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     Volume 7 Issue 43 | October 31, 2008 |

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President Obama,
I Presume?

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

North Carolina, USA. The tall dark immaculately dressed man stepped off the bus and strode into the BBQ and Diner. The elderly and majority white clientele of several dozen were eating lunch after church services. This was potentially hostile territory. There was another restaurant down the street which would have a predominantly African-American crowd, but our man has chosen the more challenging terrain. As he smiles affably and interacts with the gathering, a woman in the corner starts shouting, “Socialist! Get outta here!”

Our man remains calm, and gradually works his way to the table where the heckler is sitting with several other people, all fresh from church. “How are you, Ma'am?” he says but she pointedly refuses to shake his hand. The elderly conservative voters seem surprised by his appearance there. This is a conservative territory that has been off-limits for a democrat since Carter in 1976. The woman in the corner and a few others are openly hostile. But for most it's a pleasant surprise. “After months of TV ads calling him an elite and a celebrity, I was surprised to see how comfortable he was communicating on a down to earth level,” said one. The pastor of the church is also eating there. Our man shakes his hand and smiles. “Whether you vote for me or not,” he says, “I'm going to need your prayers.”

Meet Barack Hussein Obama, US presidential candidate extraordinary. His candidacy is not remarkable merely because he is black indeed, he has never made race an issue. His campaign has stood out because of its inclusive nature, its inspirational qualities, and its “feet on the ground” pragmatism. His grasp of the details, his breadth of knowledge on virtually all present day issues, his commanding presence and aplomb, and his ability to connect with both the common man and the highly educated has made Barack Obama an irresistible force. Obama's run for the presidency has energised young people in America like never before who see in him not only a break from traditional Washington politics but a generational change. The era of the Baby Boomers is over. It is a new generation waiting to take control in Washington. An Obama presidency would be just the antidote the world needs after eight toxic years of George W Bush.

Don't tell anyone, but the indications are that Obama is winning. With a few days to go, most of the surveys have him leading by a margin of 6 to 8 percentage points. After being deadlocked for most of the season, and showing a temporary “surge” for both candidates after the respective conventions, the race seems to be breaking Obama's way. In the key battleground states of Virginia, Colorado, Florida and Ohio, Obama's message seems to be resonating.

In many ways, this has been a classic political campaign. When the race kicked off, the talk was that the Republicans had nominated the only candidate that could win it for them in a climate poisoned by the unpopularity of President George Bush. John McCain, war hero and self proclaimed maverick was just the man to do it for the GOP. The democrats on the other hand had nominated a little-known young black first-term senator from Illinois over the universally known Hillary Clinton. On the face of it, it was a suicidal decision that had the Republicans rubbing their hands with glee. Americans wanted change, it just wasn't clear they wanted a black man whose middle name was Hussein and who had gone to school in Indonesia!

But McCain & Co. had reckoned without the political and organisational savvy of Barack Obama. He brought with him a battle-hardened team that had taken on and beaten the mighty Clinton political machine. From the beginning Obama was determined to run an issues-based campaign while pushing back forcefully against the kind of personal attacks and fear mongering that had undone John Kerry and Al Gore.

It's been a delicate balancing act. The Republican argument was that McCain was a steady hand at the helm. He had the experience and the track record of 26 years in the Senate. He was a known quantity, someone to rely on in a pinch. Barack Obama, for all his soaring rhetoric was just a bag of hot air, they argued. They turned his greatest strengths against him, and ran TV ads comparing him to Paris Hilton. They questioned his readiness, and his patriotism.

Barack Obama has had to walk a tightrope. He could not afford to seem too aggressive, or the “angry black man” cliché would quickly stick. He had to sound reasonable but not meek. He had to keep up his soaring speeches, but at the same time be solid on substance. Simultaneously he had to convince Americans that he was not an unknown quantity, and that he was just as patriotic as John McCain. It was a heavy lift.

There was always the possibility that the Republicans would try to bring down Obama with character-based attacks. They did not disappoint. Sarah Palin became the lead attack dog, claiming that Obama “palled around with terrorists.” A whisper campaign began that Obama was a “closet Muslim”. McCain-Palin are unfortunately doing their best to fan the flames of hatred and fear. The latest explosive anecdote is the claim by a McCain volunteer in Pittsburgh that she had been sexually assaulted by a giant black man who had then carved the letter B (Barack?) on her right cheek. After an investigation, the woman confessed to police that she had made up the story.

These “swift boat” tactics brought down John Kerry in 2004. But Obama is no Kerry. He defended himself with vigour, while concentrating on his core message like a monk in a storm: Change we can Believe in.

They say crisis makes a leader. In this case it was the great Wall Street meltdown that separated the man from the boy, and it was the 72-year old Vietnam veteran McCain who came across as a juvenile. With household names like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch biting the dust, Treasury Secretary Paulson proposed a 700 billion dollar bailout to rescue the economy. While Obama's response was cool and measured, John McCain made a theatrical show of suspending his campaign to return to Washington and help with the bailout legislation. When the bill failed to pass, he came away with egg on his face. In the process, he had to cancel a scheduled appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. And everyone knows you don't cross David Letterman if you can help it.

For two consecutive nights, the veteran comedian ripped into McCain. One memorable comment: “Let's say McCain is elected, and the going gets tough. What will he do suspend being President? That's the kind of guy we have here!” At the same time, McCain's running mate Sarah Palin had a train wreck of an interview with CBS's Katie Couric. After weeks of avoiding the Press like they had the plague, the Republican VP candidate finally sat down with Ms Couric. The result wasn't pretty. She stumbled around like a school kid trying to bluff her way through a book review, and at one point suggested she had foreign policy expertise based on Alaska's proximity to Russia. Consider this mind-bender: “When Putin rears his head…and...uhh… comes into the airspace of the United States of America...where..where do they go? Its Alaska!” The actress Tina Fey entertained America by imitating the hapless Palin on Saturday Night Live. It was the death knell for the McCain campaign. When comedians regularly lampoon you, you know your public image needs a makeover.

Suddenly the younger candidate seemed like the steady hand at the helm. This impression was reinforced in the three debates. Obama surged in the polls, and hasn't looked back since. Indeed, with each passing day the prospects of an Obama presidency appear brighter.

There is, however, many a slip between the cup and the lip. There could be an external event like a cameo appearance from Osama Bin Laden, who helped Bush's re-election bid in 2004. Israel could give McCain a hand by attacking Iran. Then there is the dreaded Bradley Effect. The Bradley effect is named after Tom Bradley, the former Los Angeles mayor who, in 1982, lost the race to become California's governor after having led substantially in the polls. The same pattern reflected itself in other instances involving African-American candidates.

Barack Obama has done all he can to demonstrate his superiority as a candidate and his credibility as an American. The only things that stand between him and the White House now are racial prejudice and a nameless fear. This is not a referendum on Obama. It has turned into a referendum on America itself.

Photo: AFP

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