Listen and learn from Obama

2015-01-26 14:00

One of the most pleasant exercises of the past five years has been watching Barack Obama deliver the state of the union address.

The opening-of-year speech by the US president has always been one of the most anticipated events on the international calendar, alongside pronouncements by the world’s central bankers, the G8 summit, and the World Bank and IMF annual meetings.

In his speech, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth (for the time being anyway) outlines his administration’s plans for the coming year, and gives a reading of the state of play in the country and the world.

Since Obama became president in 2009, the state of the union speeches have become more compelling.

You do not just listen for the content and message. You get taken in by the powerful delivery. And Obama did not disappoint when he took to the podium at Capitol Hill this week, giving an upbeat speech in which he could brag about a US that is humming for the first time in more than a decade.

The economy is growing at 5%, 11?million new jobs have been created in the past five years, the budget deficit is down, the military is out of money-draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and high school and college graduation rates are at an all-time high.

With two years left of his last term, Obama is justifiably feeling good about his legacy.

He might not have delivered on all the promises of his ambitious change agenda that wowed the US and the world six years ago, but he believes he has done well, considering the hostile economic and political conditions he faced in his first term.

The jury is still out on the success of Obama’s presidency and we will only be able to fully assess him as the sun sets on his term late next year. But what we can say is that he has given next year’s Democratic Party candidate a good product to work with. Whether this uncontestable good news works with a population fed a toxic diet of anti-Obama rhetoric from the Right remains to be seen.

The Obama years have seen a right wing shift among Republican leaders who want Americans to believe his real grandfather was Joseph Stalin.

The result has been stark divisions between the main political streams in the US. The fire lit by the police killings of young black males has also added a racial element to the polarisation. It was Obama’s attempt to deal with the polarisation that shone through in the speech. Conscious that even if the divisions were not his fault, he did not want to be a president whose presence in the White House divided the nation.

In his speech, he issued a clarion call to Americans to manage their differences in a more civilised fashion.

“Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another, or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?” he asked.

Obama urged the leading parties in the US to “imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns” of divisiveness and “did something different”. He called for “better politics, where we debate without demonising each other; where we talk issues, values, principles and facts rather than ‘gotcha’ moments or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s lives”.

Speaking just days after the Martin Luther King Day national holiday, Obama echoed the sentiments expressed by the civil rights leader’s most famous speech.

“I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity of every citizen,” he added.

In this speech, he was not only pledging to give the US more than just technical leadership, but he was helping the nation find social and national cohesion. He was saying he was willing to rise above his own political base and lead the country.

Don’t get me wrong, this lowly newspaperman was not having one of those “Oh how great it would be if we had our own Obama” moments.

This is a trap we should never fall into because the man has many flaws.

I was just struck by the contrast with our governing party’s secretary-general, who described someone as a “spoilt white brat”; a minister who responded to criticism by saying she would “not allow a perception to be created that if you are a black woman minister you need a white babysitter”; and a president whose stock excuse for every government shortcoming is to blame the evildoers of our past.

Obama’s boldness and honesty were in sharp contrast to our politicians, who refuse to confront reality and consistently deny that this week’s Soweto violence had to do with xenophobia.

As research company Futurefact found in a recent study, South Africa’s sense of national unity is at an all-time low – it is down dramatically from the highs of 2010.

As the debates and real incidents of the past few weeks have highlighted, we are cursing each other, beating each other and killing each other.

The responsibility of leadership is to lead and to refrain from emotional, polarising outbursts. Instead, our leaders are abrogating their responsibilities and joining in a national free-for-all.

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