What appeared unthinkable yesterday looks realisable today. Obama could become the 44th President of the United States.
44 years ago, before the advent of the Civil Rights Act in America, there was still legal separation between blacks and whites, including, but not limited to, the use of separate bathrooms, drinking from different water fountains, and sitting separately in buses. During the time of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945), lynchings of blacks could occur (and did occur) in the American South, without legal repercussions. There were significant roadblocks which prevented blacks from exercising their right to vote.
To see then Obama emerge as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is a momentous event and an historic breakthrough. It overcame a dark legacy of slavery, civil war, segregation, and racial polarisation. The crowning moment will come during the Democratic National Convention set for late August at Denver, Colorado.
Unhappy over Iraq, a faltering economy, and on the overall direction of the US, millions of Americans have shifted to Obama to express their aspirations for change and hopes for a better future. And, by doing so, they delivered an unexpectedly crushing blow to the Clinton Machine, which had a stranglehold on the Democratic Party for nearly two decades, and whose dynastic resumption of the US Presidency seemed inevitable. For this, American democracy owes a debt of gratitude to Obama.
With an African father and with Muslim kin, both in Kenya and in Indonesia, and with a non-Anglo Saxon sounding name, Obama had to – and has to – fight and transcend both racism and Islamophobia. For a virtual unknown to become a dragon-slayer in US politics is quite a feat.
A key question is how will Obama fare? Compared to whom? It is unfair to compare Obama to America’s best President, Abraham Lincoln, who led the federal forces in the American Civil War, saved the Union, and got assassinated in the process. But it is certainly fair to compare Obama to the current occupant of the White House.
The legacy of Bush has been one of waging illegal wars, of flouting the US constitution and the Geneva Conventions, of roiling relations in the Muslim world, of mismanaging the US economy, of accelerating the spread of violent zealotry, and of making Americans feel unsafe as never before, whether at home or abroad. NBC’s Baghdad bureau chief, Richard Engel, in his new book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, writes: “The problem was that the US invaded the wrong country, not responsible for 9/11…I don’t know how you recover from invading the wrong country.”
Based on the foregoing, Obama cannot do worse, even with respect to US-Pakistan relations.
And then, there is the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain. McCain certainly has admirable attributes. Coming from a family of naval admirals, McCain suffered torment during his time as a captured POW during the Vietnam conflict. But he hasn’t offered any new prescriptions to differentiate himself and his platform from the failed policies of his Republican predecessor, George Bush. McCain’s philosophy – as incited by his closest adviser, Islam-bashing Senator Joseph Lieberman – puts him in the path of continuing the blindly one-sided bellicose stance in the broader Muslim world.
While the American people yearn for change, in McCain they may get more of the same, when the Senator from Arizona is officially nominated during the Republican National Convention at St Paul, Minnesota, at the beginning of September.
In the degrading tradition of US Presidential candidates, both McCain and Obama have made the customary salutations to the pro-Israeli Lobby.
Whether Obama wins the White House or not, come Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, the incontestable fact is that what has been achieved this far is by itself a milestone. Race concerns remain a potent factor. For example, 20 percent of white Democrats in the states of Kentucky and West Virginia have openly acknowledged that race is a factor in their voting choice. This election will test the mettle and maturity of the American voter.
Obama faces formidable obstacles, including an attack campaign of vicious rumours on the Internet, which his staff is already preparing to counter. However, Obama’s Achilles’ heel could be his wife Michelle, who can on occasion convey gloom and grievance, in striking contrast to her husband’s optimism.
America has its share of socio-political weaknesses. Yet, embedded in its midst are some strengths which give space to those bereft of means and genes to flourish. Attached with it is the inherent dynamism which gives it the capacity to self-correct.
This capacity will face its toughest challenge with respect to re-aligning America’s disastrous posture in the Muslim world. It is a task of state-craft which cannot be bypassed by whoever becomes the temporary inhabitant of the White House. It requires fresh energy, new ideas, and the momentum driven by the thirst for change. It is a challenge that Obama cannot avoid