Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not a Transformational Figure

By Fikru Helebo

Barring unforeseen developments, Barack Obama is poised to coast to a comfortable victory over John McCain in the US Presidential election in a little over a couple of weeks. In spite of my center-right political disposition, I had previously expressed my view that America would be better served with a Democrat in the White House in the next four years. I will certainly celebrate an Obama victory for the reasons I had expressed before and also because of the powerful message of hope that his election would send to all people of African decent and, for that matter, to all of humanity.

However, I am troubled by an oft-repeated claim in the media that Barack Obama is a "transformational figure". The latest political heavy weight to throw this loaded phrase in describing Obama is the former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who endorsed Obama's candidacy for President today. I hope Obama is a smart enough politician not to allow all such hype about him to to get into his head. But I have to say that his rhetoric about changing the world gives me reason to be concerned.

My understanding of a transformational figure, in so far as a politician goes, is someone like Nelson Mandela, who has an unparalleled capacity to win the respect of his opponents by what he/she says and does. As far as I can tell, aside from some of his recent speeches, there is very little evidence from Obama's political career which remotely suggests that he is such a figure. To be sure, Obama has reached across the aisle to work with Republicans on some issues since he has become a US Senator and talk of bipartisanship has been a part of his stump speech on the campaign trail. But the issues that Obama has worked with Republicans in the Senate, which he has touted in his advertisements, are not issues that are considered marquee issues that divide the right and left in the US and, in my opinion, do not give credence to Obama possessing a transformational quality. On the other hand, a far better argument can be made for John McCain about his willingness to buck his own party and work with Democrats, but that still doesn't make McCain a transformational figure, not by a long shot.

That said, I believe Obama has the potential to be a transformational figure if he is willing to put aside some of his orthodox liberal political beliefs, such as the concept of using the government as a tool to spread wealth around and to push down the throats of Americans wacky social engineering experiments, in favor of ideas that have broad support by the American electorate. For example, a President Obama would be well advised to concentrate on spending his precious political capital in the first couple of years on national security issues like energy independence and improving America's image around the world, a world that is getting more and more interconnected by the day. But, he will have to get elected first, and then, after taking his oath of office, he must stare down on some of his narrowly focused liberal constituencies if he really wants to be a transformational figure who can inspire a broad section of American society to getting something lasting accomplished during his presidency. We shall see.


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Anonymous said...

Barack Obama is Ethiopian

Barack Obama is certainly generating great enthusiasm among Ethiopians everywhere. We fear this tells us more about the disenfrachisement of Ethiopians by their leaders than about US elections per se. Obama is, therefore, a stop-gap in the current predicament.
We also fear the presidency of Obama may in fact disappoint Ethiopians. For some reason US foreign policy since the reign of Emperor Haileselassie has consistently failed to uphold democratic aspirations of Ethiopians [mid-70s, late-80s, elections'05]. Also, a president Obama will be hamstrung, at least in the short term, by promises made to middle-class America, by global economic meltdown, and by a plan to remain in office for two terms. His vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has already indicated the necessity of slashing down foreign aid to fulfill promises to domestic constituency.
In the long term, Obama administration may be amenable to grassroots movements in Africa. That in turn takes hard work and a competent leadership on the part of Ethiopian opposition groups. The way things are, we see little hope for such a leadership to emerge. Intellectuals loyal to the ruling minority regime are working feverishly to disorient and misrepresent popular sentiments. Berhanu & Co. are fighting to remain relevant; Hailu Shawul & Co. are incoherent and undisciplined; Bertukan & Co. are 'waiting for Godot' to lend them some muscle against the ruling militia.
We don't believe a McCain presidency will be any different either. Would Ethiopian leaders be driven into the arms of the Chinese in a post-Bush administration?

enset said...


Your fear about the presidency of Obama being a disappointment to Ethiopians is a well founded one and has precedents. When Clinton took office, many in COEDF, the main opposition of the time, hoped that his people would enforce the Cohen doctrine of "No democracy, no cooperation."

Oh, how disappointed they were! It turned out that the Clinton Administration became the biggest cheerleader of the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara to the extent of labeling them a new breed of African leaders. There was also hope that the current Bush Administration would get tough on the Ethiopian regime and was about to make a policy shify. But 9-11 happened and the Bush people went back to the drawing board and decided to bed with the Woyane regime.

We are now finding ourselves in the same predicament: expecting a meaningful policy change from an incoming American administration that will stand up for democracy and justice in Ethiopia. My thinking is that there is a decent chance for a change of policy with an Obama Administration. But, if Obama is elected, he is going to have his hands full dealing with the recent financial crisis and perhaps a deeper than anticipated economic recession that he may not give Africa the attention it deserves. We shall wait and see.


Anonymous said...

obama may not a transcendtal figure( not yet at least); but without a doubt he is a tranformational figure in ways we know(a person of JFKesque appeal with a negroid pedigree-how likely is that!?) and in ways we are yet to find out about in the future.