The outpouring of joy which erupted world-wide following confirmation that Barack Obama had become the next US President, while thrilling for us because of his African connections, has also been disquieting. I cannot recall any election winner anywhere at any time receiving such widespread and effusive support. Television pictures of the reaction to his election from around the world staggered belief. They showed people of all ages, but predominantly younger, going into paroxysms of adulation – weeping joyful tears, falling on their knees, hugging each other, dancing in the streets. The chant of “Obama! Obama!” could be heard from Sweden to Taipei and back again. Kenya declared a public holiday and delegations from Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa (that I am aware of) hurriedly boarded planes to join in the celebrations in the US.
My American friends in Copenhagen (whose children go to the same school as mine) were immediately on the phone inviting us to what sounded like an endless series of parties. To describe their reaction as ‘delighted’ would be to make a gross understatement. It was as if the whole world wanted Barack Obama to win and his election victory was seen as a global victory. “America is no longer the bad guy!” one of my correspondents gushed. Perhaps he had put his finger on why the world has welcomed the election of Barack Obama with such unalloyed hope. The eight years of the Bush presidency, already being described by historians as the worst example of leadership in US history, had shown us the nasty, brutal side of the US.
The list of failings is long, although several issues provide the peaks – Enron, lies which led to the Iraq War, the utter failure of the Iraq occupation, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, illegal rendition, detention without trial, the destruction of Afghanistan coupled with the failure to find Osama Bin Laden, a million or more civilian casualties, the vandalism of some of the earth’s oldest and rarest archaeological relics, the effective muzzling of criticism through anti-terror laws and, finally, the earth-shaking collapse of the global financial system. This would have been a disastrous record for any administration in any country even if that country did not exercise the kind of power and influence that the US does. This was indeed a terrifying period for the world as we waited for the next catastrophe to be launched by the Bush administration. It was also frightening to see the US, once the champion of freedom and justice, morph into a tyrannical police state lashing out indiscriminately at its shadowy enemies around the world.
Now the world can heave a huge sigh of relief and I believe it was this global sigh that took on the form of the outpouring of rapture that greeted Obama’s victory. Another reason for the adulation of Obama could be because he is, visually at least, black, although in reality he is what is now being termed ‘double’ i.e. both white and black. We are all aware that the US, despite its much-vaunted claims of ‘be equal under the flag’ has always treated its black minority, on whose backs it had traditionally built is wealth, as inferior people. Racism, especially against African-Americans, is still very much part of the US social, and economic landscape.
Electing someone regarded as black into the highest office of the land therefore is seen as the act of a nation that has finally come to terms with the reality of its composition and, in that sense, grown into maturity. Indeed the whole package, including his race, that Obama put before the US electorate, screamed out ‘change’ both in the everyday and more profoundly, in the symbolic shift of paradigms that has just occurred.
Man of the moment
But this overflowing ovation is disquieting. We seem to be projecting our own wishes and aspirations on Obama and expecting him to somehow miraculously become and do all we desire. Some are already calling him the ‘messiah’. Many are forgetting that he is the president of the US, not the world, and the concerns of his nation and his people must, rightly, come before those of other nations.
I ran into Obama in a Chicago bookshop some two and a bit years ago when there was no hint whatever that he might one day become President of the US. We chatted for a while and I was struck by two things: one was his intense focus on me and what I said; the second, the utter conviction he inspired in me for what he said. I don’t recall what he said but I believed it wholeheartedly and I went away from the bookshop feeling, unaccountably, much better than when I went in.
Perhaps he had rekindled my faith in people’s goodness, perhaps, by giving me his full attention, he had made me feel I mattered. I don’t know. What I do know is that I felt strengthened and had more confidence in the future. That is why, when he finally announced his candidature, I believed, against all the evidence of the time, that perhaps this was the man the world had been looking for.