There can be no doubt that the pragmatic dimensions of the policy decisions Barack Obama will have to implement shortly are what his electors have to be focused on. Yet there is a cultural, and indeed spiritual, dimension to Obama’s victory which can end up catapulting the United States into a period of considerable creative growth. Americans are by no means ready to relinquish their world leadership. The election of Barack Obama suggests they may have succeeded in altering the traditional military means to accomplishing such leadership.
It seems that an adequate description of this significance of this event is that we have passed beyond the “race barrier”. What exactly lies beyond is something we shall all experienced in time. No matter how one tries to diminish the historical import of what has happened, which would also involve re-dimensioning the persona Obama has come to incarnate, it is now extremely difficult to deny his world historical status, to use a term coined by German philosopher Hegel.
Bill Clinton’s skeptical utterance (“Gimme a break!”) at the mixture in Obama’s style of southern Baptist church preaching and university mobilization calls seemed appropriate at a time when, during the primaries, one had to be weary of political gimmicks. Skeptics still had the upper hand when they questioned the opportunism involved in Obama’s Democratic Party convention acceptance speech given forty years after King’s “I have a dream” address. Yet nobody can claim that Obama’s election as President of the United States was intentionally scripted to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP.
The media has often speculated about when and if Obama would “play the race card”. With such sizeable overlap following his ascendency, it is as though he was given the means to deal with policy issues first, and leave the rest to history.
What of the political import of his victory? The man the Americans have elected is the incarnation of diplomacy and conciliation. It should be stressed, though, that Americans also gave Al Gore the majority vote in 2000. It was the Electoral College system (to say nothing of the Supreme Court) that had clashed, in one of its rare occasions, with the collegial vote. In 2004, assuming there was no wide-scale election fraud, the choice of Americans was mildly against the “liberal” agenda proposed by John Kerry.
Nothing, however, suggested that Americans, or “Americans”, were ready for a leap into legitimizing progressive politics at the federal level. Obama has achieved a broad mandate. No President has been given this opportunity to implement what has come to be known in the United States as “progressivism”. Clearly, markets, competition and free enterprise all remain the pillars of the American economy. On the other hand, lifting the tax burden from the middle class, aiming to broaden citizen participation in expanding government to the local level, helping families whose lives have collapsed under the mortgage burden, offering publicly managed universal health care, and making financial assistance available for education have now been authorized by the American people to be the mandate on which Obama ought, should and must govern. There should be a return to taxing capital gain and inherited fortunes, as there should be a return to rigorously regulating industry and finance. Lobbies, however, remain the big question mark in Obama’s domestic policies – as well as his Achilles’ heel.
To understand how a President has been given the legitimacy to implement such a platform, we would have to look at the background of Obama voters. The media has emphasized the Obama campaign’s accomplishment in getting so many new voters out to the polling booths, including some 20% of conservative voters, who chose Obama according to a CNN poll. Given that voting in the United States is optional, there’s always the potential for a different profile of Americans to turn out and determine the outcome. From various polls, it is possible to get an idea of this “different profile” and its impact on the vote for Obama: African-Americans, women and the youth, all of whom seem to have voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama. In other words, these groups are the ones to have struggled over the past forty years to have an impact on the way the American State is run. Until now, this profile was kept far from wielding power over the country’s institutions. But, as candidate Obama had chanted: “not this time”. Much has been said about the impact of the brilliant Obama internet campaign, which managed to gather voters in a way not unlike the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle. It remains to be seen what type of public concerting the President-elect will seek.
There has not really been a President in the US who has gone ahead on a daring overhaul of the American way. There is, however, a large gap between appearance and reality, as well as many altering interpretations over the deeds of the American Government done in the past. Due to the United States’ cultural hegemony, one can be viscerally against the militarism of the “Empire” while being utterly fascinated and enamored of the country’s contributions to the arts and thought. For once, that “Other America”, as the late Edward Said put it, seems to have come to power. The challenge ahead is to see how the Other America will succeed in cleaning up the mess caused by the advocates of Empire and the deciders behind the “plutocracy”, as Kevin Phillips put it in Wealth and Democracy. A Political History of the American Rich (2002).
Regarding the media, two observations ought to be made. The American media has rarely been as slavish as it was during the first years after 9/11. CNN and the New York Times gave their full support to the invasion of Iraq. It is likely that Afghanistan had to be dealt with militarily to some degree. Even as critical a historian as Eric Hobsbawm conceded a military option was necessary after 9/11. Yet consistency was not a strong point for the Oil lobby represented by George W. Bush, as members of the Taliban government were reportedly treated well by Bush’s acolytes prior to 9/11.
From the start, the invasion of Iraq was an altogether different affair. Rare were the courageous voices heard against Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld. And it seems that whenever such voices gathered strength, a terror warning would be called. Other news was thereby obliterated from being heard.
Slowly, things began changing with US Media. It is as if America’s media outlets came to the sour understanding that they were contributing to a slide into the most despicable form of State-censored self-representation. What brought about that realization? Was it perhaps the fact that the American government was indirectly admitting it had authorized torture? Was it the ongoing concern with the extension of the Patriot Act? Or the number of dead soldiers? Or dead Iraqis? Or the awareness that the actions of America’s military abroad posed another risk at home? Or the corruption, embezzling and shifting of the nation’s wealth to the very rich? Or the threat of a third war? Something changed in some minds, and something changed in the way the media began dealing with the White House. Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina are landmarks in what prompted the change.
At least since the start of the primaries, CNN gave fair treatment to both candidates, although the McCain campaign had major problems appearing convincing. As for The New York Times, I have never seen a moment when all columnists and the Editorial statement rallied to defend one candidate in a common front, as they did to defend Obama soon after Sarah Palin was selected. As a result, some media outlets redeemed themselves with respect to the disastrous compliance of years past.
As the last five days have shown, it does seem that the capitalist economy is in one of its cyclical phases of turmoil on a planetary scale. Much of Obama’s policies and plans will likely depend on how the financial crisis unfolds, although at this point more bailouts are to be expected. The question was asked repeatedly during the debates: how would each candidate cut spending? There is no immediate solution to replace spending with a withdrawal of the military. The withdrawal cannot be disastrous. This would destroy Obama’s legitimacy. No doubt, with the end of the occupation America’s fiscal burden would be lessened. On the other hand, it is probably impossible to evoke the late Vermont Senator, George Aiken’s words – “declare victory and get out” – as a possible solution here.
When the financial crisis does settle, one can imagine Obama to move on his health plan. For a man of his background, there can be no greater injustice affecting Americans right now than the State’s refusal to tend to the health of his citizens. The task ahead is to blend the force of elation released by Obama’s election with an economic situation that is deteriorating weekly.
Let me conclude with a personal confession. Over the last seven years, I have devoted myself to doing my minute share for combating the rise of tyranny in the US by writing articles on various facets of the bureaucratization of America’s democratic institutions. The last seven years have been an ordeal in which it became difficult to accept anything happening in the States at face value. In my family, there is a long history of love for the United States and desire to live in the United States. It is the history of political refugees from Hungary, who formed an immigrant family in Canada. But as for many refugees in the 1950s, their dream was to reach the U.S. My nephews, i.e. my father’s grandchildren, accomplished what he could not: becoming American citizens. As for me, the election of Barack Obama has released the silent love I feel for the United States, but rarely encounter overall conditions to live it out. It has deepened my sentiments regarding its citizens, our neighbors and friends.