The ‘Imperfect’ Obama Union*

Posted by JSYL on Thursday, March 27, 2008 in ,
By Jane Lee

In a recent speech, Barack Obama described his presidential candidacy as ‘imperfect’. The rapid momentum generated by his campaign in the current U.S. elections over the past year is best illustrated by countless variations of the same photograph splashed across newspapers and magazines around the world. It is of 46-year-old Obama, beaming and waving to hundreds of thousands of Americans at campaign rallies across the country, often beside one of the many celebrities who have publicly expressed their support for him- a long list which includes the likes of Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Halle Berry and Sharon Stone.

Obama has had a relatively short political career compared to his opponents, fellow Democrat Hilary Clinton and Republican John McCain. Yet with a lead of 143 elected delegates over Clinton in the ongoing primary elections, he is a clear favourite in the race to become the next president of the United States of America.

Obama’s personal background is well documented. His mother was born in Kansas, his father, a Harvard graduate, in Kenya. Raised partly by his maternal grandparents in Hawaii, he also lived in Indonesia with his mother during his formative years and was the first African American president of the Harvard law review. Obama worked as a constitutional lawyer and a legal academic for a few years before being elected Illinois’ state senator in 2004. One of his most notable achievements while in public office includes creating a law that made the allocation of resources from state taxes accessible online.

The timing of Obama’s grand entrance into federal politics was ideal. As his presidential campaign arrived on the heels of the past mistakes of an increasingly unpopular Bush administration, his career has yet to be tarnished by sexual scandals or senatorial misconduct. “Mr Obama is the only major candidate who has been able to ride out his campaign as the guy who came from almost nowhere, thus unencumbered by the need to defend any old policies or past decisions,” wrote Danny Ayalon in the Jerusalem Post earlier this year.

If elected, he would be the first ever African American president, and as such, political commentators around the world argue that Obama’s candidacy creates a beacon of hope for (as his campaign slogan promises) ‘a change we can believe in’, particularly in response to international issues such as terrorism and climate change that became prominent during George W. Bush’s presidency.

“It is about identity: what face- literally- America presents to the world. The next president needs to bring this country out of its unusual gloom. To prove that America can be intelligent and thoughtful and compassionate. In short, to make America truly powerful again,” said Camilla Cavendish in Times Online.

Obama’s reputation as a composed and diplomatic orator indeed portrays the antithesis of George W. Bush, whose presidency will forever be characterised by September 11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the culture of aggressive foreign policies that ensued. Where Bush’s reign was fuelled by America’s formidable might in the face of global threat, Obama claims he will champion the revival of a peaceful, open dialogue between world leaders.

“The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like. Not talking doesn’t make us look tough- it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership,” says Obama’s Blueprint for Change in America. “On challenges ranging from terrorism to disease, nuclear weapons to climate change, we cannot make progress unless we can draw on strong international support.”

Many critics still view Obama as a two-dimensional poster boy for multiculturalism with limited substance as a serious candidate. “Obama has moulded himself into the male Oprah Winfrey, the crown prince of niceness, bravely denouncing divisiveness, condemning controversy, eulogising unity, and retelling his feel-good life story,” said Steve Sailer in the American Conservative.

Obama’s campaign promotes his bi-racial heritage as indisputable proof that he will better understand the cultural needs of both sides of the black-white racial divide still plaguing America today because it allows him reach out to a wider range of people on such issues with a great measure of credibility. His most recent speech, “A more perfect union”, was no exception.

Held in Philadelphia last week, it was made in response to footage that showed Obama’s pastor of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright, making ‘anti-American’ remarks. Wright had been filmed on various instances telling his congregation that they should sing “God damn America”, that the American government had created the AIDS virus as a way of killing African people, and essentially deserved the September 11 attacks as punishment for its past misdeeds against ethnic minorities.

The controversy that emerged marked the first real test to Obama’s campaign. It prompted the senator to seriously address the issue of race relations for the first time. Obama used his personal experiences with a mixed cultural background to encourage reconciliation. He explained the complex reasons for the bitterness belonging to both black and white people in America, rather than outrightly condemning Wright’s comments.

“I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me…a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe,” he said.

Obama argued America should, in line with his own campaign, move beyond racial, religious and conservative-liberal divides that have coloured the country’s political landscape for centuries, to focus on resolutions to national problems.

“He [Obama]…demonstrated that he can use his formidable rhetorical powers to address difficult subjects rather than simply to rev up a sympathetic crowd,” wrote The Economist.

