An audacity of hope

Published: Thursday 15 January 2009

-- Will Barack Obama be a radical environmentalist? Or will fossil-fuel lobbies carry him off?

Barack Obama's triumph in the US presidential election was the best political news in a long time. I was amazed that all my American relatives and friends confessed to having watched his acceptance speech on television with tears in their eyes. And yes, I felt some welling up in my eyes too. I am not a US citizen, but have spent my childhood years there.

When results of free and fair elections are announced in any democracy, the majority of voters are normally upbeat. This, after all, is the majority that truly counts at the polls. In this case, however, there was no sense of chauvinist jingoism. This time, the emotions were much more humble.

There are several reasons why Obama's victory inspires hope

  • The identity aspect--Obama is a member of Kenya's Luo tribe.A member of that tribe couldn't become president of Kenya, but a Luo's son has been elected president of the US.

  • The environment aspect--In his acceptance speech, Obama elaborated on the "planet in peril" theme. In fact, has been quite outspoken on climate and energy matters. He has been much clearer than our leaders in Europe for quite some time.

  • The policy-paradigm aspect--Obama wants health-care coverage for everyone and has always disputed the free-market-trickle-down ideology, arguing instead for an active role of governments.

  • The cultural aspect--Cosmopolitanism has for once trumped parochialism in the US. The president of the US will have a Muslim name, have gone to school in Jakarta and will be from one of the most diverse neighbourhoods of a major US agglomeration--all this is very inspiring.

  • Hopes on multilateral issues- I have a feeling that Obama understands that the US is not running an empire but is merely the most powerful country on earth, which has to play a leading and constructive role in multilateral politics if there is ever to be anything like a stable and equitable world order.

  • Down to Earth It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama in power will be a radical environmentalist, or whether he will live up to his campaign rhetoric only to some extent, or whether he will fall victim to the automobile and fossil fuel lobbies. High office, after all, does shape the person who assumes it. Obama, however, has an unusually big chance to withstand such pressures his campaign was largely funded by small-scale donations rather than massive corporate contributions.

    The paradigm of the George W Bush years was that the market knows best and that might makes right. The outgoing president did pay lip service to what he called democratization. But for all practical purposes, he showed little respect for human rights, international law or constitutional principles at home. Obama's ideological roots are different. In his speech on race relations in Philadelphia, for instance, he elaborated in detail why equal opportunity in the US is an important aspiration, but not day-to-day reality.

    The best thing, however, is not that the new president opposed the Iraq war right from the beginning. It is that his election is not merely a promise for change, but just as much the result of change. Forty years after Martin Luther King--America's Mahatma Gandhi--inspired the civil-rights movement, the US has overcome its history of not giving a black person a chance.

    November 4 was not about super power triumphalism. This election was about a nation coming to terms with some of its history's most depressing features.

    Hans Dembowski is the editor of the Frankfurt-based monthly D+C Development and Cooperation

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