Why we love Obama

2008-11-07 00:00

I couldn’t wait for dawn on Wednesday. Did the United States elect the president the world would choose? And suddenly there it was. Breaking news: Obama wins election. A landslide. Suave, eloquent Barack Obama, the first black American president, had captured American hopes for a changed world. He’s captured all of our hopes for change: the Nelson Mandela of the First World.

“Yes we can. Yes we can,” chant his supporters on TV. A new version of the American dream is born but this one ricochets throughout the world, creating belief in all of us that black and white, East and West, poor and rich, Christian and Muslim, women and men, gays and straights can find accommodation and respect for one another. Obama inspires ordinary people worldwide to believe in their power to change the world in the same way that Mandela made us believe that reconciliation and compassion are possible.

Is he a greater human being than the rest of us? Is Mandela? If he isn’t any greater a human being than you or me, how will he live up to the hope we place in him? If he is greater, does that mean there are people who are better, more valuable than others because they are greater, as Conservatives and Republicans appear to believe?

For most of us, our lives are played out in a small arena: paying our bonds, choosing schools and cars, fulfilling family obligations and, if we’re lucky, holiday plans once a year. The global recession’s impact is on our pensions and house and car repayments that suddenly seem impossible to meet. We’re aware, vaguely, that some people are worse off — they don’t have a car or house repayment.

We might be linked technologically into a single world but our interests are narrow and when that world is shaken by upheavals, we feel powerless to stop the effects on our lives. We live small lives, in small neighbourhoods with small ideals of what is possible.

Most of us, at some point, hope that we’ll do more than this, that we will acquire great wealth or achieve fame or contribute to a better world. That hope is slowly crushed by the daily grind of our lives. And then a leader like Obama comes along. And he doesn’t just promise improvements in our lives, he promises that we can leave a better world for our children’s children. His arena is not the neighbourhood; it’s history. He dreams so big that it strikes one as absurd.

And who is he? He’s part of the black underdog world in the big, rich, white U.S. and he just came up and took power as though it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. So when he says “we can” he means “I can and if I can then you can too.” He also reminds us that he’s just an ordinary man: he talks about his wife as the “love of my life” and promises his children a puppy in the White House. That makes us believe all the more that it’s possible to make a better world, that it’s possible to shake the dust from our hopes, that it’s possible to want big lives and have them.

Mandela promised us the same in relation to forgiveness and peace. It’s a promise that has re-mained unrealised for many South Africans whose grief at the devastation of apartheid on their lives has still to be acknowledged.

I would like Obama to remain an icon of the hope that ordinary men and women can change the world into a better place. I want him to keep the promise that the complex chaos of this connected world will not continue to relegate our lives to small, empty arenas. I want him to be a greater human being than I am capable of being.

Is that too much to ask of an American president?

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