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     Volume 7 Issue 45 | November 14, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The Obama Era

Nader Rahman

Obama has won, and as many liberals say, so has the world. But is that really the case? If one believes everything the Democrats say then, the world will never be the same. Our saviour will heal the world's wounds, unite people, push back the global recession, part the seas and turn water into wine. While most are willing to believe in Obama's divine qualities his actions will need to prove louder than words. To look forward at what an Obama presidency offers us, we must retrace his past and understand the roots of his 'New Deal' to see if it's the real deal for the rest of the world. He has been compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but for the time being the world is celebrating the fact that he is not another George W. Bush. In these dark times the Obama star shines bright and for many it has always done so.

Barack Obama has the personal history of an urban legend. Like most urban legends, the story seems too outlandish to be true, and like most urban legends more than one person is willing to testify to its authenticity. His history is important to frame the context within which his political ideas have formed and mutated. Those ideas and their mutations are those which the world will have to live by, and contrary to the urban legend that he is Muslim, his early life was diverse but in the end just about as white and middle-class as rural Kansas.

His father was a foreign student from Kenya studying in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, originally from Kansas. By the time she was 20 she had married and divorced Obama's father and barely out of her teens, alone and with a child. She soon remarried another foreign exchange student and moved to Indonesia. Between the ages of six and ten Obama studied in Indonesia, a claim often mixed with his middle name (Hussein) that has been routinely used to smear him as a Muslim. By the age of ten he was back in Hawaii and readily claims to have been raised by his white grandparents since then.

His scattered childhood with an African father and growing up in a Muslim country has led to much being said about the formulation of his political ideas. The conservatives in the west claim he will support a pro Muslim and African international agenda. Those to the centre-left say he is an issue-based man and his race and upbringing have nothing to do with his policy, but even they are over simplifying the point. But he says his upbringing was far more 'ordinary' and 'American' than people made it out to be. When asked about it on Meet the Press he says, “I think that my family had strong values, very much midwestern values.” These values would be tested and twisted during his political career and eventually added to his electability, no matter what people currently say on the issue. If he had been just another black man from the ghetto, the racial lines in America would probably have held firm and he would not have been elected President. But the apparent 'whiteness' in his upbringing definitely gave him an edge when it came down to the election.

Obama quickly turned into a media phenomenon, capturing both public and celebrity attention with consummate ease. His cult of personality and electability grew symbiotically.

That as it stands is yet another topic, as people proclaim his victory to be a victory for African-Americans and Black people all over the world, they are actually subverting their own message. It was first claimed that this election transcended race, yet when people were asked what they felt, most said that they were happy and relieved that a black man finally took the highest office in America. If Obama is to be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr said, by the content of his character, rather than the colour of his skin, then this election probably failed to do so. There was a record turnout of black voters and almost all supported Obama and were proud to do so because he was black. All the sound bites had them saying they were proud to vote for a black person, few said they voted for him based on his words, promises and deeds. This was a referendum on colour, but claimed to be something else. The fact of the matter is that Obama was the better candidate and many people, white, Hispanic and Asian-American voted for him as being the better candidate, but many others probably numbering in the millions voted for him simply because he was black. It was a case of positive discrimination if ever there was any.

The political slogan of change will indelibly be linked with Obama's 2008 presidential election.

Race has been an issue with Obama for some time and his exploits with alcohol, marijuana and cocaine all of which were documented in his first book 'Dreams From my Father' are emblematic of the struggles and problems many black youths face across America. He overcame the stereotypical rebellion stage and set sail for New York University where he cleaned up his life and graduated in Political Science. What is important about this stage of his life is that while earlier on he had a very white middle class view on the world, his trysts with contraband opened his eyes to the lives many black people choose and are pushed into. A leader must know his people and this was his education. Knowing both sides of the coin he went on to become a community organiser in Chicago. From there he went on to great things, made it into Harvard Law school and even became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. It garnered him small-scale national fame, but also highlighted that he could be a leader in the future.

The rest as they say is history, he went on to become a state senator and then finally in January 2003, he announced that he would run for congress. His famous speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 catapulted him to national fame beyond his wildest dreams and a mere four years later the world celebrates his promotion to the office of President of the United States. Everything one can possibly wish to know about him has been said, debated, analysed and regurgitated, but what is of special interest is how the world took to his election. From Beirut to Burkina Faso, Palestine to Poland the world celebrated Obama's victory with a vigour that has not been seen since the end of WW II. Surely part of that was the relief of knowing that Bush was finally leaving, but the other part was that people were and are genuinely hopeful that Obama would fundamentally change the ills of the world. It may be a case of the right man at the right time, but to many Obama is more than just that. He gives people hope with the promise of change, what more could one ask for. But the real question is to where his national and international priorities lay, what will define the Obama Doctrine?

The economy will obviously be the first thing on President Obama's mind and in a way it affects the entire world. America's recession must be tackled before it turns into a global depression and pressure is on the greenback to hold its value, even small depreciations in the Dollar could affect the global economy on a catastrophic scale. The excesses of Wall Street must be tackled, while strengthening the backbone of America, commonly known as its middle class. With Christmas around the corner, no longer can Americans buy their economy out of trouble, the policy makers must shape it back into life. Obama was elected on his take on the 'New Deal' championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but his greatest challenge will be to act on his own words. Having promised to decrease taxes on 95% of the population he has to now make the plan work. A 700 billion dollar bail out, tax cuts and the promise to increase employment in a country that has lost hope, is a tough ask, but if anyone is up to the task seemingly Obama is.

