Is the world ready for a 'new' America?
Barack Obama is a symbol of hope not only for America, but the post-9/11 world, writes Mona Makram Ebeid*
As never before, trust in the integrity of American finance is being put to the test. And the question on everyone's mind today is: Just how will the US treasury secretary spend the $700 billion he is begging for?
The September meltdown of much of Wall Street has put an unexpected focus on the US presidential candidates' grasp of the complex world of high finance. There is still a month to go before the US presidential elections and the economy is, to put it mildly, volatile. Will either of the candidates allow further nationalisations if the banking system again comes under threat?
Both candidates offer divergent responses to the credit crunch and differ sharply over free trade. Obama's view is that free trade can advance only once workers no longer feel threatened by it. McCain is an unabashed advocate of free trade. As for improving America's image abroad, and according to most analysts, Obama would clearly do a lot more to revive America's image than McCain ever could. Let us not forget that some 250,000 people turned out to see him in Berlin in July. McCain's earlier visit to Europe went virtually unnoticed.
With elections day fast approaching, I would like to share with you some of the impressions I gathered attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, to which I had been invited.
The US presidential nominating process is one of the few systems in the world that provides for rank and file participation of grassroots supporters who travelled from 50 states to witness a historic moment. In addition, the National Democratic Institute was able to organise a programme called the International Leaders Forum 2008 that allowed 500 international guests to observe the convention proceedings, gain a greater insight into the US political process, and meet with American policy-makers and with each other. People like myself travelled from overseas, enduring long security lines and traffic nightmares to experience a few days of history in the making.
Invitees included current and former heads of state, speakers of parliament, current and former parliamentarians, leaders of political parties, ruling and opposition, as well as ambassadors and democratic activists. A chief goal in the themes that Democrats presented to America and the world at the convention was based on "Renewing America's Promise" -- mainly renewing the American dream as well as highlighting the stark contrasts in the two parties' political visions, and in this they succeeded.
One after another, top dignitaries tried to cement their candidate's message by underlining the issues that Senator Obama focussed on in his campaign: improving education and healthcare, dealing with the deficit, forging a real energy policy based on building a new energy infrastructure, and making America a country most able to innovate, compete and win in the age of globalisation. All of them believed that there is no more important priority than renewing the American dream for a new era, with the same new hope and new ideas that propelled F D Roosevelt towards the New Deal and John F Kennedy to the New Frontier. The time for change has come, they repeatedly said, and America must seize it. American leadership on human rights, they emphasised, was essential to making the world safer, more just and more humane. Such leadership must begin with steps to undo the damage of the Bush years.
The list of historic failures of the present US administration was also enumerated. Careless policies, inept stewardship and the broken politics of this administration have taken their toll, they said, on the US economy, US security and the American reputation. At the same time, they filled McCain's engine with sludge, underlining that the core of John McCain's campaign is to continue the same Bush policies that have led 80 per cent of Americans to conclude they are on the wrong track, from Baghdad to Bear Stearns, referring to the Republican candidate as "another four years of John McSame!"
This, in a nutshell, is what we heard from personalities such as Tim Wirth, CEO of the United Nations Foundation, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, former ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Foundation, Jim Wolfenson of the World Bank, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Alejandro Toledo, former president of Peru, Joshka Fischer, Hernando de Sotos and many others. From our region, we were extremely well represented by two highly respected figures, Sadiq Al-Mahdy from Sudan and Abdul-Karim Al-Eryani from Yemen.
But if the world is to embrace a "new" America, as the title of this piece suggests and asks, and really have "the audacity of hope", to reference the title of Obama's latest book, what is to be done? What is to be expected of the next president?
Here, I would like to quote Madeleine Albright, a key figure of the International Leaders Forum 2008. She says: "The president elect will benefit from a nearly universal desire to see someone new in the White House. On the other hand, he will face a Herculean task in trying to remedy the harm that has been caused to America's wellbeing and good name."
