The World President: Great Expectations for Project Obama
The challenges facing Barack Obama are enormous, and the first African-American president would be well advised to remain focused, modest and realistic. The enormity of the crises he must address are clear to his country and the world. Is he up to the task?
Parents watching President-elect Barack Obama's acceptance speech probably noticed the hands first, Sasha's right hand holding her father's left hand, firmly and trustingly. The daughter looked up at her father, who returned the glance, and both smiled.
For historians, it was Obama's reference to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of all American presidents, who embarked on a civil war for the unity of the country and the freedom of black slaves. For those with a love of language, it was his masterful speech on the responsibilities of today's citizens, and on solidarity and honesty. The victor's acceptance speech became an appeal against megalomania and triumphalism, and for humility and respect for what is to come. It was a mature speech.
It has been a long time since the world has had such a figure like Obama. Standing on that Chicago stage with his family, he was the manifestation of myriad expectations from across the globe -- and he belonged to everyone. Each person on the planet saw exactly what he or she wanted to see on that stage -- there was something for everyone.
Patriots saw a semi-circle of 25 flags and a man with considerable gravitas telling them that it would be difficult, but that the country would achieve its aims.
Blacks saw their skin color, saw one of their own standing on that stage, and when they realized that the most powerful man in the world was going to be a black man, they felt gratification, even redemption, emotions that prompted many in the crowd standing in Chicago's Grant Park to repeat the same sentence, over and over again: "I never thought I would see this day coming."
For 106-year-old Atlanta resident Ann Nixon Cooper, this night meant that her life had come full circle. She had received the call that afternoon. Would it be okay for Obama to use her name in his speech, his advisors asked? Of course, she said, and she wept when she heard her name mentioned later that evening, mentioned as the name of a hero who had experienced so many things: the days when she was prevented from voting, followed by the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hardships of daily discrimination.
But whites were also hearing a man who understands them, whose way of speaking is not significantly different from their own, even if he doesn't look like them. There were many whites in the crowd in Grant Park.
For Chicago's college students it was a festival, finally a chance to celebrate an idol once again. They wore shirts emblazoned with Obama's face, T-shirts with his symbol of the sun and the horizon in the colors of the United States. They chanted his slogan: "Yes, we can." And then they chanted: "Yes, we did!"
Finally, the strategist was, as always, already looking ahead, preventing the fireworks display that had been prepared. He saw this man on the stage, against a backdrop of Chicago's skyscrapers, trees and floodlights, and he saw 150,000 people and not a single one of them who was not moved, not a single person who was not aware that this was a special night. Who needed fireworks?
The strategist's name is David Axelrod. After 21 months of permanent skepticism and wariness, Axelrod was finally all smiles, because he knew the same thing that everyone standing there in Chicago knew. That Tuesday evening, that Nov. 4, 2008, was indeed historic.
On that day, 65 million Americans voted for Barack Obama, 47, to be the 44th president of the United States of America. Obama is the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. He was born in Hawaii, and he lived in Indonesia, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He is black. And after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, he and his wife Michelle, their daughters Sasha and Malia, and the puppy the girls were promised for their patience during the campaign, will live in Washington, D.C., at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House, which was built by slaves 216 years ago.
America has voted, and the world has voted along with it. Germany, Europe, every continent on earth has finally discovered America once again. They have discovered the America that is an idea and not just a superpower. In only three countries -- Israel, Georgia and the Philippines -- did a majority prefer John McCain, the known entity. The rest of the world was Obama country.
They celebrated on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, and so did the black kids in the city's suburbs. There were parties in cities on all continents, and they even celebrated in the Gaza Strip where, normally, the only good Americans are considered to be dead Americans. Obama is the world's president, at least for a few days, weeks, months of euphoria and idealism and belief in decency that President George W. Bush had almost beaten out of the world. Tristram Hunt, a British historian, said that Obama "brings the narrative that everyone wants to return to -- that America is the land of extraordinary opportunity and possibility, where miracles happen." And miracles are what people of all skin colors are wishing for, especially people from those parts of the earth where miracles are not as reliable an occurrence.
The way Obama was greeted by the global public was an eye-opener. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's reaction was as pleased as that of her counterparts in London and Paris, who greeted the results of the election with enthusiasm, interest and hope. Only in Rome did Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, true to form, describe the new US president-elect as "young, handsome and ... tanned."
Not unexpectedly, euphoria was the prevailing emotion in Africa, where Ghanaians, Nigerians and South Africans saw the election as an affirmation of themselves. For a short time, Kenyans celebrated Obama, their "son of Africa," in a national state of ecstasy, fully expecting a future of US visas for all Kenyans, new financial assistance and the American superstar to pay a state visit to his Kenyan step-grandmother, "Grandma Sarah," in Kogelo, a village in the hills near Lake Victoria. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki promptly declared a public holiday on Thursday in honor of Obama.
All of this has to do with the yearning for leadership in times when no nation can solve its problems alone. The challenges facing the global economy and climate demand a cooperative world community, a global culture and direction. In fact, what they demand most of all is a global government.
- Part 1: Great Expectations for Project Obama
- Part 2: Wanted: Modesty, Patience and a Dose of Humility
- Part 3: A Campaign that Sent Signals in 'all Directions'
- Part 4: Guantanamo Is a Wound American Inflicted Upon Itself
- Part 5: International Crises and Domestic Woes
- Part 6: The Limits of the 'American Way of Life'
© DER SPIEGEL 46/2008
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