In the post-9/11 world, where America is fighting a war on terrorism on multiple fronts, facing increasing pressures of globalization, and domestically struggling to keep the economy from spiraling into a deep recession, Obama offers a new direction for America based on a vision of ‘hope and change’. Is Obama the new progressive voice of America? It is useful to peer into his early formative years to better understand what is driving Obama’s historic rise.
Young Barry’s multicultural childhood in Hawaii holds the key to his ability to thrive on ‘hope and change’. Obama’s mother was a single White woman from Kansas and an only child of a depression era parents, who twice married men from different cultures to weave a patchwork of U.N. diversity in her family. As a ‘New Deal peace-corps-loving liberal’ and an anthropologist, she wrote more than a 1,000 page dissertation on Indonesian peasants while working for U.S. development agencies. The progressive impulse that drove Obama’s mother ‘to make the world a better place’ runs through the heartland of America and was passed on to young Barry at his mother’s knee.
In the latest edition of his memoir, Obama reflects on his mother, ‘I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.’ His mother gave him the gift of language and the love of books, including the writings of Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK and the Bible.
Barry’s grandparents wore it as a ‘badge of honor’ that their grandson was biracial, even though his Kenyan father abandoned him at the age of 2 years. His grandmother was a tough matriarch, a Republican, who rose from a secretary to become the vice-president of a local bank. She was his primary caregiver when his mother was away on extended fieldwork. His grandfather, somewhat of a bohemian, was a gifted salesman and could ‘sell the legs off of a couch.’ Barry may have inherited his grounded pragmatism from his grandmother and the sales ability in peddling ‘hope and change’ from his grandfather. Living a modest existence in an apartment in Honolulu, his grandparents made sure that Barry would attend the best private school in Hawaii, with an idyllic and pristine campus, something his mother could not afford on academic grants and salaries.
Obama displays many characteristics of a progressive-populist, with his background as a community organizer and civil rights lawyer, who claims to be working for the common folks. While his life story exemplifies the American virtues of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, he continues to alienate a segment of the democratic base and the broader American voting electorate, earning him the dubious distinction of being ‘elitist’. Even Hillary Clinton, who has worked for liberal causes all her life, has suggested that Obama has serious progressive credentials but it remains to be seen if the country is ready to swallow a hard move towards the ‘political left’.
Are we in the midst of a historic election, where the cultural divide separating the voting blocks may be deeply generational? Many historians including Douglass Brinkley have pointed out that a progressive-liberal candidate has not been elected since the election of LBJ, following the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK. From a global perspective, no major Western liberal democracy has so far elected an ethnic minority to its highest office.
However, the progressive left seems to have embraced Obama whole heartedly. Progressives who unexpectedly find themselves in an advantageous position, after remaining in dire straits for years, have made a reasonable case for the linkage between the Iraq war, the economic downturn and the energy crisis. Obama’s anti-war stance is mobilizing the progressives to take back America from the stronghold of the conservative movement that has won all but three elections in the last forty years.
As a sign of the changing demographics, one common theme that runs through Obama’s life story and political rhetoric, which Americans of all colors find appealing, is his ability to bring people together from diverse backgrounds. His friends and classmates testify that as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, Barack was able to overcome polarized factions by the strength of his personality and his ability to listen to others. His rise in Chicago politics was similarly guided by an appeal to hardened political factions of black and white politicians to work together, by reaching out to diverse communities outside the inner city and the south side, and by pushing the message of multiculturalism in a changing global economy.
Will America’s newfound role as peacekeeper of the world bode well for Obama’s election? There is a deep hunger in this country for peaceable solutions to the crises emanating from the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan, just as there has been an unquenching thirst for blood for the crimes committed by fanatics and fundamentalists on all sides.
Is Obama the new progressive avatar who can defeat the forces of extremism and disintegration? He has been schooled on the lives and teachings of the great peacemakers. Portraits of three martyred giants hang above his desk: Lincoln, Gandhi and MLK. Oftentimes, his rhetoric soars to the heights scaled by these reformers, even though the projects for reshaping humanity started by each of these men remain unfinished.
While Obama may have the political acumen and skills to build a broad national coalition of diverse groups, it remains to be seen whether the majority of American people are ready to elect an avowed ‘peacemaker,’ willing to break bread with his enemies, over a decorated naval war hero? The choice won’t be easy and the election will be hard fought. America’s decision in this election may be one for the history books and will be closely watched by people who look up to the American ideals in villages, towns and cities around the world.