Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The meaning of President Obama
Ushio - December 2008

American presidential elections are extraordinary things. Can you think of any other country in which the winning candidate in an election spent 21 months, almost two whole years, engaged in an active, official campaign for the job? And he was preparing, building his reputation and support, even before he declared his candidacy officially. But also, the 2008 election produced an extraordinary result.

                Now that he has at last been elected, we all know that Barack Obama is the first black American president. In a country in which direct racial segregation was common as recently as 40 years ago, with even street benches and lavatories being labelled as being for “whites only”, this is a remarkable event.

                Racism is common in every country. At its simplest, it is just a way in which people express fear of people they consider to be strangers, entrenching and expressing that fear in hostility, discrimination and prejudice. The legacy of slavery makes racism especially painful in the United States, but let us remember that America is not unique in that racism nor even in having a history that includes slavery (slavery also existed in the Caribbean islands, for example, and in Brazil).

                Yet the full meaning of Mr Obama’s election victory goes beyond that single issue of race. This was an election in which a young, inexperienced politician, who was barely known before he gave a speech at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Boston in 2004, has been chosen for not only the highest office in America but also the most important political job in the whole world. And he will arrive in office after he has been inaugurated in January carrying huge expectations on his shoulders—expectations that contradict completely the fact that he is so inexperienced.

                What this 2008 election should tell all of us non-Americans is something quite different either from race or from Mr Obama as an individual. What it should tell us, or remind us, is how different and special the United States of America really is, in comparison with any other country. It is certainly different from all other democracies.

                How is it different? First of all, it is different in the very nature of its society. Most countries are rather worried about diversity, about the existence of substantial minority groups alongside the ethnic majority. They either try to reject diversity altogether, as in Japan’s case, or they work hard to try to prevent it causing social conflict and instability. In America, the whole country’s identity is based on diversity. The Latin slogan on the American official crest, “E Pluribus Unum”, which means “Out of the many, One”, symbolises this.

                Racist history shows how America has often not lived up to this slogan. Racial divisions have often led outsiders to misinterpret the country as being hopelessly unstable and full of conflict. The mistake is to see the conflicts as being fights for supremacy, which is what they would be in any normal country. In America, they are fights to be heard, to attain the equal rights that the country’s nature as an immigrant nation, built on diversity, has promised them.

                Mr Obama’s election confirms the power of that diversity as an expression of true Americanness. But it also confirms a second vital difference between Americans and other nationalities: the American instinct for renewal, for reinvention, for seeking change when things have gone wrong. What Americans call “the American Dream” is a dream of opportunity but it is also a dream of reinvention, the ability to start new lives, with new ideas, in new places. By choosing Mr Obama, Americans seem to have said that they want a new start, a new period of reinvention.

                A third characteristic that is related to that desire for reinvention is the strong American preference for optimism, for positive thinking. In most countries’ elections, a candidate or party leader running against a party that had been in government during a huge foreign-policy failure (Iraq) and now an economic crisis, would spend most of his time attacking the incumbent party. He would emphasise how terrible things have become, how many mistakes have been made.

                Of course, Mr Obama has done some of that. He has criticised the “failed policies” of George Bush, and made sure that he described his opponent, Senator John McCain, as someone wishing to continue Bush’s policies. But such attacks were not his main message. His main message was that change is possible, that reinvention is not just vital but attainable. “Yes we can” was his endlessly repeated catchphrase.

                His own book, published before his official campaign began, had a revealing title: “The Audacity of Hope”. We must be brave, daring, audacious, he was saying. And we must have hope, or optimism.

                The final, and fourth, characteristic that I think makes America exceptional, and which this 2008 election has emphasised, is in a way contradictory to the previous points, about reinvention and optimism. It is the highly conservative nature of the American constitution.

                When the founding fathers of America, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, drew up the constitution at the end of the 18th century, they deliberately made it hard for governments to govern. The division of power between the presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court is designed to prevent dictatorships, to ensure that no one and no group can dominate the country’s politics—at least not for very long.

                This highly constrained, conservative constitution is, I think, the final explanation for Mr Obama’s extraordinary victory. For only in a country in which the executive office is so constrained would the electorate be persuadable to take such a risk in electing such an inexperienced man, such an outsider, to its highest office. Only in a country where the “checks and balances” are so strong could a man like Barack Obama suddenly rise, almost from nowhere, to become president.

                Diversity, reinvention, optimism, all within strict constitutional restraints: that is the true meaning of Barack Obama’s triumphal victory to become America’s 44th president. It could only happen in America.


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