16 - 22 October 2008
Issue No. 918
Is the world ready for a 'new' America?
Barack Obama is a symbol of hope not only for America, but the post-9/11 world,
writes Mona Makram Ebeid*
As never before, trust in the integrity of American finance is being put to the
test. And the question on everyone's mind today is: Just how will the US
treasury secretary spend the $700 billion he is begging for?
The September meltdown of much of Wall Street has put an unexpected focus on
the US presidential candidates' grasp of the complex world of high finance.
There is still a month to go before the US presidential elections and the
economy is, to put it mildly, volatile. Will either of the candidates allow
further nationalisations if the banking system again comes under threat?
Both candidates offer divergent responses to the credit crunch and differ
sharply over free trade. Obama's view is that free trade can advance only once
workers no longer feel threatened by it. McCain is an unabashed advocate of
free trade. As for improving America's image abroad, and according to most
analysts, Obama would clearly do a lot more to revive America's image than
McCain ever could. Let us not forget that some 250,000 people turned out to see
him in Berlin in July. McCain's earlier visit to Europe went virtually
With elections day fast approaching, I would like to share with you some of the
impressions I gathered attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver,
Colorado, to which I had been invited.
The US presidential nominating process is one of the few systems in the world
that provides for rank and file participation of grassroots supporters who
travelled from 50 states to witness a historic moment. In addition, the
National Democratic Institute was able to organise a programme called the
International Leaders Forum 2008 that allowed 500 international guests to
observe the convention proceedings, gain a greater insight into the US
political process, and meet with American policy-makers and with each other.
People like myself travelled from overseas, enduring long security lines and
traffic nightmares to experience a few days of history in the making.
Invitees included current and former heads of state, speakers of parliament,
current and former parliamentarians, leaders of political parties, ruling and
opposition, as well as ambassadors and democratic activists. A chief goal in
the themes that Democrats presented to America and the world at the convention
was based on "Renewing America's Promise" -- mainly renewing the American dream
as well as highlighting the stark contrasts in the two parties' political
visions, and in this they succeeded.
One after another, top dignitaries tried to cement their candidate's message by
underlining the issues that Senator Obama focussed on in his campaign:
improving education and healthcare, dealing with the deficit, forging a real
energy policy based on building a new energy infrastructure, and making America
a country most able to innovate, compete and win in the age of globalisation.
All of them believed that there is no more important priority than renewing the
American dream for a new era, with the same new hope and new ideas that
propelled F D Roosevelt towards the New Deal and John F Kennedy to the New
Frontier. The time for change has come, they repeatedly said, and America must
seize it. American leadership on human rights, they emphasised, was essential
to making the world safer, more just and more humane. Such leadership must
begin with steps to undo the damage of the Bush years.
The list of historic failures of the present US administration was also
enumerated. Careless policies, inept stewardship and the broken politics of
this administration have taken their toll, they said, on the US economy, US
security and the American reputation. At the same time, they filled McCain's
engine with sludge, underlining that the core of John McCain's campaign is to
continue the same Bush policies that have led 80 per cent of Americans to
conclude they are on the wrong track, from Baghdad to Bear Stearns, referring
to the Republican candidate as "another four years of John McSame!"
This, in a nutshell, is what we heard from personalities such as Tim Wirth, CEO
of the United Nations Foundation, Richard Haas, president of the Council on
Foreign Relations, former ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Jessica Mathews of the
Carnegie Foundation, Jim Wolfenson of the World Bank, former UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Alejandro Toledo, former president
of Peru, Joshka Fischer, Hernando de Sotos and many others. From our region, we
were extremely well represented by two highly respected figures, Sadiq Al-Mahdy
from Sudan and Abdul-Karim Al-Eryani from Yemen.
But if the world is to embrace a "new" America, as the title of this piece
suggests and asks, and really have "the audacity of hope", to reference the
title of Obama's latest book, what is to be done? What is to be expected of the
Here, I would like to quote Madeleine Albright, a key figure of the
International Leaders Forum 2008. She says: "The president elect will benefit
from a nearly universal desire to see someone new in the White House. On the
other hand, he will face a Herculean task in trying to remedy the harm that has
been caused to America's wellbeing and good name."
