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Home > India > News > Columnists > C Uday Bhaskar

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Obama and hope: Some personal observations

January 19, 2009

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On January 20 Barack Hussein Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States of America and history will be made in more ways than one. The White House will receive its first black occupant and hopefully the tectonic symbolism of this event will redress some of the extreme racial discrimination that the blacks as a community have experienced in the US for over two centuries.

For the world at large that will be closely following the January 20 extravaganza, this will be the first time that a man with the middle name Hussein becomes US president. This is yet another tectonic shift -- for was it not another Hussein -- a former president at that -- whose first name was Saddam who had become the centre of US wrath post 9-11?

Very soon the US and the world will get to know more about President Barack Obama [Images] -- the middle name has already been dropped in the public domain -- and our personal assessment of the man who is now synonymous with hope and the 'yes, we can' spirit can be gleaned through his eloquent writings, his many electrifying speeches in the run-up to White House victory -- and the mesmerising effect the man has had on those who have come into direct contact with him.

But let me change gears and recall some of my conversations with average Americans in the summer of 2008 when I was in the US on an extended visit that took me from one coast to the other. First -- sitting on an outdoor deck on Anamohr Drive, Fairfax, Virginia, and avidly discussing the chances of Obama winning the Democratic nomination with a group of Americans -- of different ethnicity and age. As the evening grew longer and the number of empty beer bottles increased, the emerging trend lines in the discussion became clearer through my cigar smoke. I had put my head on the block and said that the US in the main was not yet ready for a black President -- that it was too radical and that at best... maybe yes, a woman this time -- and a person of colour the next time.

The views that emerged were that while the older members of our group including the white Americans agreed with me in an elliptical manner -- the younger lot across the board beginning with an 18 year old were convinced that Obama would make it -- not just the Democratic nomination -- but all the way to the White House.

Cut to one of the most sought-after and prized residential locations in the US -- Carmel on the Pacific Coast that had elected Clint Eastwood [Images] as mayor at one time. Again, late into the night on the picturesque beach the discussion veered around towards Obama over single malts. Here the cleavages were more political and the Republican view that disparaged the Democrats was on robust display. I left the US in late June with mixed feelings about Obama's chances though my sister -- an Obama volunteer -- and nephew seemed to have no doubt about who would finally win.

I must admit that my misgivings were unfounded and here we are -- about to usher in a historic event at the White House on January 20 when Obama takes oath as the US president and becomes the most powerful man on earth -- as the commander-in-chief of the world's most credible and lethal military as the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghanis and now some Pakistanis have learnt over the decades since 1945.

What will Obama bring to the US and global table?

The visionary Obama is discernible in his campaign book The Audacity of Hope, where he outlines a tantalising prospect -- 'Our challenge, then, is to make sure that US policies move the international system in the direction of greater equity, justice and prosperity -- that the rules we promote serve both our interests and the interests of a struggling world.' This is unexceptionable and to be applauded -- as similar sentiments were in the past, when for instance John F Kennedy had articulated them.

But when the campaigner becomes the high official that the US president is -- policy compulsions related to the national interest begin to temper idealistic vision and cynical realpolitik enters the picture. Again the Obama book gives us a glimpse. Towards the end of his thoughts on reclaiming the elusive American dream, prospective candidate Obama ponders over 'compromise' in the political arena. Which politician who was later recalled as a statesman did not take that road -- the one of balancing values with interests? None perhaps.

Here the Obama formulation is fraught with many possibilities. Obama uses the word 'satisfaction' -- alluding to a conversation with an older friend who was active in the civil rights effort in Chicago in the 1960s but chose not to enter politics because he (the older man) knew that he would have to make compromises that he knew he would not find satisfying. Obama then adds: 'What satisfies me now, I think -- (is) being useful to my family and the people who elected me, leaving behind a legacy that will make our children's lives more hopeful than our own.'

One cannot help but note the leitmotif of 'hope' again and again in the Obama vision. While America waits with bated breath not to be disappointed -- and is fervently wishing their next president all the sagacity and luck so that he can deliver on the hope he has so alluringly generated -- the rest of the world has its own wish-list for the Obama watch. Let me add my wish-list:

Regarding South Asia, candidate Obama once noted: '...Make no mistake: we can't succeed in Afghanistan or secure our homeland unless we change our Pakistan policy. We must expect more of the Pakistani government, but we must offer more than a blank check to a general who has lost the confidence of his people. It's time to strengthen stability by standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people.'

This is the first time that a US president-elect has spoken about the people of Pakistan in such a committed manner, for the focus of earlier White House incumbents was the Pakistani Army. And if 'satisfaction' is the lodestar for the Obama presidency, then apropos Pakistan, forget the A Q Khans and the nuclear Wal-Mart. As priorities go, if the new White House can prevent girls schools from being closed down and burnt by the neo-Taliban and their ilk, life will be more 'hopeful' for a whole generation in Pakistan-Afghanistan that is already paying a heavy gender price.

If this one objective is realised, or the foundation laid towards that end -- then history would be truly embellished post-Obama.

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