America's New Leader The Serenity of Barack Obama

Barack Obama has done it. On Tuesday, Americans elected their first black president -- and a genuine intellectual. It is the crowning of one of the most rapid political rises ever, but the real work is only now set to begin.

By in Chicago


Democrat Barack Obama beat Republican contender John McCain by a clear margin in Tuesday's presidential election and made history by becoming the country's first African-American president.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama told hundreds of thousands of elated supporters in Chicago.

Despite his historic triumph, the ecstatic cheering of the crowd and the scale of the challenges facing him, Obama looked as calm and collected as ever as he addressed his supporters.

Just one night earlier, the comedy show Saturday Night Live took one last opportunity to lampoon the candidates. And the candidates' doubles make it clear just how different the outcome could have been for Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton's double on Saturday Night Live was hilarious, as was John McCain's. The Sarah Palin double, of course, is a star in her own right. But Obama's character was usually rather boring. He rarely got laughs and often just stood there looking serious.

The parody is a reminder of how Obama could have featured in America's consciousness in this crazy, never-ending campaign. The Americans aren't just sending the first African American president to the White House. They have also elected a pensive intellectual, regardless of all the Internet euphoria and "Yes We Can" chants. "One of the striking ironies is that a man who draws tens of thousands of people to his rallies, whose charisma is likened to that of John F. Kennedy, can be sort of a bore," wrote the Los Angeles Times.

Where Are the Sweat Stains?

He's a candidate who likes to read the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr. And one who doesn't get sweat stains on his ironed white shirt, even in the sweltering heat of Nevada or Indiana. He has studied the Socratic Method applied at US law schools -- the principle of eliciting truth through the astute interplay of questions and answers. His wonderfully composed speeches rarely betray a sense of humor. He's evidently a devoted family man and a proud father.

Such characteristics herald a new era in the White House. The Democratic icons John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were strong intellectuals as well, but they had rough edges and they were almost pathological womanizers. Model Republican Ronald Reagan turned his anti-intellectualism into a virtue, as of course did George W. Bush. His father George Bush senior also liked to mask his Yale education and foreign policy expertise with cowboy boots.

Will Obama's erudition help him in the White House? Or will he be easy prey for the hands-on Democratic Congressmen and women who are up for election every two years and must pay close attention to the will of the people? Will the new president's intellectual leanings jar with the desire for action among the Internet generation that voted him into office? Will it be an obstacle to taking quickfire decisions as commander-in-chief?

Obama's curious ability to remain untouched by all the razzmatazz around him is likely to prove a source of strength. His political career has been one of the most astonishing of all times. At the Democratic National Convention eight years ago he wasn't even invited to the important parties. He readily admits that whoever gave him the name Barack Hussein Obama cannot have expected him to become a presidential candidate.

But now the disastrous legacy of the Bush era has transformed this man with the strange name and the dark skin into someone the whole world is pinning its hopes on. Well over 200,000 people came to listen to him speak in Berlin in July; he really is the biggest "celebrity" in the world, as McCain jibed during the campaign. But even attacks like that provoked nothing but bemusement in Obama. It made television host Chris Matthews wonder openly whether Obama was capable of ever getting worked up about anything.

Obama's sanguine nature could have been interpreted as a lack of passion in the election campasign, but the financial crisis turned that into a virtue. He suddenly appeared calm and presidential, while McCain seemed unpredictable and jumpy.

Fate on His Side

It was yet another example of the luck that has accompanied Obama throughout his political career. When he ran for the US Senate as a newcomer four years ago, his designated Republican opponent had to give up due to a dirty divorce dispute.

Only three years later he was up against Hillary Clinton, the best-known political brand in the country, for the Democratic nomination. But she underestimated Obama for too long, was too late in slipping into the role of a fighter, and wasn't exactly helped by her husband whose latently racist comments about Obama drove African Americans into his arms.

When it came to the general campaign, fate provided him with a rival who didn't play the race card. And one who, no matter how hard he tried, was unable to sell an image as an independent-minded outsider. McCain went out of his way to distance himself from Bush, but then tried to win over his supporters by naming Sarah Palin as his running mate. The Republican candidate never found a congruous strategy.

Obama, for his part, proved to be lucky and strategically astute. His campaign movement was the most perfect political start-up of all time -- he collected almost a half a billion dollars in campaign donations and mobilized millions of supporters, many of them making a foray into politics for the very first time. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek wrote that Obama forever changed campaigning in the US. His message of "change" remained consistent from day one.

Period of Belt-Tightening

Rational as he is, Obama, of course, quietly bid adieu to the promise of real change in Washington -- a radical shake-up of politics as we know it -- as the campaign progressed. In the final months of the race, the newness has worn off his campaign as the candidate opted for pragmatism. He secured consultation from Washington insiders and his final television spots felt conventional as they praised American ideals in Kansas or the value of hard work. Even in the debate over how to respond to the financial crisis, he benefited more from his reticence than for making courageous policy proposals. Just like other politicians in the heat of a campaign, he was wary of telling Americans that a period of belt-tightening was on its way.

That, though, is exactly what he will now have to do. And he won't have much of a grace period to get used to his new job. The criticism that he has spent his career looking for the next challenge is not entirely wrong. Now, though, there is nowhere else to go.

During the campaign, Obama left little doubt that he thinks he's ready. And he exudes an aura of calm. A friend of Obama's recalled to the Chicago Magazine last summer how crowds of supporters were already following Obama around Boston just before his famous 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. The friend, Martin Nesbitt, recalled saying "this is pretty unbelievable, man you're like a rock star." Obama replied, "it might be a little worse tomorrow…. It's a pretty good speech."

Now, the Democrat is set to be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009 as the 44th president of the United States, right in the middle of one of the worst crises America has ever faced. "We've got to hit the ground running," Obama said last week.

The US -- and the world -- have a lot riding on him doing exactly that.

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