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Albright says: "bystanders do not make history,
and peace efforts, even when unsuccessful can nurture hope and save lives...
Your task is to inspire people in the region to resume thinking about the
possibilities of peace and compare that to the realities they have experienced
these past years... The Arab peace initiative, announced by the Saudis in 2002
and re-blessed by the Arab League in 2007, is neither new nor specific, nor
particularly forthcoming. It does, however, promise comprehensive Arab support
for real peace and normal relations with Israel. As a proposal, the plan...
creates ample opportunity for face-to-face Arab-Israeli discussions...
Ultimately, violence is a choice, and what people have the power to choose,
they have the power to change."
But what about the speakers at the convention itself which we were privileged
to attend at the Pepsi Centre? One of the most moving features was the presence
of Senator Ted Kennedy who, despite cancer, stepped from hospital to the podium
and told the crowd: "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new
generation of Americans. The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the
dream lives on." And his voice rang out as he compared Obama with president
John F Kennedy while Caroline Kennedy, another Obama supporter, offered a
tribute to her uncle when she introduced him to the audience.
The other speaker who triggered "shock and awe" was Hillary Clinton. As
recently as six months ago, she was viewed by most in the politics business as
the inevitable Democratic nominee and very likely the next president of the
United States. Obviously, and God forbid, if Obama loses the general election,
she will become the immediate favourite for the 2012 Democratic nomination. On
the other hand, she would be well positioned to mount a primary challenge
against an incumbent president if President Obama has a rocky four years. So
she barnstormed through Denver on the second day of the convention on behalf of
former rival Obama. Before she appeared, the atmosphere in the Pepsi Centre was
electric with anticipation with at least 20,000 seats filled, including one by
Bill Clinton, and thousands of white signs with her signature in blue. She
pledged her support to Obama in no uncertain terms and then spoke directly to
her backers encouraging them to fight "to put a Democrat in the White House".
But despite her moving unity speech, much remains unsettled within the party
Another speech that enthralled the audience was Michelle Obama appearing on the
podium with her two young and lovely daughters. She painted a portrait of
herself and her husband as everyday Americans. She was poised and calm,
crafting the narrative the campaign will stress on in the weeks ahead. "Barack
and I were raised with so many of the same values," she noted. You must work
hard for what you want in life, she said. She talked about her childhood, her
father, a blue-collar city worker, her mother at home raising her and her
brother. In essence, her speech was a counterpoint to black women's tragedies.
"I come here as a mom... and one day your sons and daughters will tell their
own children what we did in that election." The vision of Michelle, Barack,
their two children on the podium, together they symbolise the triumph of the
black family despite slavery's centuries-old effort to destroy it, and a
generation of black children will grow up with an ideal role model: a black
president with a loving, intact family. After she wrapped up her eloquent
speech and the applause died down, we were treated to an appearance by Barack
via satellite from Kansas City. The couple's seven-year-old daughter, Sasha,
stole the show by asking at one point, "Where are you, Daddy?" and answering,
"I think she did good," when her father sought an assessment of Michelle's
Another feature to remember was the Ohio congressman who woke us all up with
the most spirited speech of that night, condemning the war, the economy and the
Republicans, getting the crowd to roar so loudly that he had to yell into the
microphone to be heard. It will become known as the "Wake up, America" speech.
Millions of Americans, he said, have lost their jobs, trillions of dollars for
an unwarranted war paid for with borrowed money (little did he know that the
weeks ahead would prove him right), tens of millions of dollars in cash and
weapons disappeared into thin air at the cost of the lives of US troops and
innocent Iraqis. He also played on the terror alert "colour chart". "Everyday
we get the colour orange while the oil companies, the insurance companies, the
Wall Street speculators, the war contractors, get the colour green." "So Wake
up America", he yelled to approving roars.
As for Bill Clinton, he pulled out his forceful (if not forced) endorsement of
Obama charmingly, although everyone knew that he meant not a word of it. In
essence, he and Hillary were passing the "party's baton" to someone who was not
on the stage until four years ago! Then came Al Gore, who since he lost the
election to George W Bush, has reinvented himself as a world spokesman warning
about climate change (an issue that Egypt's renowned scientist Mustafa Tolba
tackled years ago). He came as a Nobel Prize winning proselytiser, and a great
supporter of Obama.
