He was, by any measure, the superior candidate: clear and eloquent where his opponent often mumbled and stuttered, cool and eventempered even when the other would dish out sharp rebukes. Barack Obama projected a high-mindedness that made the veteran John McCain sound petty and insular. He was charming and attentive, where the latter appeared condescending and guarded.
Never cynical or arrogant, his confident retorts and measured replies to questions during the debates were always thoughtful and respectful. Even those who strongly disagreed with his views found him amiable. He was fresh and inspiring, where the other seemed stale and boring. All these qualities are more familiarly summed up as charisma. Obama has lots of it, but he knew it wasn’t enough to win an election.
US commentators say America has never known a more focused and methodical politician. Nothing seemed to distract him. But that is also because Barack Obama ran a tight, energetic, and highlymotivated campaign. Instead of hiring professionals, he relied on a corps of volunteers, mostly young people who could navigate the politically untapped world of cyberspace with ease. So disciplined was the campaign that the media could not get any inside story except from its authorized spokesmen. There were no leaks about internal rifts, resignations, apprehensions, or the onset of panic. Obama’s machinery hummed steadily and coherently until the last vote was counted.
Here is a politician who ran on a theme of change – change in the way politics is conducted, and change in the way government works. No better way was there to demonstrate the seriousness of this purpose than to radically deviate from the proven ways of raising campaign funds. Campaign funds in US elections are normally raised by so-called “political action committees” (PACs) that represent the myriad private interest groups seeking to shape electoral outcomes. They hire professional lobbyists who make a living working the levers of congressional and executive power on behalf of corporate America. John McCain relied almost entirely on this existing infrastructure of traditional politics. In contrast, Obama raised money directly from the voters who believed in his vision, appealing for individual donations of less than $200, while refusing any help from big corporate interests and lobby groups.
In this manner, he not only managed to raise more money than McCain, he also freed himself from the many restrictions on campaign expenditures that were attached to the usual sources of electoral finance. This allowed Obama’s campaign to dominate the airwaves, and, in the final stretch, to buy an expensive block of 30 minutes of prime time on US television to sum up the nature of his crusade for change.
Obama has set a high bar for all politicians everywhere in the modern world. But if one looks closely at his spectacular success, there is really nothing in his two-year trek to the White House that is new or magical. I suppose it is possible for anyone with the right education to acquire the famous Obama demeanor through long arduous practice. But, if it is not anchored in character, it will surely come out as phony during unguarded moments.
Obama was effective because nothing he did seemed put on or studied. He made no effort to feign experience, even as he was aware that the record of government service by which many sought to test him is perhaps the thinnest among those who have aspired for the US presidency. Neither did he offer virtuous innocence or naiveté, but only vision, dynamism, and hope in an uncertain world.
Instead of the fear and paranoia of a post-911 America which George W. Bush had so viciously exploited, Barack Obama hitched his campaign to the awesome energy of an awakened popular optimism. This has always been America’s strength – ungrounded hope, the driving force behind its boundless pragmatism. There is no theory of society or a philosophy of history here. Underpinning Obama’s program is a consistent problem-solving orientation founded on pure hope.
But foolish or not, the optimism that Obama has injected into American politics has already laid the foundation for a transformed society. The energy it has unleashed not only in America but in the rest of the world provides the kind of game-changing impulse that we all sorely need in this complex crisis-ridden era. Few leaders have earned as much goodwill in an election campaign as Obama has. He stuck to the issues even when it was more tempting to trace America’s problems to the personal shortcomings and greed of its leaders. He spoke without resentment even while alluding to the historic injustices committed against his country’s racial minorities. A few black leaders derided him for not being black enough, but he held on to the promise of the nation’s founders of a single nation emerging from the diversity of its peoples, united in the dream of an equal society.
This is quite different from the secular modernity of European democracy. In America, we encounter a large residue of frontier-type spirituality that thrives in small gospel communities. Obama traces his faith to such intimate churches, where members find themselves, in his words, being “summoned” and “moved” by a “higher truth” to “embrace a common destiny” and to achieve what had seemed impossible. This unique blending of spirituality and secular pragmatism is expressed in the writings of William James. If the American nation has a home-grown philosophy, this is what it is, and president-elect Barack Obama has abundantly tapped into it.
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