Some thoughts on President Obama

The unprecedented dominance of the airwaves and column inches (what’s the web equivalent?) by the new US President-Elect over the last few months has led some people to complain of Obama-fatigue. Nonetheless, here are some points which I think have stood out.

1. I wrote about the dumbing down of US politics recently, but it’s been great to see that Obama’s cerebral style has been welcomed rather than scorned, especially since September. Once the financial crisis took off and people grew increasingly concerned about jobs, mortgages and pensions, they were far more comfortable with Obama than McCain’s rather more gung-ho and instinctive approach. Plenty of Obama voters obviously preferred Bush in 2004, given the swing, but the Iraq war or the war on terror, the main issues in 2004, were perhaps harder to relate to than voters’ own financial well-being. And when the latter was at stake, clever trumped cowboy. That’s somewhat comforting. A successful Obama presidency would hopefully convince more people that cerebral is best across the board.

UPDATE: Good column on this same issue on the New York Times website.

2. Obama’s ability to learn on the job and skilfully respond to criticism has been impressive. His response to the two prevailing criticisms – that he lacked experience and that he couldn’t back fantastic oratory with real substance – was to: 1) study all major portfolios in such depth that he could rival old hands like McCain and Hillary Clinton on the finer details of policy; and 2) choose in Joe Biden a running mate that could make up for this perceived Achilles heal.

3. At a time when Americans are feeling vulnerable about their economic plight, are more eager to reach out to the world, and are waking up to the threat of climate change (there’s been a shift – thanks Al Gore – drill baby drill was perverse), Obama represents a case of right place and right time. Americans are feeling less confident than they have for decades, and the message of each man to himself espoused by the Republicans can’t work as well at a time when the American Dream seems a little more distant to most and government help suddenly doesn’t look so bad. People want to feel safe and cared for, and Obama is deemed the better man for that role, due in equal measure to his personal biography and platform. We should not forget that McCain’s story is pretty inspirational too, but it represents the brasher, more confident America which many citizens have rejected for now.

4. How must Al-Qaeda be feeling right now? Or Ahmedinijad? I suspect they’re really annoyed. Their number one recruitment officer is coming to the end of his term and Americans have chosen to replace him with someone called Hussein. It’ll be a lot harder to denounce the great Satan now.

5. What was the McCain campaign thinking? Easy to say in hindsight perhaps, but his selling points were experience and being a moderate Republican. He surrendered both by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. And when he ran into trouble, his campaign went dirty, which given that Obama was running on a platform of hope and positive change was always going to backfire. He’s tarnished his legacy. A shame really.

6. Much has been said of how the Obama campaign mastered the web. The fact that three million people donated online, helping to make his campaign the best funded of all time, meant that money was no object. Having an endless supply of cash was obviously pretty handy, but what’s perhaps even more salient is that the Obama campaign was funded by citizens. Parties, corporations and corporate interest groups are usually candidates’ main donors, and these will at some point expect payback in some shape or form. How will citizens expect payback from Obama? By fulfilling his campaign promises. This is of course no guarantee that he can or will, but it’s a good starting point.

What’s been most revolutionary has been the campaign’s ability to use the web to not just inform people, but to mobilise them. Building up massive followings on various public social networking platforms has kept people informed and excited, and enabled them to easily spread information and urge their friends and acquaintances to join the conversation or register to vote and so on – the viral effect at play. Even more important was, which became an offline facilitator for people wanting to help in some way – make calls, arrange meets, knock on doors, put up placards and so on. It’s somewhat ironic, but the ability to mobilise people offline was arguably the most important element of Obama’s online campaign: sort of a return to a bygone age when citizens would congregate to debate, organise, and delegate in support of their preferred candidate. The web has shown itself to be the enabler and integrator that has resurrected this phenomenon. So much for people being politically apathetic – it was a question of time or the means (and let’s not forget: an inspirational candidate).

6. A bit of a tangent, but Obama’s success made me think of Italy’s political plight. After eight years of George Bush, Americans conveyed their disapproval by ditching his party and embracing a candidate whose policies, biography and style could not be more different. Democracy at play. In Italy, five years of ecomomic decline, gaffes, and a whole lot of time spent keeping himself out of legal trouble did not prevent Silvio Berlusconi from being re-elected earlier this year for a third time.

Now that I’ve put my impartial hat back on, another thought is the use of history in creating a political narrative that people can relate to or feel pride in. What really struck me was how Obama’s message of hope and change in his speeches is often relayed in connection with elements of US heritage, from the founding fathers, to the pioneers who ventured west, to Martin Luther King and so on.

Why do Italian politicians never evoke memories of our past and eloquently mould these into soundbites that inspire and encourage? It’s not as if there’s no material. What about evoking the spirit of Renaissance Florence: the small city-state which was a bastion of progressivism while the rest of Europe was just about emerging from the Dark Ages, producing philosophical movements, artists and writers that still define Western civilisation as we know it? Or the heroic tale of a mad adventurer, Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose thousand men beat the odds to conquer the Kingdom of the two Sicilies and help unify Italy? Or of how the country, ravaged by Fascism and the war, impoverished and agrarian, picked itself up by its bootstraps and underwent a true economic miracle in little more than two decades?

Sure, Florence and Garibaldi were a long time ago, and the economic miracle was arguably the result of the Marshall Plan and some very dubious machinations by the Christian-Democrats, but so what? It’s not the details but the notion of legacy that matters, however vague: instilling a sense of belonging and pride; that we should aim high, be brave, work hard, and aspire to be brilliant and humble in equal measure, because we owe it to those who came before us. Who knows. Someone might do it once Berlusconi is out of the picture. Around about 2018 then!


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