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Albright says: "bystanders do not make history, and peace efforts, even when unsuccessful can nurture hope and save lives... Your task is to inspire people in the region to resume thinking about the possibilities of peace and compare that to the realities they have experienced these past years... The Arab peace initiative, announced by the Saudis in 2002 and re-blessed by the Arab League in 2007, is neither new nor specific, nor particularly forthcoming. It does, however, promise comprehensive Arab support for real peace and normal relations with Israel. As a proposal, the plan... creates ample opportunity for face-to-face Arab-Israeli discussions... Ultimately, violence is a choice, and what people have the power to choose, they have the power to change."
But what about the speakers at the convention itself which we were privileged to attend at the Pepsi Centre? One of the most moving features was the presence of Senator Ted Kennedy who, despite cancer, stepped from hospital to the podium and told the crowd: "This November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. The work begins anew, the hope rises again and the dream lives on." And his voice rang out as he compared Obama with president John F Kennedy while Caroline Kennedy, another Obama supporter, offered a tribute to her uncle when she introduced him to the audience.
The other speaker who triggered "shock and awe" was Hillary Clinton. As recently as six months ago, she was viewed by most in the politics business as the inevitable Democratic nominee and very likely the next president of the United States. Obviously, and God forbid, if Obama loses the general election, she will become the immediate favourite for the 2012 Democratic nomination. On the other hand, she would be well positioned to mount a primary challenge against an incumbent president if President Obama has a rocky four years. So she barnstormed through Denver on the second day of the convention on behalf of former rival Obama. Before she appeared, the atmosphere in the Pepsi Centre was electric with anticipation with at least 20,000 seats filled, including one by Bill Clinton, and thousands of white signs with her signature in blue. She pledged her support to Obama in no uncertain terms and then spoke directly to her backers encouraging them to fight "to put a Democrat in the White House". But despite her moving unity speech, much remains unsettled within the party ranks.
Another speech that enthralled the audience was Michelle Obama appearing on the podium with her two young and lovely daughters. She painted a portrait of herself and her husband as everyday Americans. She was poised and calm, crafting the narrative the campaign will stress on in the weeks ahead. "Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values," she noted. You must work hard for what you want in life, she said. She talked about her childhood, her father, a blue-collar city worker, her mother at home raising her and her brother. In essence, her speech was a counterpoint to black women's tragedies. "I come here as a mom... and one day your sons and daughters will tell their own children what we did in that election." The vision of Michelle, Barack, their two children on the podium, together they symbolise the triumph of the black family despite slavery's centuries-old effort to destroy it, and a generation of black children will grow up with an ideal role model: a black president with a loving, intact family. After she wrapped up her eloquent speech and the applause died down, we were treated to an appearance by Barack via satellite from Kansas City. The couple's seven-year-old daughter, Sasha, stole the show by asking at one point, "Where are you, Daddy?" and answering, "I think she did good," when her father sought an assessment of Michelle's speech.
Another feature to remember was the Ohio congressman who woke us all up with the most spirited speech of that night, condemning the war, the economy and the Republicans, getting the crowd to roar so loudly that he had to yell into the microphone to be heard. It will become known as the "Wake up, America" speech. Millions of Americans, he said, have lost their jobs, trillions of dollars for an unwarranted war paid for with borrowed money (little did he know that the weeks ahead would prove him right), tens of millions of dollars in cash and weapons disappeared into thin air at the cost of the lives of US troops and innocent Iraqis. He also played on the terror alert "colour chart". "Everyday we get the colour orange while the oil companies, the insurance companies, the Wall Street speculators, the war contractors, get the colour green." "So Wake up America", he yelled to approving roars.
As for Bill Clinton, he pulled out his forceful (if not forced) endorsement of Obama charmingly, although everyone knew that he meant not a word of it. In essence, he and Hillary were passing the "party's baton" to someone who was not on the stage until four years ago! Then came Al Gore, who since he lost the election to George W Bush, has reinvented himself as a world spokesman warning about climate change (an issue that Egypt's renowned scientist Mustafa Tolba tackled years ago). He came as a Nobel Prize winning proselytiser, and a great supporter of Obama.
