Thursday, January 03, 2008

I'm an Obamanite, I think.

I have a confession to make. Silently, by stealth, almost unconsciously, I seem to have become an Obamanite. I just can’t help wanting Barack Obama to win the American Presidential elections. This is all the more curious because I hadn’t really been taking a great interest in the US presidential primaries, which come to a dramatic climax this week in Texas and Ohio. And what I knew about the youthful Democratic contender didn’t inspire me.

His slogan “Change you can Believe in” struck me as one of the worst political mission statements since Labour’s “Forward not Backwards” at the 2005 UK elections. “Change you can Xerox” as Hillary Clinton put it in one of her more elegant put-downs, after Obama had been exposed for plagiarising speeches. His waffling about the “audacity of hope” seemed like the same old vacuous flim flam.

Much of what Obama has put on the table since Iowa at the start of January, is fairly predictable when it isn’t actually platitudinous - apart from his alarming penchant for economic protectionism, and his refusal to go all out for universal health care in a country where 40% of the population lack proper cover. He is opposed to the war in Iraq, which is good, but he once said he might bomb Pakistan, which isn’t. And he’s not entirely clear on when he would pull out of Baghdad.

Obama also has a rather messianic approach to politics. He speaks with the hypnotic cadences of Martin Luther King; remains a long-time member of a rather dodgy church - the Trinity United Church, with creationist and black nationalist tendencies; and tends to inspire a kind of wide eyed devotion from his followers that isn’t conducive to rational debate. Finally, I found it hard to warm to a politician who is being described as the Democrat’s answer to Ronald Reagan.

So, plenty of reasons not to fall under the spell of Obama - but I think I have, nevertheless. Perhaps it’s a function of advancing years, or just too much exposure to Obama’s speeches and interviews on Youtube. But after a week immersed in the warm bath of Obama’s personality, I can only say that I that if I were an American I would vote for him. I simply couldn’t see any reason not to.

Yes, I know it is personality politics, but that’s the only game in town, and he has a personality which is bigger than the state of Texas. He is a remarkable communicator. I can understand the comparison with Ronald Reagan now, and I no longer find it offensive, because Obama’s ability to convey solidity, humility and warmth is wedded to impeccably liberal principles. Yes, he may turn out to be a black Tony Blair - but I supported him as well.

And Obama is much more radical than Blair - something the American Right has only recently fully appreciated. On the climate, for Obama - if he goes the distance - will be the greenest president in American history. He has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and wants to turn America into a powerhouse of renewable energy. Unlike his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is not an oil man, and sees America’s reliance on foreign oil as economically, environmentally and strategically damaging.

Obama has fudged the timetable for the withdrawal from Iraq, largely because of the tactical success of the Bush ‘surge’ in Baghdad. But there is no doubt in my mind that he intends to pull out completely, and that he will not be invading any other countries. With Barack Obama American has an opportunity to atone, and to return to the internationalist principles of Woodrow Wilson. If America elects a black president, who was partly raised in a Muslim country and has the middle name of “Hussein” it will be a potent message to the world. There will be a clean out of the security services and the removal of the neo-conservative networks who have done so much to distort and debase US foreign policy. The project for a new American century will be a thing of the past.

Obama has also promised to halt the development of any new nuclear weapons and is committed to reviving international disarmament. He might be the man to shake Gordon Brown out of his nuclear torpor, and generate some serious momentum towards dismantling weapons of mass destruction. Obama may ultimately be captured, like his predecessor Bill Clinton, by the military industrial complex - but it’s a chance worth taking.

He may also be captured by the Wall St banks who have dominated American economic decision making for the last three decades. However, with America plunging into recession, repossession and bank failures imminent, there is a space here for a radical politician. If America is headed for depression who better to revisit the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Sadly, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s faltering Democratic adversary, is too compromised by her initial support for the invasion of Iraq, and also for her years in as a linchpin of the US political establishment. It is tragic for her that she has come so near to becoming the first woman president, just as the first black president hove into view. But in this contest of minorities colour wins.

This is partly down to Obama’s secret weapon - his wife Michelle. She is a campaign manager’s dream: a highly intelligent, highly attractive political. partner, with a real sense of style, but without any sense of social inferiority. She is a black Jackie Kennedy without a doubt. She would be a ideal post-feminist First Lady, who doesn’t need to make an issue of her sex because she is so manifestly her own woman.

The Republican blogs seized on her comment during the primaries that “For the first time in my adult life I feel really proud of my country”, but that is exactly what the white majority should want a prospective black president’s wife to say. There has been a lot of talk about how Mr Obama could unite America and finally put an end to the politics of racial difference. That is too much to expect. But Mrs Obama really could be the beginning of the end for the gnawing sense of racial grievance among American blacks. A role model who isn’t a gangster, singer or athlete.

Of course, as a hack, I am attracted to the Obama ticket because a black president would be such a good story. Imagine Obama walking to the podium at the United Nations and apologising for America’s belligerent behaviour in the Middle East. Imagine him with joining hands with Nelson Mandela and announcing a quadrupling of US aid to Africa. Standing among the Palestinian masses in Gaza, and looking just like them. Sitting down open necked with President Ahmdinejad in Iran, to talk about nuclear non-proliferation.

Yes, of course it’s a dream - a realisation of fantasy West Wing politics. But it’s a bloody good one. And there will be time enough for disillusion.

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