Joe Biden, the vice presidential selection, although a highly respected
politician, was all "motherhood and apple pie", underlining tragedy and family
in his primetime speech. Fortunately, and to the surprise of all, Obama
appeared on the stage with him.
Then came the culmination of the convention with Barack Obama's galvanising
speech, perhaps the most important of his political career, accepting the
Democratic presidential nomination at Invesco Field, Mile High Stadium, 45
years to the day after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Many in
the audience had placards with "Yes, we can" reminiscent of his famous speech
four years ago.
Obama has thrived in his career by turning campaign stops into emotional
experiences. He has thrived also because of big crowds and small donors. At his
convention speech, he looked like a star of a rock concert and the crowd
responded accordingly. Attendees chanted, danced and shook miniature American
flags in unison. His speech hit the kind of emotional high notes that have
thrilled his followers. I believe that this success was due to his cleverly
setting himself as a breakthrough candidate who was uniquely well placed to
"turn the page of history" at a moment when so many voters are frustrated with
the Bush administration's record of failures and alarmed at the prospect of
American decline. However, we should not forget that his real audience is not
the crowd that waited for hours to get into Invesco Field but rather the voters
who are trying to take a measure of a still relatively unknown politician
seeking to lead the United States at a critical moment in history.
Interestingly, and because women's votes are an essential part of the election,
both Obama and McCain are trying to highlight the issues they think will draw
more support from women, with Obama emphasising pay equity and abortion rights,
to shore up support from women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the
Democratic primaries. In particular, Obama has been trying to attract working
class white women, the group that could be especially pivotal in the states
likely to decide the election. It is noteworthy that women have voted in
greater proportion than men for almost three decades. In 2004, for example,
nearly nine million more women voted than men: 67.3 million to 58.5 million.
What was also interesting was to listen to the ordinary people's remarks,
impressions and comments. A young student told me about Obama: "He's smart, he
talks well and he is classy. I will vote for him." "Classy", "cool",
"glamorous" -- all these words have been used to describe him. He definitely
has excited the youth, the disenfranchised, the traditionally cynical and
apathetic. Another young black woman asked me, "Do you believe a black man is
running as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States? Do you
believe this is happening?" For young African Americans, the whole convention
took on extraordinary meaning. It made them proud of being Americans. "His life
story is our life story," another one told me. So, if it did nothing else, the
four-day long convention served as a reminder of the historic meaning of
Obama's nomination and the astonishing transformation of the country in just
three generations. Nonetheless, and not withstanding his remarkable journey,
many also had a hard time believing that a black man has a chance of becoming
president. "We were always made to believe that the White House was made for
white people," said another.
There is no escaping Barack Obama's racial identity and surveys cannot measure
white apprehension over having a black man at the head of government. And yet,
here we are witnessing what appears to be a quantum leap in the often slow and
plodding story of racial progress in America.
Before concluding, I would like to add something about Denver, the friendliness
of the city, its beauty and the majesty of its outlying Rocky Mountains, "the
best underrated city in the country" in the words of Governor Bill Ritter of
Colorado, who hosted us in his magnificent 100- year-old mansion. He wants his
state to become a hub for research, manufacturing and production of alternative
energy, a global leader in renewable energy.
To conclude, the convention, as much as I enjoyed being there, was more about a
sensation -- euphoria -- than a speech tackling the country's actual problems
that meet with inattention because they pose disagreeable choices in this
intensely polarised election atmosphere.
Viewed from our region, the promise of a new administration signals an
opportunity to fix what is wrong and build on what is right. The US
presidential elections are watched with passion around the world not because of
America's power but because of its emotional centrality. And though there is
worldwide criticism of Washington's policies, the core values of the United
States are highly respected and will allow it to turn around the dramatic
decline in its global standing. The rest of the world would certainly embrace a
less fearful and more open post-9/11 America. Choosing Barack Obama, a symbol
of hope, would do more to restore the image of the United States in the world
than anything else. A rejection of the promise he represents would be a symptom
of that nation's historical decline.
* The writer is a former member of parliament and distinguished lecturer in
political science at The American University in Cairo.