Nov 7, 2008
An Indian hymn to Obama
By M K Bhadrakumar
I heard as a small child my late mother narrate how for some obscure reason
that I could not comprehend, "untouchable" women like her mother were not
allowed to cover their breasts, once upon a time.
The memory stealthily came up when I saw drops of tears welling up in the big
beautiful eyes of Reverend Jesse Jackson and pouring out, as if a dike
somewhere burst, when he heard of his fellow-African American Barack Obama's
presidential victory speech.
I understood - and more important, it isn't a mere Indian memory. Jackson would
recollect how in his lifetime as recently as 50 years ago, a black American
risked being strung from a tree for glancing at a white woman. Equally, he
would know racial prejudice is deep-rooted in American life and Obama's victory
cannot make it disappear. America remains riddled with racist outcomes.
As a politician, Jackson would know Obama's victory is primarily because
despite being a black American, he could project himself as capable of uniting
a fragmented nation.
Indeed, a rare moment comes when a politician epitomizes the promise of change.
Caste or color becomes irrelevant. There is no other way to explain how a black
man born to a Muslim goat-herd from Kenya and an atheist farm-girl from Kansas
walked away with such a stunning victory.
If Obama is a superstar, it is despite being a pragmatic politician. To be
sure, Wall Street firms and big corporate houses generously funded his campaign
and his war chest kept overflowing. But, then, he also revealed a talent for
motivating people who thought they were powerless.
He is no doubt highly cerebral, but he is not an aloof intellectual. He
possesses astonishing networking skills and a capacity to charm people into
supporting him. And, he has self-discipline, which meant there were no
skeletons in his cupboard.
But all that still does not explain his success.
The real paradox of his success lies in that he is seen as the ultimate
"outsider", not tainted by the Washington establishment. He appeared at a time
when the American people were desperate for change and were fed up with the way
Washington and American politics was run.
Obama has not benefited from the patronage of a political machine. He actually
began his operations on a shoestring. People found that extremely attractive.
He offered freshness amid the tired old faces of seasoned politicians. No
doubt, it was Obama's good fortune that this election rounding off the
disastrous George W Bush presidency. Obama found himself on the right side of
history. When he posed his opponent John McCain as Bush's alter-ego, the choice
before the American people worked decisively in his favor.
So, was Obama a smart politician who helped himself to good fortune? The answer
will be "yes" and "no". For, his leadership qualities, too, are never in doubt.
Anyone who read his poignant memoirs - Dreams from My Father - could tell he is
first and foremost a great human being. The book is awash with emotions to
which any clever politician would be wary of admitting.
Obama comes across as someone with a genuine capacity for human compassion. It
is a level of empathy that is only possible for someone who experienced
deprivation and great sorrows. He could even forgive his brilliant but deeply
flawed father. Second, Obama is a man of convictions. That is also his claim to
lead America when it is losing faith in itself. Obama believes in the American
dream. He realized the dream himself and insists it is still a realizable
dream. More than that, he believes in America as a great nation. And, of
course, he distinguishes America from the Bush era.
Therefore, what we have seen on election night is an extraordinary confluence
of Obama's political personality and America's hanker for change. Clearly, the
conservative era that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980 is ending. The three
pillars of "Reaganism" have irreparably cracked: blind faith in the market; the
"percolation" theory; and "small" government. The pendulum is swinging back to
interventionist government, social justice and support for the dispossessed.
Equally, Republican philosophy rested on a pillar of a robust approach to
national security. Incrementally, as time passed, it got warped as the
grotesque Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military intervention, unilateralism and
shock and awe took hold. That made America much disliked. Obama is better
placed than any of his predecessors in the White House to grasp how the world
sees America. He is the antithesis of Bush, who was unable or indifferent (or
both) to comprehend how America under his presidency looked on the world stage.
In his childhood, Obama saw America from the "other end" of the tunnel, from
Suharto's Indonesia. His background will help him weigh the usage of American
power in hapless lands abroad. It will help him handle better the inexorable
decline, even if in relative terms, of US global power. He might appreciate
what it means to prefer diplomacy to muscle power or consensus to
unilateralism. We may expect him to lead America gently back to its preferred
method of conducting foreign policy.
It is also necessary to touch briefly on the collapse of a third pillar of the
Republican philosophy that paved the way for Obama's triumph. This is the
waning of conservative social views. McCain brought in Alaska Governor Sarah
Palin to unleash a "culture war". For decades, Republicans got away with
tarnishing their Democratic adversaries as mavericks on social issues. Palin
tried all her tricks but the tricks stopped working. Young people are becoming
relaxed in their social views and a generational shift is underway. This may
only be the middle of the story and not the end, but America is getting ready
for a time in the next 25 years when white people will be a minority among
other ethnic minorities.
All said, Obama's principal challenges will be in managing the economic crisis,
and it will most certainly dominate his presidency. The challenges lie on
several fronts. The economic crisis is both cyclical and structural. One, the
economy is in recession. Consumers are drastically cutting back; house prices
are still falling. Companies find it hard to borrow and are cutting back on
investment. Unemployment is rising. The interest rate has been pared down to
1%, but it is still not having an effect.
The public mood is ugly - a mixture of anger and fear. Obama needs to draw deep
into his reservoir of optimism to help his people recover from their gloom and
loss of self-confidence. Of course, the American economy will recover from the
present crisis. The political challenge for Obama will be to make that happen
during the life of his administration.
But the systemic challenge is a much harder nut to crack. Simply put, the US
economy has been living far beyond its means. This is showing up as the huge
current account deficit and as a large fiscal deficit. Household savings are
very low - at or close to zero. The proportion of the gross domestic product
consumed - rather than invested - is too high at 70%. This pattern of living
has meant borrowing, and borrowing big.
It is a bizarre situation that the world's biggest economy and the people with
the highest standard of living in the world have to borrow to simply get going.
The crunch time has come. The US is dangerously ending up with obligations to
its big lenders such as China. Conversely, these lenders are landed with the
opportunity to buy real assets - land, office blocks, companies, and so on. The
implications of lenders like China "buying up" America are profound not only
for US global standing, but also for the international system as a whole.
Yet, America needs more money. Much of the infrastructure is second rate or
crumbling. The education system calls for renovation. Almost half the
population has no health cover. A completely new social security system needs
to be put together as the 1960s generation (the "baby boomers") is becoming
pensioners. The disparities have reached unacceptable level - 1% of Americans
holding 21% of the wealth while 50% of the population holds only 13%. The US
economy, in other words, has hit a wall. A deadend has come. A complete change
of course is necessary.
Yet the economy remains huge and powerful. The question is to provide the
country a more sustainable future. Obama's challenge is on the one hand to
shepherd his countrymen through the present downturn. At the same time, he
needs to explain to them that physical resources are finite. He must underscore
that America needs to get to save again both at the national and family level.
He is striding a political minefield. He will have to sound convincing when he
says he does not hold a magic wand to wave the situation away. Policies, after
all, take time to have effect. But popular expectations are soaring.
Great statesmen transmute as men of history when they overcome huge challenges.
Can Obama reach the stature of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin
Roosevelt? His chances are just over 50%. Jesse Jackson, too, seems to think
so. Those were pearls that were his tears.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.
His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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