Barack Obama has the easiest and at the same time the hardest job of any leader in recent history, possibly since WWII. He can use all the goodwill and support that we can give him.
At one level, his new job is stupidly easy. Obama could be anywhere from a grey centrist-conservative like Bill Clinton all the way to a towering historical figure like Abraham Lincoln, and in any case the world will be delighted. We are all just so happy we got rid of George W. Bush. Just by being elected, Obama has already delivered what the world expected of him, and he has his entire presidency ahead of him to use as an opportunity. That doesn’t happen often.
That’s also the hard bit. The people of the US, but I think the world as a whole, have created an expectation for Obama to be like Lincoln, and not like Clinton. Maybe the public swallowed the media hype, maybe it was genuine naivety, or maybe it was a raising of expectations and a subtle passing of a mandate by mutual consent. My own view is that Obama presented himself and came through the system like Clinton, a trendy but safe figure acceptable to the business world, and somewhere along the way became pushed by the public to rise up and be like Lincoln. Getting to that position is another rare event. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see a Lincoln, or even a Castro or a Gorbachev, but I like everyone else have high hopes.
Much is made of Mr Obama being the first black president in a white-dominated country, or more generally a member of a disadvantaged minority who became head of a powerful state. But the honors for these distinctions go to Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, if we stick to western democracies. If it wasn’t Obama it would probably have been Hilary Clinton. Overall, I don’t think that whatever underdog status Mr Obama might have qualified for matters much.
There is. however, something of substance in Barack Obama’s name and skin tone, and that is the issue of nationalism. America pretends to be a nation-state. It takes a lot of effort to maintain the pretense, and any time you go there you can see it in the flags, the heroes in the movies, the facade of public institutions, and so on. What is this American nation? Well it’s not the native Spanish or Chinese speakers, or the descendants of slaves or indigenous people bearing the remains of their cultural traditions. The made-up American Nation is a branch of the Anglo-Saxon nation, and everyone who passes as that. It’s easy to pass if your ancestors were white European, not so easy otherwise. In other words, America experiences rampant nationalism in the guise of racism. Black Americans aren’t perceived as deficient, they’re just perceived as foreign.
Barack Obama doesn’t look or sound Anglo-Saxon, and that can turn out as a good thing. Here is his second historical opportunity. If he excels at passing as Anglo-Saxon, the opportunity is wasted. It just shows that with great effort a few individuals can be admitted into the intolerant, obsolete, made up American nation. If instead Barack Obama makes no effort to reflect Anglo-Saxon values but promotes an international outlook, a secular state, multi-cultural education, and a sane migration policy, the opportunity to move America out of its 19th century nationalist yearnings and into a post-nationalist 21st century will be in part realized.
So cheers, Mr Obama, and best of luck!