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.