Joe Biden, the vice presidential selection, although a highly respected politician, was all "motherhood and apple pie", underlining tragedy and family in his primetime speech. Fortunately, and to the surprise of all, Obama appeared on the stage with him.
Then came the culmination of the convention with Barack Obama's galvanising speech, perhaps the most important of his political career, accepting the Democratic presidential nomination at Invesco Field, Mile High Stadium, 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Many in the audience had placards with "Yes, we can" reminiscent of his famous speech four years ago.
Obama has thrived in his career by turning campaign stops into emotional experiences. He has thrived also because of big crowds and small donors. At his convention speech, he looked like a star of a rock concert and the crowd responded accordingly. Attendees chanted, danced and shook miniature American flags in unison. His speech hit the kind of emotional high notes that have thrilled his followers. I believe that this success was due to his cleverly setting himself as a breakthrough candidate who was uniquely well placed to "turn the page of history" at a moment when so many voters are frustrated with the Bush administration's record of failures and alarmed at the prospect of American decline. However, we should not forget that his real audience is not the crowd that waited for hours to get into Invesco Field but rather the voters who are trying to take a measure of a still relatively unknown politician seeking to lead the United States at a critical moment in history.
Interestingly, and because women's votes are an essential part of the election, both Obama and McCain are trying to highlight the issues they think will draw more support from women, with Obama emphasising pay equity and abortion rights, to shore up support from women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. In particular, Obama has been trying to attract working class white women, the group that could be especially pivotal in the states likely to decide the election. It is noteworthy that women have voted in greater proportion than men for almost three decades. In 2004, for example, nearly nine million more women voted than men: 67.3 million to 58.5 million.
What was also interesting was to listen to the ordinary people's remarks, impressions and comments. A young student told me about Obama: "He's smart, he talks well and he is classy. I will vote for him." "Classy", "cool", "glamorous" -- all these words have been used to describe him. He definitely has excited the youth, the disenfranchised, the traditionally cynical and apathetic. Another young black woman asked me, "Do you believe a black man is running as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States? Do you believe this is happening?" For young African Americans, the whole convention took on extraordinary meaning. It made them proud of being Americans. "His life story is our life story," another one told me. So, if it did nothing else, the four-day long convention served as a reminder of the historic meaning of Obama's nomination and the astonishing transformation of the country in just three generations. Nonetheless, and not withstanding his remarkable journey, many also had a hard time believing that a black man has a chance of becoming president. "We were always made to believe that the White House was made for white people," said another.
There is no escaping Barack Obama's racial identity and surveys cannot measure white apprehension over having a black man at the head of government. And yet, here we are witnessing what appears to be a quantum leap in the often slow and plodding story of racial progress in America.
Before concluding, I would like to add something about Denver, the friendliness of the city, its beauty and the majesty of its outlying Rocky Mountains, "the best underrated city in the country" in the words of Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado, who hosted us in his magnificent 100- year-old mansion. He wants his state to become a hub for research, manufacturing and production of alternative energy, a global leader in renewable energy.
To conclude, the convention, as much as I enjoyed being there, was more about a sensation -- euphoria -- than a speech tackling the country's actual problems that meet with inattention because they pose disagreeable choices in this intensely polarised election atmosphere.
Viewed from our region, the promise of a new administration signals an opportunity to fix what is wrong and build on what is right. The US presidential elections are watched with passion around the world not because of America's power but because of its emotional centrality. And though there is worldwide criticism of Washington's policies, the core values of the United States are highly respected and will allow it to turn around the dramatic decline in its global standing. The rest of the world would certainly embrace a less fearful and more open post-9/11 America. Choosing Barack Obama, a symbol of hope, would do more to restore the image of the United States in the world than anything else. A rejection of the promise he represents would be a symptom of that nation's historical decline.
* The writer is a former member of parliament and distinguished lecturer in political science at The American University in Cairo.