The Philosopher King, Almost

on Tuesday, June 17, 2008

N FEBRUARY 13 this year, as Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama rounded off nine days of sweeping primary victories smashing Hillary Clinton across more than half of America’s 50 states, a key strategist of the Republican nominee, John McCain, quietly announced he would retire rather than work against Obama. “I would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama,” McCain adviser Mark McKinnon said in an interview with the non-profit National Public Radio in Washington DC. While insisting he disagreed with Obama on “very fundamental issues” and would still back McCain “100 percent”, McKinnon said: “I met Barack Obama. I read his book. I like him a great deal.”

On May 20, two days after an astounding 75,000 supporters rallied to hear Obama at Portland in the northwest state of Oregon, McKinnon — who masterminded the advertising campaigns of George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential bids — resigned from the McCain campaign even as results of the Democratic primary contest in that state were coming in. Later that week, Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson revealed that McKinnon had last year given him Obama’s 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope to read, confiding in Gerson that he won’t join the Republican campaign should the youthful African-American indeed turn out the Democratic nominee. In his column, Gerson faulted Obama’s ideology and temperament on the basis of his stated positions — that he will meet leaders of “enemy” countries such as Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela “without preconditions”, and will withdraw US forces from Iraq. Yet, wrote Gerson, McKinnon’s step “is a reminder of something that Republicans… should not forget or underestimate. Obama is a serious, thoughtful, decent adult who will attract the sympathy of other serious, thoughtful, decent adults. He has evident flaws, but the inspiration he evokes is genuine… His story is not a scam.

Reluctance of opponents such as McKinnon’s to duel with Obama is the stuff that has paved the 46-year-old Democrat’s unbelievable rise in a 12-year political career that is now at the cusp of history: he is a moment away from possibly becoming the world’s most powerful nation’s first-ever black president. In politics, Obama has repeatedly emerged the sweepstakes winner as an evident underdog; always the less favoured by the bookies, yet almost always the dark horse. In 1996, Obama won a seat on the Illinois senate beating a Republican when he wasn’t even the favourite in the Democratic primary at the start. Eight years ago, Obama gate-crashed the Democratic convention at Los Angeles that cheered Al Gore’s nomination, but, not being a delegate, miserably found it hardest to break into the seniors’ club and returned home midway. Four year later, in 2004, Obama was the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention at Boston, chosen by the party’s nominee, John Kerry, himself. Obama’s passionate speech that he called ‘The Audacity of Hope’ invoked powerful imagery from America’s past, such as those of slaves singing around a fire. He won thunderous applause not just in the convention centre but across America; instantly, political pundits marked him as a future challenger for America’s most coveted job: the presidency. And now, in August, Obama will indeed lead the Democratic convention at Denver, having won the closet primary race in the party’s history, beating Hillary Clinton who seemed everyone’s favourite just a year ago.

So what makes Obama this extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon? The answers are to be found in his 2006 bestseller that has moved McKinnon and millions others to make the leap of faith beyond traditional politics and believe in Obama’s powerful message of hope and change. Indeed, Obama’s politics — as reflected in his countless votes in 12 years as state and national senator, and as enumerated in the detailed social, economic and political analyses and prescriptions of his book — has stood out as principled without being doctrinaire, dignified yet humble, uncompromising yet pragmatic and, most importantly, inclusive. Obama fashions himself in the manner of the philosopher king, a non-partisan seer with an overarching vision who seems convinced of his ministry to secure social justice and equity to the largest number of people, not just in the US but across the world. And all those who accuse Obama of being all rhetoric need take a closer look at his book’s chapters titled Opportunity (economic and social), Race, Faith (including longstanding issues such as gay marriages and abortion) and The World Beyond Our Borders.

OBAMA’S DIRECT post-racial messages clearly underlie his appeal across classes — Obama won votes of the ‘white working classes’ and the Latinos in several, though not all, states, despite the Clinton campaign’s suggestion that he totally failed with those voting segments. Obama is a rare African- American politician who readily admits that the welfare-based affirmative action programmes that paid dole to the (overwhelmingly black) people who didn’t work — programmes that were restructured by the Clinton administration in the previous decade — “sapped people of their initiative and eroded their self-respect”. “Any strategy to reduce intergenerational poverty has to be centred on work, not welfare,” writes Obama in The Audacity of Hope, “not only because work provides independence and income but also because work provides order, structure, dignity, and opportunities for growth in people’s lives.” Just which black leader in America would so directly reject welfare? Unlike the dyed-inthe- wool politician, Obama doesn’t pander to populism: he slammed suggestions by both Clinton and McCain last month that a tax on gasoline be suspended in the face of rising global prices. And yet, Obama bats clearly for the disadvantaged and the poor. Last week, Obama announced he would set up a foreclosure prevention fund of $10 billion to help the 1.5 million Americans who face losing their homes, and many have indeed lost, for failure to pay their mortgages.

“For eight long years, our President sacrificed investments in healthcare and education, and energy and infrastructure on the altar of tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs – trillions of dollars in giveaways that proved neither compassionate nor conservative,” Obama thundered in his speech.

Yet, integral to Obama’s politics is his eagerness to harness bipartisanship for the Common Good. In the middle of his frenetic campaign tour, Obama teamed up with Republican senator Tom Coburn on June 3 to introduce a new Bill in the Senate that seeks to totally throw open details of government spending through federal grant, contracts and loans, as well as competitive bidding and violations and criminal activities. The new bill will radically streamline www.USASpending. gov, a pioneering website created last December following the successful passage of another Obama-Coburn transparency law in 2006. It is indeed Obama’s push for greater ethics in Washington, to break down the stranglehold of lobbyists, wheeler-dealers and power-mongers that appears to have caught the popular imagination across America.

Perhaps the boldest words from Obama have been on America’s controversial foreign policy, as he admits his country’s penchant for shoring dictatorships the world over for narrow, selfish gains. Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq is well documented. But writing in his 2006 book, Obama chronicles how the US administration in 1965 supported the overthrow of President Sukarno’s democratic government in Indonesia and the military takeover by General Suharto, whose rule led to the “slaughter” of up to one million people. It is equally astonishing that a mainstream politician such as Obama, who must have known his desire to aim for the US presidency even as he wrote the book, speaks unequivocally about the “Western-dominated” IMF whose prescriptions triggered riots and demonstrations in Indonesia.

Certainly much of Obama’s ability to preach and practice people-oriented politics that is at once radical and compromising is because he is the quintessential outsider: born of a black non-American father and a white American mother, spending ten years of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, never seeing a father and being raised at times only by his maternal grandparents, graduating in international relations and political science at New York’s University of Columbia but turning to faith and community work back in Chicago, moving to Harvard Law School — where he became the first-ever African-American president of the Harvard Law Review — yet returning to Chicago with his black wife, a trained lawyer herself, to teach law and do more community and grassroots political work such as organising successful voter registration drives among African-Americans.

In the end, though, Obama may disappoint his supporters by failing to break the gridlock that sleaze and slime have on Washington. What they will want for sure is for him to try his hardest while on the job — if he gets it. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 24, Dated June 21, 2008