I feel the need to amend my previous post about Barack Obama.
I do understand the hype to a point. It is a great and wonderful day for all of the people of America. They have rid themselves of a man who will probably go down in history as one of the worst American presidents in history, and the worst of the modern era. Furthermore, and more to the point, an African-American will take the oath of office for the first time ever. There is certainly much to be said about this historic moment and what it means for America.
My goal with my last post was not to say that I dislike Barack Obama. I do not. He is a very intelligent man who bears the unrealistic dreams of a nation desperate for any shred of hope it can find. However, I do not think that he was the best man for the job. And while he is being held up as a symbol to the African-American community, and rightfully so, there needs to be more reasoned discussion as to what his election actually means. Let me expand on these points.
First, I have made it no secret that I supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy. I am, of course, slightly biased in my analysis because of this, but I think it is still fair to ask whether or not Obama will be an effective president. This critique of Obama comes from a policy standpoint. I did not, and still do not, think that Obama was the right Democratic candidate because he does not have a strong policy-making background at the national level. However, this does not mean that I hope he fails. I do hope he succeeds.
Second, at this point, Obama is more of an image than anything else. He represents the triumph of African-Americans by taking this most revered office, and he should. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to see a person of my skin colour becoming the most powerful person in the world a mere 40 years after the Civil Right movement in the United States. I can only think that it would be moving, heartwarming and inspiring, adjectives that I’m sure pale in comparison to the actual feelings African-Americans have right now. There is no question that Obama’s importance as a racial figure is unparalleled, only rivalling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Having said that, Obama’s image goes far beyond being an African-American president. He is looked upon as a physical symbol of change and hope in terms of the way government operates, the global image of America and bipartisanship in the US . This image is what I struggle with.
I really do not think Obama will have the profound effect on political culture that Americans seek. The US is a country still very much divided. Even though John McCain lost the election in an electoral college landslide (365-173), he still took 45.7% of the popular vote, compared to Obama’s 52.9%. Furthermore, some states were decided by less than a couple of thousand votes.
These numbers tell us something that no one talks about. I truly believe that Obama won more because of his ability to mobilize the Democratic vote than because of his message of change.
What does this mean? It means that Americans have to be careful. CNN commentator David Geffen made an important statement this evening, one I wish I would have written down. He basically said that Americans should not go forward constantly congratulating themselves and thinking that Obama’s election solves everything. I agree, and have thought the same thing before and since his election. This speaks to the expectations surrounding Obama. No other president in history has faced as much pressure as Obama has. No one. And Americans are deluding themselves if they think that the only way to go from here is up. They have much work ahead of them. Repairing their international relationships, reviving the country’s economy and mending the blue/red state divide are tasks that are going to take more work than Obama simply swearing the oath at noon tomorrow. Furthermore, Obama’s election represents progress in racial relations in the US, but there is still much to do. And we in Canada would be wise to no longer look down our noses at the US in this respect; when we elect our first Aboriginal prime minister, then we can compare notes.
Finally, I think my problem with the constant attention on the US inauguration is partly because of Canadian apathy toward its own politicians. I wish we would take our enthusiasm for American politics and channel it towards our own. I bet that if you took a poll tomorrow and asked Canadians who was the new president of the US and who is the prime minister of Canada, you would find that more people know who the American president is than know who is their own prime minister. We cannot compare our politics to the US because our systems and our political cultures are so vastly different. But right now, I wish we cared as much about our politics as Americans care about theirs.
So, will Obama have a positive effect on the US? Absolutely – he already has. But will he have the effect Americans desire?
I doubt it. But I hope I’m wrong.