Obama: US President or World President?

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Pambazuka News, June 5, 2008

Tajudeen walks us through the skepticism that initially greated the Obama candidacy, the pitfalls of the hubristic Clinton campaign and Obama’s strengths but cautions us that Obama will be an American President who happens to be of African origin. He is never going to subordinate America’s interests to ours where they clash in a fundamental way.

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I must confess that I am one of those pundits who did not give Barrack Obama a significant chance of winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination. For most of December as we witnessed the tragic conflicts in Kenya with two good Professors/comrades/Pan Africanists, Horace Campbell and Okello Oculi, I was most scathing about Obama, while Horace did his best (including giving me the two books of Obama) to educate me, with Okello playing partisan moderator.

Much as I tried I could not bring myself to understand what the man really stood for. He was, and still remains, all things to all kinds of people. Maybe that is his strength. But it all seemed like a David and Goliath duel between him and the well-oiled political and financial machine of the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nominations, Hilary Clinton.

Not a few of us thought that Obama was just another protest candidate who would have his few moments in the limelight and then fizzle away as Hilary romped home to certain victory. How wrong we were! Even the Clintons, the power couple, misread Obama’s strengths. They mistook the political hurricane for a storm in a teacup until it was too late. They threw their considerable weight at him but somehow, in a twist of fate, he became more than Bill Clinton and Hilary could manage. Obama is the Teflon candidate reminiscent of the first Clinton campaign. Nothing sticks as the Chicago senator just ran and ran.

Why did we get it wrong? One, we thought Obama was a Black candidate and believed that the USA was not ready for a Black president. Two, even his Blackness was doubted because he did not come from ‘traditional’ African American/ black backgrounds and his CV was too short as both a Black/African icon.

The enigma of Obama is in making his opponents and critics underestimate him while he builds a broad spectrum of popular support that eats away at the support base of his critics. He believed in the small ordinary people and organized them into an electoral movement built on hope.

Obama did not have to be a Black candidate. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have both done that. He did not have to revisit covered grounds hence he became the candidate who happens to be black. There is no way he could have become a serious contender if all he has was his skin colour. The initial ambiguities of many African American elite who were used to putting their faith in ‘the good white liberal’ like the Clintons raised the prospect of a Black candidate without a Black base which the Clintons already took for granted. But the initial disadvantage among the Blacks who thought he was not black enough actually made it possible for him to attract a broader section of White Americans.

Bush has so damaged Americans’ faith in themselves and made America even less loved if not universally hated that Americans consciously or unconsciously expect a messiah to make them feel good about themselves again—and if not instantly loved, at least less hated by the rest of the world.

It is that yearning for the ‘feel good’ aura that has led many to believe that Obama is the man of destiny and the harbinger of ‘Change you can believe in.’ You may not put your finger on it. It may not add up to a grand vision but it is uplifting enough to rouse America. The Clintons misjudged the moment and Hilary has had to fight in such a despicable way that discussing them now leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many former supporters who used to love ‘the lovable rogue’ Bill Clinton.

Though Bill Clinton was a ‘feel good’ president worshipped by many, his wife was not always endearing to many. Indeed Obama is more like Bill than Hilary. If Hilary had not been his opponent, Bill might have been one of the early democrat grandees that would have declared support for Obama. Spousal loyalty (nothing extraordinary considering the pains he has caused Hilary over the years) combined with the power couple’s delusion of themselves as the democrats’ counter to the dubious aristocracy to the Bushes, contributed greatly to their undoing.

In defence of his wife, Mr. Feel-Good became Mr. Sour grapes and a not so skin-deep liberal who thinks he is entitled to Black and poor white working people’s votes as a right and that such loyalty is transferable by osmosis to any Clinton.

Instead of quitting in a dignified way they have fought almost to the bitter end. Those who fight to the finish get finished. Are the Clintons so bitter in defeat that they would actually prefer McCain to Obama?

The next few days will tell. However, now that Obama is the candidate in waiting, attention will shift to whether he can beat McCain come November. Whether he wins or not he has already lifted the ceiling on the ambition of every Black person in America. There is already victory in the symbolic importance of his candidacy. The prospect of his victory, barring assassination (as it happened to Robert Kennedy before being elected or earlier John Kennedy, after being elected) is very real. His victory will see a repackaging of the American dream as a country where anyone can make it.

Initially support for Obama candidacy was most unanimous in Kenya (where many may not vote for a Luo President but are quite convinced that his nephew can be president of the US!), but it is now universally being prayed for all across the continent. If many Africans have their way they will voluntarily become proxy voters come November!

But while I recognize the mix of historical, socio-psychological, emotional and great expectations that Obama’s candidacy has inspired among Americans and also in Africa and in her diasporas, we should have no illusions that Obama will suddenly make America do right by Africa or the rest of the world, for that matter. He is going to be an American President who happens to be of African origin. He is never going to subordinate America’s interests to ours where they clash in a fundamental way but he may package them less arrogantly and may add more honey to the poisoned chalice that any super power dishes out to smaller states—that is unless those states are firm in the defence of their own interests so they can get a better, if not fairer deal.

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