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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 47

US Presidential Poll Outcome: A Welcome Win, but Don’t Expect Too Much

Tuesday 11 November 2008, by Praful Bidwai

The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States marks a welcome turning-point in American history and real progress in a society where a Black could have been sold literally as a slave just 140 years ago, and where s/he couldn’t even vote just 40 years ago.

It restores one’s faith in the possibility of genuine change for the better, or greater inclusive-ness and growing respect for diversity and pluralism in a relatively conservative society. Incidentally, it also stands in sobering contrast to the retrograde evolution of our own country and especially of Maharashtra under the spell of regional-linguistic chauvinism, Hindutva parochia-lism and destruction of major gains of the Social Reform movement, of which we must be proud.

Obama ran an excellent campaign, which outshone his rival’s which emphasised conservative values and played on prejudices. But differences in campaigning cannot explain the magnitude and quality of Obama’s victory.

The victory is all the more significant—not only because Obama won a majority of the popular vote and two-thirds of the electoral-college vote, but because he broke into Republican bastions like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and New Mexico, where the Democrats haven’t won for most of the last four decades. They registered impressive gains in the Senate and House of Represenatives too, tightening their control over Congress.

This speaks of widespread disillusionment with George W. Bush’s terrible eight-year-long presidency and his Right-wing policies which have widened domestic social divides and created havoc in the world through aggression and war, and by spreading insecurity in the name of fighting terrorism. John McCain would have perpetuated Bush’s policies—to disastrous effect for America and the world, by greately aggravating the global economic crisis and creating new insecurities through a belligerent posture towards Russia and Iran, and by adopting a hardline posture on nuclear weapons.

Obama takes over a nation that is exhausted with its past and despondent about its future. Almost nine out of 10 Americans believe their country has been on the worng track, Obama has hard choices to make. And it’s clear that he will be able to make them given the pressure to adopt “moderate” rather than radical policies.

Yet, Obama’s victory has kindled hope all over the world that the US will now be a less aggressive and arrogant power, and that it can still promote a social project of greater inclusiveness and healing. In India some people have already begun to ask if this country is ready to elect a Dalit or a woman as the Prime Minister.

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However, in many ways, Obama’s victory is symbolic, at least as yet. Contrary to the assertion that it has decisively broken the racial divide, it may not mean much for African-Americans in the short run. Consider the following.

Today, Whites have on average nine times the household wealth of African-Americans and Latinos. Almost one in three African-American children lives in poverty, compared to one in 10 White children. Under existing trends, Black households won’t catch up in wealth with Whites for at least another 500 years!

Being Black means suffering a lack of social opportunity and poor health. Blacks account for three-fourths of all cases of active tuberculosis in the US. Black males born in 1991 are estimated to have a 29 per cent chance of imprisonment, more than seven times that of Whites born that year. Sixty per cent of America’s prison population consists of people of colour. The population of young Blacks in prison exceeds the numbers enrolled in universities. A Black school dropout is 60 times more likely to land in jail than a White!

Clearly, Blacks have a long way to go before the racial divide is substantively breached. The poor too will have to wait long before Obama gives practical shape to his promise to cut taxes imposed on the less privileged, invest more in education, and expand healthcare programmes.

However, there is little doubt that Obama stands for far better social and economic policies than McCain. His test will come with the solutions he chooses for resolving the US financial crisis and the menacing industrial recession. The US badly needs a change of direction, a paradigm shift in economic policy. But Obama will be under pressure to continue with the existing market-friendly policies with some tinkering at the edges. Reat statesmanship and vision will be necessary to resist these pressures.

The impact of Obama’s presidency will be felt more domestically than internationally—because his foreign and security policies are less sharply demarcated from the Republicans’ than domestic ones. However, it’s realistic to expect Obama to withdraw more rapidly from Iraq than McCain would. He’s also likely to be more inclined to cut military spending and slow down the further development of nuclear weapons and deployment of “Star Wars”-style ballistic missile defence.

Obama wants a dialogue with Iran and friendlier relations with Russia. McCain emphasises military power as the key to keeping the US the world’s most powerful nation, and is viciously anti-
Russia.

Obama is also more committed to nuclear disarmament. He argues that unless the US and Russia radically reduce their nuclear arsenals, they won’t be able to persuade smaller nations like Iran and North Korea to forgo their nuclear weapons programmes.

Obama has a far more enlightened position on climate change and is likely to move towards capping the US greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama’s positions are definitely more progressive and favour a more balanced world, and deserve to be welcomed. But Indian policy-makers have been lukewarm and almost cynical towards them. They view them through the narrow prism of India-Pakistan relations and Obama’s likely support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a Fissile Materials Cut-off, which they want to resist as much as possible.

Such parochialism is utterly deplorable and unbecoming for a country that likes to be called “an emerging power”. In this, our rulers are not very different from the leaders of Israel, Georgia and the Phillippines—the only countries where support for McCain has been greater than for Obama. Our policy-makers couldn’t be more out-of-sync with the world.

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