As someone who has been a keen observer of politics all my life, it is easy to become cynical at times. After all, I have seen in this country and others government after government, politician after politician, come into power on promises that they would create a more just and equitable society, and end up serving the interests of only the rich and powerful. It is easy to conclude that democracy has failed its promise and that the whole exercise is a waste of time.
But sometimes, very rarely, something happens that restores my sense of hope and inspires me to dream big again, to think that despite detours we are on the right road, that peace and equality and justice for all, everywhere in the world, may not be an impossible dream after all.
I have seen two things that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. The first was the peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa. I thought that would never happen, let alone the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and his subsequent election as President of that country. I never in my wildest dreams thought that the Afrikaaners who ruled that country with a vicious grip would give up power without a bloody revolution.
The second impossible thing has now come to pass. A black man has been elected as president of the US. And even more improbably, someone with a strange, Muslim-sounding name and a foreign father, just seven years after the attack on the World Trade Center created a virulent strain of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.
And yet, here we are today, with Barack Hussein Obama poised to become the 44th president of the United States.
As I have said many times, I am not expecting too much from Barack Obama. He seems by nature to be a cautious, thoughtful, centrist, which makes all the allegations during the campaign that he was some kind of secret Islamic-Marxist-terrorist-Nazi all the more laughable. He does not strike me as having a radical agenda for change.
But my expectation of caution is not entirely due to his personality and temperament. People like him face the crushing burden of being a ‘first’ (the first minority or woman) to occupy a position, any position, previously only held by white men. Such people are hesitant to take risks because they have very little room for error. If they mess up, it will be portrayed by many as due to the inability of the entire group that they are taken to represent. George Bush is easily the worst president in US history, a colossal failure by any standards, but that is not taken as evidence of the incapacity of white males to do the job. But let Obama be even a modest failure, and he will set back the cause of black people for several generations. He knows this as well as any other minority or woman who breaks through a barrier, and this will make him hesitant to take bold steps.
What may yet make him a great transformational leader despite these constraints is not his own inclinations but the fact that he is inheriting a country and a world that is in a serious mess, driven into the ditch by the most incompetent American president in history. Obama’s essential pragmatism, exceptional organizational skills, and ability to select and keep competent people to be around him (well exemplified by the smooth professionalism of his campaign) may result in him being forced to take radical steps simply to solve the deep problems he inherits, especially those of two unwinnable wars, and a hollowed out economy that is incapable of supporting the imperial ambitions of its current leadership
In that he may be like Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected in 1932 just after the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and at the beginning of the Great Depression. He was by no means a radical either but set in motion sweeping changes largely because he had to, and he had the persuasive skills to convince people that these were things that absolutely had to be done.
Obama faces similar challenges. He also has impressive persuasive and inspirational skills, similar to Roosevelt. But will he rise to the challenge as Roosevelt did? Or will his cautious nature allow him to be swayed by all those political insiders who will try and immediately surround him and persuade him to continue roughly along the same road that we have been going on, tinkering only at the edges?
I hope that Obama will either seize the moment, or be seized by it, to rise to greatness.
But that question will be answered in the future.
Today, I just want to savor the moment.
POST SCRIPT: Ashali
On Monday night my daughter Ashali attended a Joe Biden rally in Philadelphia and ended up on the stage behind Biden. The event was broadcast on CNN and a video clip ended up on YouTube. You can see her below the letters ‘BA’ in Barack.