As goodbyes become tougher, Obama has pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan, while strategically withdrawing from the mire that is Iraq.

While the economy will never truly be dealt with, Obama will soon need to turn his thoughts to the rest of the world and how to deal with America's image and foreign policy and that's when 6 billion people will sit up and really take notice. He was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq and his famous speech in 2002 at an anti war rally says a lot about his thoughts on American aggression and could be used to outline what could be known as the Obama Doctrine. His speech at the Federal Plaza in Chicago took place on the same day and almost at the same hour that George W. Bush and Congress announced the agreement on the joint resolution authorising the Iraq War. The moving speech was nothing short of prophetic, and a brave move for someone seeking public office as the rest of the country was overwhelmingly in favour of the war.

While it is true that Obama's election sent positive waves around the globe, after years of failed, faulty and murderous American foreign policy, the new president will have a real job on his hands trying to 'change' America's image to the world.

He is quoted as saying; "Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don't oppose all wars." He continued, "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression (this was in October 2002). That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

Many people overcame a great barrier to vote for the first black president, but issues of racism and multi-culturalism in America and around the world are yet to be resolved.

While campaigning he went on like a broken record that he would pull combat troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and even set out a 16 month time line and now the clock is ticking. His words from 2002 have not been forgotten and they also point to the fact that he does believe in war, justified wars that is. A war which he seemingly wishes to pursue in Afghanistan and Pakistan as he tries to smoke out Osama and his cronies. While his intentions are clear what is not yet fully understood is how he wishes to go about the war on Al-Qaeda. He has openly stated many times that if push comes to shove he will unilaterally cross the border into Pakistan to fight the terrorists. A statement which caused 'shock and awe' in more ways than one. After years of unilateral and pre-emptive intervention, the new golden boy of international politics was talking up moves that would have Bush proud. When he first made the remarks, people started second guessing him and his foreign policy, in Pakistan the nation was up in arms, but seemingly that was the worst of it. He has pursued that line of thinking and seems set to enter Pakistan to find Bin-Laden, but at what cost?

His moves could derail the very fabric of the subcontinent and in a country that has been through so much recently, Obama could be the straw that breaks its back. The last few weeks the United States have made numerous attacks well inside the Pakistani border and the number of dead and injured has steadily risen. The situation is unacceptable and if Obama has his way it could get a lot worse. This is where he needs to look back at his own words, where a war should be fought not on passion but reason. While the battle for Al-Qaeda may lead into Pakistan, sound reason should prevail and national borders must be respected, anything less the real hypocrisy of American politics will rear its ugly head again.

Obama will inherit a host of Bush's problems, but must act swiftly and decisively to change the mood of the nation.

Obama's swiftness in action with tackling Iraq will also act as sign of his intentions to live up to his presidential promises. The war has been untenable for some time, but does he have the fortitude to call a spade a spade and accept defeat in Iraq and return with America's tail firmly between its legs. On other fronts how he tackles Putin and his puppet Medyevdev will also be crucial in the larger scale of things. Here he will have to undo the work of not one Bush but two. It was widely reported that before the Berlin wall fell, Gorbachev told Bush Sr. that it would come down and all he asked was for NATO not to be expanded. Bush Sr. did the opposite and then Bush Jr. went one step further by seeking to put a missile defense system in Russia's backyard. Sandwiched between the warm ties Clinton shared with Russia, the Bushes have escalated a war type situation with a country that still carries a formidable nuclear arsenal. Obama will have to tread carefully in the nuclear backyard of America's cold war rival.

The Middle East should be of special importance to him as well, if he can broker a lasting peace deal there his place in history would be confirmed. But the problems there are multi faceted, he must live up to his claims that he will meet people like Ahamedinjad face to face without preconditions.

Nothing says it better, "Rosa sat/ so King could walk/ so Obama could run"
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we
did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." Barack Obama's election victory speech in Chicago. 4 November, 2008.

Barack Obama has a lot to teach Bangladesh as well. Both he and John McCain were more than formidable candidates for President, and with our own elections nearing we must look for our own heroes. Bangladesh needs the class of 2008 to stand up and speak for the youth that makes up more than 60% of our population. Dynastic politics must be fought at every level and we need to create the atmosphere for our own Obamas. His grace and humility are attributes to be followed by our bickering political masses and his desire to fight for a just cause must not slip us by as well. We do not need to copy him, nor should we, we should emulate him. His story should also remind us not to forget the indigenous people of our nation who have little or no voice in our political landscape.

Ultimately, Barack Obama gives the world hope and the promise of change and in these awkward and uncertain times it sounds good not just to America but the rest of the world. What becomes of him and how his actions change the world for better or for worse all remains to be seen. For the time being he deserves congratulations and a pat on his back, he promises the world and now he must deliver.

Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from Chicago retold a story to Willaim Finegan and Noam Scheiber of The New Yorker and The New Republic respectively when he went to the White House in the winter of 2003 to discuss the situation in Haiti. There she took off her coat to reveal a large blue OBAMA button. Bush was taken aback, and she said "I knew what he was thinking. So I reassured him it was Obama, with a 'b.' (not Osama) And I explained who he was. The President said, 'Well, I don't know him.' So I just said, 'You will.' ” That incident could just as well sum up the Obama story. Now we really do know him.

Photos: AFP

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008