EDITION: August - October '09


Jerry Brownstein

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama be-came the 44th president of the United States riding a spectacular wave of hope and optimism that is elegantly expressed by his signature phrase: Yes We Can! So who is this man, and can he deliver on the great promise of his potential?

Contrary to popular belief Obama was not born in a manger and has never walked on water. He is the son of a white mother and an African father who met and married in University, but then split up when the father had to return to Africa. His Mom was an anthropologist so she and young Barack traveled around the world for her work giving him the valuable experience of living in other cultures. He eventually graduated from a top university and was offered lucrative jobs in business, but he chose instead to work with the poor people of Chicago to help them fight for fairness. After several years of this community organizing work he went on to Law School where he excelled and became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He then returned to Chicago and developed the skills which fueled his meteoric rise in politics.

At this point let me make one thing abundantly clear: The election of a black man as President of the United States in 2008 was perhaps the most astounding event in the 230 year history of that country. Just forty years ago blacks were still struggling to get equal rights in America and in most parts of the South they were second class citizens who were given no protection by the law. This has gradually changed over the years, but racism is still very much alive in America. So how did Obama pull off this Miracle?

Part of the answer is that the country was in such a terrible mess after eight years of Bush that people were willing to get over their prejudice and vote for a man who promised hope and a better tomorrow. In an America dominated by materialism, greed and abuse of power this lone black man stood up and asked a simple question: Have you had enough? His speeches were so moving that people began to feel that 30 years of backward thinking could be reversed if we all pulled together to create a better world based on fairness and justice. To those who said this was impossible he calmly said, “Yes we can”. When told that the entrenched power structures would not allow change he said, “Yes we can” – And as this prophet of hope gradually became known to more and more people the chants of “Yes we can” grew louder and stronger as they echoed through the town halls, village greens and football stadiums of this vast country. A star was born and hope was suddenly hip. He swept to victory in the general election and most Americans were euphoric (though not all as he received only 45% of the white votes). Getting elected had been a huge mountain to climb, but it was nothing compared to the giant mess that he would have to clean up once he took office.

For much of its history America has been a beacon of freedom, but from 1980 to 2008, that image was so thoroughly dishonored that the U.S. came to be seen as an arrogant bully dominated by small-minded partisans. In economic terms the U.S.A. used to be the richest and most stable country in the world and was also the largest creditor nation. After thirty years of mismanagement it is now the world’s largest debtor and the very symbol of the rampant consumption and greed that has brought on the current economic crisis.

This is a very large ship of state that has been going in the wrong direction for quite some time so turning it around will take time, patience and extraordinary leadership. Obama’s most progressive supporters expect him to change everything overnight, but he is wise enough to know that this would only lead to a dangerous backlash. To achieve positive change that will actually last he must first change the TONE of the country; to remind Americans that greatness does not arise from military or economic power, but from the ideals and freedoms upon which the country was founded.

In his first six months Obama has embarked on this change of direction with determination and focus. The disgraceful Bush pol-icies of torture and arbitrary detention have been completely dis-avowed and Obama has opened up the channels of communication with all nations including trouble spots like Iran, Korea and Venezuela. At home he has dealt wisely with the economic debacle that he inherited and has made it clear that fairness and justice will guide all domestic decisions from now on. These are early days and much remains to be done, but rest assured that the United States of America is being led by a man of extraordinary intelligence, courage, grace and style. We see in him a reflection of the best parts of ourselves and he inspires people to believe that “Yes we can” is much more than a slogan… It is the promise of Obama.

Text: Jerry Brownstein