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Obama’s State of Disunion – Missing the Point

January 29, 2014

Barack Obama’s State of the Union address seems mainly to have garnered one-handed applause.

Not since Richard Nixon has a US president managed to attract hatred in certain quarters of US society so virulent that his detractors would sooner eat rat poison than admit any virtue on the part of their leader. I have one or two American friends who – though in other respects quite rational people – succumb to a loathing beyond reason when it comes to Obama. Their bilious outpourings are usually peppered with words like Obamacare, socialism and tax. You are unlikely to get anyone to admit that the fundamental source of their animus is the colour of his skin – except perhaps a few denizens of the Louisiana swamps.

The President is not without his supporters – hardly surprising given his electoral success of just over a year ago. As an example, here’s a fairly sympathetic piece about him in the New Yorker. But by and large his detractors seem to have the loudest voices.

Here’s what I think about the man. As a Brit, I’m removed from America’s domestic angst of the past six years, so perhaps that allows me to be a little more objective and less emotional than the partisan opinion lining up to blame Obama for all the ills that have befallen the country during (and before) his presidency. I may be removed, but I am involved, like everyone else whose life is to a greater or lesser extent affected by the decision makers in Washington DC. And since I have a financial stake in the US economy through a company that I co-own, I watch the politics quite closely

I think that Barack Obama is an intelligent, decent human being who has done a fair job in difficult circumstances. He has his weaknesses, as have most presidents, but he has done OK. He will not go down as the greatest president in his country’s history, but surely not as the worst. I leave it to others to judge him on the details, but looking from afar I see no sign of catastrophic failure on his part.

For me his most significant achievement has been just getting there. And having got there, achieving enough to make it possible for politicians other than white males to get there in the future. And “there” does not just mean America. I don’t think that the average American realises what an impact the election of a black person had on the rest of the world. And it’s not just because he’s black.

Think for a moment. Has there ever been a black Prime Minster of Great Britain or France. Has there been a German Chancellor of Turkish origin, or an aborigine Prime Minister of Australia? An Uigur leader in China, a Chinese leader in Malaysia? Or, to go to the ultimate extreme, a Palestinian Prime Minister of Israel?

Even today, in multi-racial Britain, it is almost inconceivable that a politician of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin will end up in the top job in the foreseeable future. Yes, we have plenty of politicians who come from ethnic minorities. But none of them have come close to leading any of the major political parties.

Perhaps America would seem to be ahead of the UK in this regard it’s been a country with a significant racial minority for far longer. In fact it was multiracial from the beginning, even if the minority was largely enslaved until 1864, whereas Britain’s minorities largely arrived after 1945, a mere 70-odd years ago. So we have had less time for our minorities to embed themselves into our society than the USA. Likewise for most of the European nation states.

At home, there is undoubtedly racist sentiment that will never accept a black president no matter what he achieves. Just as there are people that would never vote for a female president, even if Hillary Clinton runs in 2016. But Obama is the breakthrough act. He has paved the way for women, Latinos, ethnic Asians and native Americans to go all the way. As a measure of his achievement, consider the fact that there has never been a Jewish president, despite Jewish Americans having over the past century wielded far more power and influence than black Americans. And it’s only just over 50 years since America elected its first Catholic President – John F Kennedy.

The achievement is not just Obama’s. He would have got nowhere had a majority of the US electorate not in 2008 showed the maturity to judge him on his apparent merits rather than on the colour of his skin. It’s also a sign of national maturity that in 2012, by and large, he was judged by a majority in 2012 on his performance. Yes, there’s an aging population of white conservatives who  feel increasingly marginalised by the plethora of minorities that are able to outvote them en bloc. Undoubtedly they see Obama as a symbol of that reduction in tribal power. But their vote was not enough to shut him out, even if their representatives in Congress have been more successful in stymying much of the legislation he has tried to introduce.

So if all goes well over the next three years, Americans will be able to look back on a truly ground-breaking presidency. They may not like Obama’s legacy, though there’s still time for him to change the minds of many detractors. But they can content themselves in the knowledge that by electing him they have shown the way to supposedly liberal democracies in other countries that are too timid to take colour-blind and gender-blind decisions when selecting their leaders.

The next step for America is probably to elect a woman president. If that person is not Hillary Clinton, it’s hard to see anyone of similar stature emerging over the next decade or so. And America should remember that since Margaret Thatcher’s departure there has been no serious female contender for the highest office in Great Britain.

Even if their political beliefs were poles apart, there’s parallel between Thatcher and Obama in that the electorates seemed almost surprised to have found themselves with a female prime minister and a black president. In Britain’s case, the experiment has never been repeated.

Will America be bold enough kick on from here – to elect an atheist, a Buddhist or even a Muslim president? The latter would seem unlikely, to say the least, as long as political Islam is seen as diametrically opposed to all things American. That possibility seems further away than it was at the nation’s birth, when Thomas Jefferson was contemplating the possibility of Muslims achieving the highest offices of state (see this piece in the Daily Beast).

Despite America’s secular constitution, overcoming religious prejudice in politics is surely the next frontier. Thanks to changing demographics and Barack Obama’s success, that will surely happen, and I’m sure that it won’t take as long as it has for the race and gender barriers to come down. May that day come soon.

From → Politics, Religion, UK, USA

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