave a stirring speech at Philadelphia saying that "words on the parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every colour and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States". He believes that the bridge can be narrowed by successive generations through protests and struggle to narrow the gap between the "promise of our ideals and the reality of their times".

Obama, to fight the impression that he is an ‘undergound radical or socialist' has been treading very carefully. He has chosen his advisors carefully and choreographed his events with the same steady hand that helped him build his formidable network to garner millions of dollars to finance his campaign. He has been very correct and gracious in his victory and has taken pains to ensure that he does not make the largely white community insecure.

He, however, would have to be extremely careful and stay safe from the machinations of some mad white zealots or other foreign assassins to ensure he fulfils the huge expectations of the people of the US and the world. If Barack Obama has made history, he can change it too. Yes, he can.