Sell Obamas now. They are overpriced and the forward market has gone crazy. If he becomes president, the bubble will burst, I guess in the spring of next year. From the moment four years ago when I first heard of Barack Obama and read his youthful memoir, I sensed a president in the making. Like the young Nelson Mandela in South Africa, he seemed to hold the aura of incipient national leadership. His range of sympathies, his oratory, his intelligence, his energy marked him out from the run. His embodiment of the American dream was astonishing.
Today the outside world, much of it with a direct and painful interest in American policy, wants Obama to win, by leads of 20 to 60 per cent. These people have no vote. But the narrower electorate of the United States appears also to want Obama to win, albeit by a smaller margin. The world prefers him chiefly because he is black, the latter chiefly because he is not Republican.
Neither reason is robust. To most non-Americans, black is still code for being apart from the American establishment. Any visitor these days to Europe, to Africa or to the Muslim world is shocked by the depth of antipathy to the U.S. It is beyond ideology, a visceral, often racial aversion, unrelated to any personal attachment to individual Americans or their much-envied way of life. The ugly American is reborn.
Yet the same visitor is impressed by how often he is assured that an Obama presidency would “change everything”. The reason is not that Obama is anti-war or pro-Palestinian or left or rightwing. It is that his origins render him the one thing he most vociferously denies, not an ordinary American.
To this world, Obama is a supposed representative of an oppressed class, however much his speech, manner and career bespeak the opposite. He is black and his name is confirmation enough. He symbolises the end of the Wasp ascendancy. The reason why his candidacy still discomforts many Americans is the reason the world craves it, that Obama is somehow unreal.
He is a meta-American. It is why there will be an awful unleashing of grief and fury if he is not elected. Yet Obama is real, not just a human being but a politician. In office he knows he must do more than make fine speeches and castigate the government of the day. He must grapple with the wreckage of a world economy whose collapse is in large part due to the mismanagement of American finance, from which as a senator he cannot altogether escape blame.
He must restore credit to markets and confidence to commerce. He must bring health and welfare to a country whose poor will seem ever more “third world,” as unemployment bites in the coming months. To millions of Americans he will seem like a messiah. There are millions whom he can only disappoint.
Abroad, this leader would have to end not one war but two, and bring sanity to an American diplomacy that is chaotic in an arc of instability from eastern Europe to the Himalayas. The anticipation that he will be a harbinger of peace, friendship and economic salvation is probably greater than for any American since Roosevelt. The burden of expectation is awesome and unrealistic.
The qualities of charisma and rhetoric that Obama brings to this task may be a match for it. His declared policies are not. His desire to disengage from Iraq is not appreciably different from that of the Bush administration and the Iraqi government. On the other hand, his clearly expressed wish to beef up the war in Afghanistan is reckless.
Obama has approved the bombing of targets inside Pakistan (and presumably now Syria) and proposed invasion to “secure” that country’s nuclear arsenal. He has backtracked on compromise with Iran and done nothing to suggest an end to the macho provocation of Russia.
At home Obama would appear from his statements and voting records to be a conventional Democrat, essentially tax, spend and protect with tariffs. While some of this is America’s business, the world economy needs a protectionist U.S. like a bullet in the head. American markets open to world goods are vital for recovery, as is America’s active participation in the easing of world trade. Obama has shown no sign of accepting this.
On all these fronts there is a more alarming prospect. It is that a Democratic president, even with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, must beware of seeming soft or dovish or “appeasing terror.” Such is politics that the more liberal the man, the more illiberal he can feel compelled to behave, as was the case with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Obama has yet to indicate a retreat from the patriot acts or the language of George Bush’s war on terror.
Any modern leader parrots the language of change. Obama proclaims himself the embodiment of a revolution in American public life. Yet his record is anything but radical. He even supports the right to bear arms. Were it not for his colour, he would be a candidate running on a conventional Democratic ticket, with few policies more constructive than those of his opponent, John McCain, on how the U.S. might now escape from its many predicaments.
None of this is an argument for not voting for Obama. In present day Washington even modest competence might seem revolutionary. But democratic leadership is like Icarus. Its wings melt as soon as it flies close to the Sun. Obama is flying close indeed.
The instant message that an Obama victory would flash round the world is not in doubt. It would transform and refresh the U.S.’s image, exhilarating its friends everywhere. It would restore to that country the reins of global leadership so missing in the era of Republican xenophobia. It would be an utterly good thing.
The next message could be very different. The skills that Obama has brought to his campaign are essentially personal and organisational, not the superhuman ones that will be required of any occupant of the White House in the immediate future. The higher the anticipation, the more crippling will be the effort needed to meet it, and the greater the fall if it is not met.
The prospect of a failed Obama presidency at some time in 2009-10, whether by his doing or those of circumstance, is heartbreaking to contemplate. It would more than undo the gains secured by his election and devastate the cause he is seen as representing. The least his supporters can do is not raise the bar of expectation too high. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008
6 months ago