The speech opened up the floodgates for debate once considered taboo to enter in American society. “Finally we can talk about race without being afraid we are offending others,” said daytime talk-show The View co-host, Barbara Walters.

But Obama’s candidacy represents much more than a conscious or unconscious catalyst for social change. Gravely underestimated are the massive implications his uniquely bipartisan worldview would have for the future of international relations and global diplomacy.

Obama’s greatest responsibilities as President would be twofold; the first would be to determine the fate of America’s relationship with other world leaders. Cancelling a European tour earlier this year to focus on presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has not yet met UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

“Obama talks the language of free trade as eloquently as Brown, but walks the walk along the well-trodden path laid out for him by the trade unions…of the two, Obama's protectionism is the least strident. So Brown might be comfortable with him,” speculated the Hudson Institute’s Irwin Stelzer in the Telegraph.

“But it seems reasonable to guess that Brown, so policy-heavy and charisma-light, more Clinton than Obama, harbours suspicions of a young, handsome, charismatic politician long on charm and elevating rhetoric, but short on policy details,” he said.

Samantha Power, a member of Obama’s foreign policy team, told the Telegraph earlier this year that she believes his presidency would go far in reducing the anti-American sentiment that exists in Britain.

“Any British leader is harmed domestically in terms of public standing by association with President Bush, the reverse will happen with President Obama. Obama reminds people of the better angels of America,” she said.

Obama may have already established a good relationship with French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. When he was France’s interior minister, Sarkozy met Obama during his visit to Washington D.C in 2006, along with only two other American politicians- President Bush and John McCain.

In early 2007, Obama praised Sarkozy in an interview with Agence France-Presse, "He [Sarkozy] is a man of enormous energy and enormous talent. I was impressed with his willingness to look at the issues that France faces in a new ways, not bound by tradition and dogmas.”

Obama would secondlly need to decide what action the U.S. will take in response to international conflicts in countries such as Iran and Israel-Palestine, and human rights abuse in countries such as Sudan, which his predecessors have been unsuccessful in resolving.

His campaign spells out clear goals for the future- withdrawing American troops from Iraq within 16 months, assisting Iraqi refugees, reducing global poverty, ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and establishing separate and harmonious Israeli and Palestinian states. But Obama is still vague on how he will go about implementing strategies to achieve them.

“As far as Israel is concerned, Obama has yet to suggest specific measures he would enact regarding the Jewish State's Qualitative Military Edge that allows us to defend ourselves against our current and future enemies,” said former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Nefesh B'Nefesh, in the Jerusalem Post.

Obama proudly claims he is neither left nor right wing, but a man for the people. “I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America, I want to be the President of the United States of America,” he said in Blueprint.

This poses a frightening prospect to interest groups seeking a more definitive stance, or at least guidance, on the new direction the world will take in the face of ongoing international crises.

“Given the increasingly tense security environment Israel is confronting on all sides, now is not the time for American leaders to shy away from such fundamental questions. The four years ahead are far too critical for global security to place the presidency of the United States in the hands of a leader whose campaign is leaving us with more questions than answers,” B’Nefesh said.

If elected, Obama is likely to take a softer, more cautious approach to international issues, using diplomacy, rather than military action, as a first resort where possible. On the threat Iran poses, Obama’s Blueprint for Change says his government would provide economic incentives to curb it’s nuclear program and support of terrorism, “Obama believes we have not exhausted our non-military options in confronting this threat; in many ways, we have yet to try them.”

The U.S. would then pose less of an immediate physical threat to a global community that have come to expect it from a government that single-handedly redefined the international legal phrase “pre-emptory attack”.

Obama’s domestic policies, though not as well publicised, are much more clearly defined in areas such as health care and education. Obama also outlines in his Blueprint for Change a number of laws aimed at increasing the transparency of presidential records and the accountability of lobbyists to the public. Though far less glamorous than their international counterparts, such policies still represent significant changes in American governance.

Even if he does not win the presidential nomination, Obama’s ‘imperfect’ candidacy has already changed the face of American politics. In Philadelphia, he admitted as much, “As so many generations have come to realise…that is where the perfection begins.”

*My first article for my International Journalism module. It was due the day I got back from my snowboarding long weekend. Considering I wrote this every spare second I got between snowboarding, hopping on and off a bus, a plane and two other trains on the way home, I think its pretty damn decent.



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