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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49

America’s Defining Moment

Tuesday 25 November 2008, by Uttam Sen

Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th and the first African-American President of the USA, is the son of a Kenyan father and White American mother from Kansas. He graduated from Harvard Law School and was a civil rights lawyer. Indian pundits on television were quick to point out that he had received a privileged upbringing and that his rise was not archetypically “Black”, and that he was likely to be a very conventional American President, probably garnering requisite White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) support along the way. Obama has also studied in Columbia and taught Law and Racial Studies in Chicago.

Yet Obama arrived at a time when the US was witnessing its worst depression in a century. Home loans without collateral were being packaged by investment bankers as premium securities with high rates of return in the hope that property prices would keep rising indefinitely. The bubble burst when they did not. Foreclosures became the order of the day and the worst hit were low-income Americans across the racial board, a high percentage of whom were Blacks and Hispanics. The “hardheaded” deregulation of the financial sector came to an end with the US Government buying out, with taxpayers’ money, the collapsed institutions and facilitating the recovery of others. America’s civil rights conscious analysts wondered why a referendum had not been called, and why, instead of buying off and bailing out corporate assets, the money had not gone directly to the people in need (to pay back their loans and subsidise their survival). The Democratic sweep in both Houses reflected the people’s disenchantment.

Obama predictably sounded wise to the national predicament in his thanksgiving address at Chicago. His uninhibited oratory brought back echoes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (when jobs are at a premium) and Martin Luther King’s biblical pledge “We shall overcome”. The Reverend Jesse Jackson (a Presidential hopeful in the past) was seen sobbing inconsolably and a Professor of Racial Studies from the University of Notre Dam confessed that he had not expected to see a Black President in office in his lifetime.

But there were two points that would have perked up ears abroad. America’s strength, Obama said, sprang not from material wealth or military might but “our enduring ideals”, namely, democracy, liberty, and an unyielding hope. The other was that “we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers”.

THERE has been considerable speculation on Obama’s interest in West Asia where he is probably the only American leader who can make a difference on the crest of his landslide victory. Hope in Obama is also an inverse reflection of the current Administration’s credibility. His job cannot be easy at a time when Israel is expected to see the return of the Conservative Binyamin Netan-yahu. Some Indians are looking a bit skeptically at the ideas he has expressed in a magazine interview on future involvement in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and possibly Kashmir, at a time when New Delhi and a civilian government are getting on well, even to the extent of agreeing on the shifting of troops in Pakistan’s eastern sector in Kashmir to the west. His views on job protection could affect outsourcing to India. The future will tell how his plans unfold but he has spoken of promoting peace, a provision that has not even been rhetorically articulated over the recent past.

The other, also facilitated by economic factors, was his stated empathy for the common man. Obama acknowledged the contributions of the average American citizen to his campaign, in cash as well as physical participation. He also promised to deliberate and discuss issues as the US stood on the threshold of change. Will it include, as quite a few in India are hoping, the re-structuring of the Breton Woods institutions?

Obama will have to balance the forces that leverage wealth and power with the aspirations of the average person or common man. The elections and the events surrounding it could together mark a watershed from which the considerable work done on the discharge of universal democratic standards begin to find realisation. Obama’s elevation still seems like a futuristic exercise in creating the consensus for change that does not reduce the establishment or its values to dust but seeks to reassure it that in a democratic order all voices must be heard. Translating such principles into reality, both domestically and in the world at large, will not only be difficult but will create as much animosity as goodwill for their progenitor. Obama’s political friends had initially found him donnish and remote. Yet his election campaign based on a platform of change was one of the most convincing the country has witnessed. The USA’s defining moment could be that of the world’s as well.

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