Friday, January 23, 2009

Watching Barack's Back

Photo courtesy US Government

There’s an old saying in politics, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Barack Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is either genius or suicide. Let’s hope it’s the former. Only time and the crumbling of the economic cookie will tell. Clinton makes no secret of her disdain for her former presidential rival, clearly feeling that some gross error has been made. She makes no attempt to conceal her intention to challenge him for the leadership in 2012. Obama assumes the worst economy since Roosevelt inherited The Great Depression from Hoover, with an as yet indeterminate potential. His oratorical gifts won’t help him much if shanty towns start springing up in Central Park. The temptation to call them Baracks would just be too great. But hey, how bad can it be if America's still standing after eight years of Bush?

At the moment it feels like a brand new world out there. I’m experiencing the same feeling of elation and reprieve I had after that other mad, trigger-fingered fucker Reagan finally left the White House. It’s as if we’ve all exited from a bunker blinking, and realising we haven’t been blown up, are all hugging each other and yelling, ‘we’re alive, we’re alive’. In some ways Obama has the easiest job in the world. All he has to do is be the opposite of Bush, i.e. stop digging and make some sense. His inauguration speech goes some way towards putting the coherency back into politics. Here’s someone with the confidence to articulate whole sentences instead of stumbling through a couple of biggish words and then nodding wildly like the combination actually means something. Obama’s speech was simple and sober and called for Americans to exercise a little more commonality and a lot more humanity. How difficult that is depends on just how badly the Bush years have damaged the American psyche and I wouldn’t even like to take a guess at that.

It’s been very interesting to observe the first black president phenomenon. Some pundits are clearly having a distasteful Mogambo moment, swooning over his elegance and infusing him with a dangerously stereotypical virility. The most vehement proclamations of how far we’ve come seem too often to demonstrate precisely the opposite. We can’t have come very far if a black leader of the world’s most prominent democracy is such a novelty commentators find it near incredulous. Clearly a remarkable change has taken place but more because Obama’s election has enfranchised a substantial cohort of black Americans who never felt represented and that will have far greater historical consequences because it has permanently altered the electoral landscape. I read one report claiming only four out of ten white Americans voted for him. If that’s true, he’s not only got an awful lot of black and Hispanic voters to keep happy, he may be the first in a line of black presidents. Now that would be progress.

A few commentators niggled about Obama’s failure to credit the two white women who brought him up, preferring to cite the black father who deserted him as his inspiration. You have to feel for the guy trying to negotiate this emotional tightrope. I have been told by friends of mixed race backgrounds that a mixed race child will most likely identify as black, even if they have been raised in a totally white environment. Barack Obama looks like a black man, married a black woman, has black children and has clearly lived a black man’s life. It would be grossly unfair, not to mention racist, to expect elastic ethnicity from him. His moment in history arrived precisely because America wanted to elect a black man. That he is obviously so comfortable with his identity was one of the factors that made him so electable. Again, he is the opposite of Bush who always looked as sheepish a twelve-year-old who’d just snuck into an ‘R’ rated movie when carrying out his presidential duties.

Clearly, America wants to change for the better, even to heal. Most citizens don’t want to be the world’s bully. The rot may have stopped but at some point in the very near future, all of this is going to need careful unpacking. Yes it’s brilliant that a country with such a firmly entrenched culture of racism chose to elect a black man to lead it but it doesn’t mean an end to racism and may not even mean the beginning of the end because you can bet it wasn’t the racists who put him there. And it’s great that America gets a much-needed boost to its self-esteem but it won’t be too healthy if Obama’s presidency turns out to be merely a symbolic totem and one magnificent excuse not to do the work of eliminating inequality. When Nelson Mandela became leader a South African friend gleefully offered me the rhetorical, ‘isn’t he the coolest president, ever?’ She was correct, in a certain context, and Mandela’s presidency of South Africa was enormously important but unfortunately in a much more limited way than its potential deserved.

The question remains, just how good does Barack Obama have to be? The bar is set low and, metaphorically at least, the only way is up. He’s already ticked the most important box going by being the furthest from a Bush it’s possible to imagine. Americans should be very afraid of political monopolies. Incredibly, the world’s most famous democracy is almost as serially plagued by dynasties as the world’s biggest. In my lifetime alone there’s been a Bushburger and very nearly a Clinton focaccia, not to mention the perpetual possibility of a stack of Kennedy pancakes. They now have what they’ve needed and craved, a man from outside the established political class with no special affiliations or apparent agenda other than to make things right again.

And yes, of course it’s right to invest hope in this man. The election of a black president carries unavoidable symbolic weight which is both a strength and a weakness. Barack Obama is the beneficiary of unprecedented global goodwill but also the recipient of the biggest bag of expectations since Atlas. It’s a form of racism to impose different expectations on someone because of their ethnicity, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. America needs to keep this honeymoon short and be very careful not to undermine its president by casting him as the leading man in its saviour fantasies instead of the head of its government. It has real work to do on itself to alter the habits that have brought it so low. Is there a structure there for all these yes we can-doers to get in and start fixing? Let’s hope so. The last thing America needs is to settle in for a good long nap on its clever little laurels. And I’m coming down on the side of genius re Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State. There’s another old saying in politics, ‘give your most dangerous rival the toughest job’ and it won't do him any harm to have her gnawing away in the background reminding him that it's all still politics. Good luck with Iraq Hillary…