Obama’s time is now

2008-06-11 00:00

Barack Obama’s success in clinching the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is hugely exciting, not only because he is black but also because his candidacy is aimed at changing the American political landscape, seizing the opportunity presented by massive disenchantment with the Bush administration to introduce progressive reforms both at home and in foreign policy.

When I first went to the United States, to spend a year at Harvard in the early sixties, it was an incredibly stimulating place, abuzz with progressive ideas as the whole nation responded to the stirring image of the young President John Kennedy.

Idealism filled the air. Young people were rushing off to join the Peace Corps and do good works in distant Third World countries, while on the home front they were marching to Selma and to Birmingham, Alabama, to break down the walls of segregation and fulfill

Martin Luther King’s dream of justice flowing like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Then came the assassinations and the escalation of the Vietnam War, and with that a mood of disillusionment and cynicism clouded the land. Idealism was disdained and liberalism became a dirty word. Conservatism became the proud and patriotic label to wear as the centre of political gravity shifted further and further to the right — from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, to George Bush Snr and finally George W. Bush.

Political figures and institutions that were regarded as being on the lunatic fringe of the far right during that first visit of mine, such as

Senator Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, began to look mainstream, even moderate, in

retrospect. It was with a start that I read in Hillary Clinton’s auto-

biography that she had been a Goldwater Girl as a student.

Now Obama promises to reverse all that. When he talks of change he means redressing the accumulated “moral deficit” of those right-wing years, especially the latter phase of Bush the Younger.

Essentially, what Obama is doing is to challenge the fundamental political premise that has prevailed in the Democratic Party for the past generation, which is that the only way it can win a presidential election is by running a campaign aimed at the political centre,

even the centre-right. It must track the electoral shift and target moderate Republicans, leaving liberal voters — who no longer dare call themselves that but at most hesitantly describe themselves as “progressives” — to tag along in the wake.

Bill Clinton was the most successful exponent of this strategy. He ran in 1992, after his party had lost five of the six previous presidential elections, as a Democrat prepared to break with a number of traditional liberal issues, such as getting tough on crime, supporting the death penalty and trimming social welfare.

And he won handsomely, serving two terms with high popularity ratings despite potentially lethal personal scandals. That established the strategy as holy writ.

Hillary Clinton has followed suit. She worked hard during her years in the Senate to moderate her liberal image, voting for the Iraq war and forging working relationships with Republicans.

Obama, in his campaign, has been challenging this whole strategic thesis. He is arguing that it is paralysing the Democratic Party by preventing its candidates from injecting reformist ideas into the political debate and committing them to a politics of me-tooism. This has rendered them unable to stem the U.S.’s drift to the right.

The essence of Obama’s campaign in the Democratic primaries has been to argue that Hillary’s strategy was based on a belief that the American political landscape is static, whereas he believes it has been changed dramatically by the excesses of the Bush administration.

Bush, Obama argues, has taken the political pendulum so far to the right with his war on Iraq, his belief that unilateralist intervention around the world is the best approach to foreign policy, and his belief that tax cuts for the rich are the answer to all economic problems, that this has opened up space on the left for a genuine progressive campaign.

It is an intriguing proposition. If Obama is right, if he can pull it off and win the presidency, there is every prospect that we will see a much-needed change of political culture in the world’s only superpower — and with it a change of attitudes worldwide, not only towards the U.S. but within countries as well, for the immense power of the U.S. makes its influence pervasive.

But it is a risky strategy. It will obviously expose Obama to fierce attacks from John McCain, his Republican opponent, who will portray him as a soft and airy liberal who cannot be relied on to protect the U.S. in a dangerous world of rogue states, terrorist organisations and weapons of mass destruction. Scare tactics will be the stock-in-trade of the McCain campaign.

Yet Obama also has another attractive theme to offer. Although he is spurning the course of trying to build a centrist coalition, he is presenting himself as a unifier who can heal the deep ideological rifts that have made Washington politics so acrimonious in recent years. The U.S. is a badly divided country.

Obama appears before the American electorate as a transcendent figure — part black and part white, part Muslim and part

Christian (his late father was a Muslim, he and his mother practising Christians), part First World and part Third World (he was born in the U.S. and was a stellar student at Harvard, but his dad was a Kenyan economist in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, he periodically visits his black grandmother in Africa, and he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia which has the world’s largest Muslim population).

To many he symbolises a leader who can bridge the differences between white and black, immigrants and home-born Americans, rich and poor — and ultimately Democrats and Republicans.

On foreign policy, he holds out the hope of a much greater understanding of other cultures and faiths, of the realities of life in the countries of the South, and most important of all the so-called “clash of civilisations” between the Islamic world and the West.

It is in this respect that the U.S. has been most bereft throughout its history — never more so than during the Bush years. There is much repair work to be done.

As for McCain’s charge that Obama is too inexperienced and too soft to be relied on to protect the U.S. in this dangerous world, I would argue that precisely the opposite is true.

For once the U.S. will have a president with first-hand, on-the-ground experience of the world and what afflicts those the Martiniquan writer Frans Fanon called “the wretched of the Earth”.

The U.S. cannot safeguard itself from the alienated and the angry with tanks and missiles and “shock and awe” bombardments. It can only do so by trying to arrive at some understanding of the causes of that anger and alienation.

You can’t shoot grievances to death. You can only try to redress them.

And there is no doubt that Obama, given his origins and his background, is better equipped to do that than any other American president in modern times.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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