Yes America, I will show the way

The Hindu

January 8, 2008

If one year from now the world expectantly awaits the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America, we will look back not on the Iowa results but on his stirring victory speech as the moment the impossible became the inevitable. It is hard for anyone watching that speech even after the event, anyone who cares about the world and cares about our common future, not to be moved. Rather than savour and linger on it, Mr. Obama took his victory and built on it for the morning after in New Hampshire and beyond.

There are cadences of oratorical passion and soaring rhetoric reminiscent of Martin Luther King and metaphorical flourishes and peaks that recall the uplifting brilliance of John F. Kennedy. As if that isn't enough, Mr. Obama has a Ronald Reagan-like capacity to make Americans feel good again about themselves and their country. Even his smile is incandescent yet authentic and therefore infectious. Win or lose hereafter, Mr. Obama has dispersed some of the suffocating smoke of cynicism and put a bit of fun and fizz back into politics.

Lest we forget, however, and no matter what the sequel to Iowa, let us pay homage to America and the American dream more generally. Later this year, the Democratic Party will have either a black or a woman as its presidential standard bearer. The party's field of candidates is already America at its most glorious best: Barack Obama, son of a white Christian woman from Kansas and a black Muslim father from Kenya who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, victorious in 96 per cent white Iowa; Hillary Clinton, a woman; and Bill Richardson, a Hispanic-American, among others. On the evidence to date, any one of them would make a good President. Mr. Obama could make a great President, embodying in his person the narrative of the civil war struggles to overcome barriers of race and discrimination, yet eschewing in his persona the anger of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who captured the rage of the disempowered but failed to turn that into a positive programme of action for all Americans.

America matters, what America does and does not do matters, and so the choice of who leads America matters to the rest of us. It is impossible for the world to move forward if America decides to stand still and refuses to budge, as on climate change. It is impossible for the world to avoid a tsunami of misfortunes when America takes a misstep, as in Iraq. By the same token, it is impossible for outsiders not to celebrate when America presents its most attractive face to the world which no other country, still, can match.

This is why I was up late the night of the Iowa caucuses, listening and reading as the early results and trends, and the confirmation of the final tally, came in to the accompaniment of pundits' instant analyses. A political news junkie, I had difficulty going to sleep after the excitement of the results. The night alone was proof that America is becoming a better and more inclusive nation. Who better to put it into words than the man of the hour himself in his victory speech. "This defining moment in history", he said, was an affirmation of "the most American of ideas - that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it." In identifying with and investing in Mr. Obama, the people of Iowa have put paid to the soft bigotry of low expectations that condemns millions of people everywhere to a life of unfulfilled expectations and self-fulfilling despair.

The night was historic, yet history provides no guide to interpreting the results. For we have seen nothing like it before. Mr. Obama's message of hope, healing and change was a powerful beacon that resonated with and drew thousands to the crowded caucuses in an emotionally charged exercise to reclaim the nation's political soul. It truly is difficult not to start basking in the glow of the lamp lit in the cold Iowa night of January 3. As the New York Times' Bob Herbert put it (Jan. 5), "Shake hands with tomorrow. It's here."

I am in a crowded field of analysts, American as well as international, who have believed that the damage wrought by the Bush administration will take years and decades to undo. Not with Mr. Obama. Where Hillary offers the choice of good policy in the hands of a competent manager, Mr. Obama seduces with the vision of a great leader: Yes, America, there is a promised land, and I will show you the way. Hillary offers retribution for all the sins of the George W. Bush years with a promise to relive the glory years of husband Bill Clinton; Mr. Obama offers redemption that will transcend the bitterness of the Bush-Clinton culture wars with a dynastic tinge to it. To her connections and calculation, he offers conviction and aspirations. She may believe she is entitled to rule; many more believed on the night that he is born to lead. From this point on, the race is his to lose more than hers to win.

As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins argued (Jan. 5), even Hillary Rodham the fresh graduate would have been an Obama girl not a Hillary Clinton fan today. For Mr. Obama bested her in just about every demographic cohort that will decide the election: women, independents and the young. Her underlying negatives and the weight of baggage inherited from the 1990s - the decade of the Clintons - proved too burdensome against the strength of positives that the Obama campaign has steadily been communicating over many months. Angry Democrats who want to get even with Mr. Bush will vote for Hillary; those impatient to move on - eager to see the back of Mr. Bush but equally to turn their back on the wearying partisan culture wars of the last several decades going back to Vietnam - will embrace Mr. Obama.

Hillary could not square the circle of offering change by insisting on not doing things differently in Washington. While Mr. Obama promises to motivate large numbers of first time and independent voters and rally them around the Democratic flag, she has a significant hate following that would mobilise the strident Republican base to the anyone-but-Hillary rallying call. Iowa may thus potentially cement worries about her unelectability while easing anxieties about his.

Leadership lies in articulating a bold vision and persuading others to buy into it, emotionally as well as intellectually, in ways that transcend their immediate self-interest. It means setting standards of national and international behaviour, explaining why they are important, and coaxing others to adopt them as personal benchmarks. Mr. Obama captured elements of this brilliantly in his victory speech.

Bill Clinton had warned that a vote for Mr. Obama would be a roll of the dice and that the issues confronting America were much too grave for such a gamble. Iowans have rolled the dice in favour of hope over experience. A triumph indeed that even the rest of us can savour no matter the final outcome, sharing in the pride and amazement of white as well as all hyphenated-Americans that they might be on the cusp of something big. To paraphrase Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's great independence speech, a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history. Of such cathartic moments are great democracies made, sustained and renewed.

The Bush administration has presented an angry and intense American face to the world playing to and heightening the nation's fears and insecurity. The result? The United States has sometimes been ugly, as in Iraq; sometimes AWOL (absent without official leave), as in Guantanamo Bay; and at other times absent in action, as on climate change.

Mr. Obama has not always shown himself to be the master of the 20-second soundbite. Yet the detailed interviews he has given on foreign policy issues show him to be a thoughtful and reflective candidate. Probing the depth of his knowledge confirms he is book smart; Iowa proves he is street smart. We foreigners can but pray that the new President, whoever he or she may be, will return America to its strengths, values and the tradition of exporting hope and optimism. And so help to lift America and the world up, not tear one another down.

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