Friday, May 30, 2008

Barack Obama and American exceptionalism

Back in December 2007, when Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination still looked like a very long shot, my friends Jerry Karabel and Andy Markovits wrote a piece for the Huffington Post making an argument in support of his candidacy ("Restoring Respect for America"). Right now I just want to highlight one interesting point about comparative politics in their discussion:
Obama's multi-cultural background is well-known: Kenyan father, Kansan mother, multi-racial Hawaiian upbringing, and four formative years in Indonesia. Less well-known is the fact that while some economically advanced Western countries have elected a woman as prime minister or president, not one has ever elected a non-white to the nation's highest office. For many people in the developing world, the image of a black man--and one with Hussein as his middle name--in the White House would be electrifying.
The qualification "economically advanced" was presumably meant to exclude countries like Mexico, where the full-blooded Indian Benito Juárez was (remarkably) President for several terms between 1858 and 1872, as well as some other Latin American countries since then. But as far as I know, nothing like this has happened yet in Europe or Canada. So in that sense they're right--if Obama becomes President, he will be the first non-white elected as head of government or head of state in any rich western society.

Obama's not quite in the White House yet, of course. But just the fact that someone with Obama's background could emerge as a major candidate, and probably the candidate with the best shot at becoming President in this year's general election, is already a historic milestone--and a cause for great satisfaction, whichever candidate you support.

=> That same month another friend of mine, the British journalist and author Adam LeBor, spoke in a similar vein while explaining why he thought a President Barack Obama would be good for the US and good for the world ("Why I'm Betting on Barack"):
I'm not usually a gambling man. I'm hopeless at poker because I can't keep the smirk off my face when I get a good hand. (Which makes me a popular player.) My horses are usually running on the wrong courses.

But if I'm useless at gambling I do think, or at least hope, I know something about politics. So I've had a punt on Barack Obama to win the US presidential election. Enough for a decent dinner for two. Yup, Barack. A candidate without much experience, whose surname rhymes with the first name of America's enemy number one, who may even be a Muslim at least according to Islamic law, and who is not even 50 yet. (in fact he was born just one day before me).

Why? The main reason is because what many people in Europe, especially our friends on the hysterical anti-American left, just don't get, is that for Americans, America is not just a country, but is an ideal, a dream if you like. There is no greater example among the presidential candidates of the American dream than Barack Obama. I won't start recounting his biography here, but I do think his life story has resonance beyond the east and west coast liberals and can also appeal to middle America as well. [....]
Looks like a good bet so far (some caveats notwithstanding).

=> Of course, not everyone feels this way. As Andy and I pointed out in our Huffington Post piece on Wednesday ("Obama and the Progressives: A Curious Paradox"):
Obama is popular around the world, but it's no accident that he drives some hard-core anti-Americans up the wall. For example, the Australian/British journalist John Pilger dismissed Obama as "a glossy Uncle Tom" who believes, along with Clinton and McCain, that "the US is not subject to the rules of human behaviour, because it is 'a city upon a hill'"--whereas in reality it is just "a monstrous bully.")
Can't please everyone, I guess.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub