Barack Obama is the first American president who has made history simply by being elected. His Swahili first name – which is derived from the Arabic baraka, or spiritual wisdom – means ‘he who is blessed’, and the world seems to think he is. Obama’s victory, Bono said, is the realisation of ‘the Irish dream, the European dream, the African dream, the Israeli dream and also the Palestinian dream’. Gerry Adams turned up at the inauguration, as did Doreen Lawrence. Even those who aren’t thrilled by Obama’s agenda want a piece of him. Canadians, according to a recent survey, are ‘lukewarm’ about Obama’s desire to renegotiate Nafta to protect US jobs, and they’re not keen to send more soldiers to Kandahar, but this hasn’t diminished their love of Obama or their ‘collective Obama envy’. ‘So we are in love with the guy even though we don’t care for his ideas,’ one blogger complains. ‘What does that tell you about the cult of personality?’
Cult of personality or not, Obama is already an icon in the country that is so happy (and so proud) to have elected him. His face is used to sell everything from T-shirts to the New York Times: ‘Don’t Miss History in the Making. November 4 was just the beginning. Subscribe now to the New York Times and get 50 per cent off.’ Eighty packets of ‘Obama’ heroin were recently seized in a police raid in New York; ‘The Audacity of Dope’ was the headline of the story published on the Smoking Gun, a website devoted to ‘cool, quirky’ news from the world of crime.
Obama has tried to dispel the impression that he’s a miracle worker; in his inaugural address he talked about the terrifying scale of the financial crisis, and warned that ‘the challenges . . . will not be met easily or in a short span of time.’ But with jobs disappearing by the day (524,000 in December alone), Americans are hungry for miracles; he has pulled off one, why not another? Liberals, still in a state of disbelief over Obama’s victory, are hesitant to express even the gentlest criticism of their hero, in spite of a ‘dream team’ that looks curiously like the Clinton cabinet. In his New Yorker blog, Hendrik Hertzberg lamented that in his address Obama ‘chose prose over poetry, words over lyrics’. But, he added, ‘this was a choice . . . to play against the expectations of eloquence’ – another sign of his wisdom, his baraka. American conservatives have been blindsided by Obama, who has checkmated them by appropriating the rhetoric – but not, so far, the substance – of ‘family values’. Except on the far-right fringe, where his image is being used to recruit white supremacists, American conservatives have decided against attacking him personally – his approval ratings make it impossible.
‘So are you moving back to the States now that Obama’s president?’ A number of Londoners have asked me this since November, and although I’m not, I’ve clearly been missing out on the party. I’ve also suffered from a mild case of Obamania, and occasionally have to remind myself that he’s a fairly cautious centrist – not to mention a pragmatic politician who’s undoubtedly already thinking of his next term. It’s not only his intelligence, poise and discipline that make it hard for me to think straight about Obama. It’s the sense (or the hope) that he’s a kindred spirit. There is the rumour that he listens to Coltrane on his iPod, the offhand allusions to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. There is his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, his empathy for ‘the millions left behind in Jakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank’. There is his wistful recollection of discussing ‘neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy’ at Occidental College, and of socialising with ‘Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets’. His strikingly candid and capacious reflections on the colour line recall, in their insistence on America’s multiracial identity, the great monologue at the close of Ellison’s Invisible Man.
There, I admit it: I’ve been seduced by Obama’s words. But I’m hardly alone. Obama has come to power on the strength of his writing and speaking, which so many of us have taken to be evidence of baraka. Now we will need some proof that he can live up to his name. So far there have been some promising signs. He has responded to the recession by proposing a stimulus package that includes substantial provisions for schools, healthcare and unemployment benefits. He has lifted the ban on American support for family planning programmes abroad that provide information about abortion. Guantánamo (though not Bagram Air Base) will be closed in a year, ghost prisons shut down and torture banned. And, in appointing his special envoy to the Middle East, Obama passed over Dennis Ross, the Israel lobby’s candidate, in favour of George Mitchell.
It’s not clear, however, whether Mitchell will be authorised to talk to Hamas (much less exert any real pressure on Tel Aviv), or whether Obama is prepared to recast relations with the Muslim world on the basis of ‘mutual interest and mutual respect’, as he has promised. Obama’s words, as so often, are beguiling: the tribute to his Muslim relatives, the overture to Tehran, the praise of the Saudi peace initiative and, not least, the studied avoidance of the word ‘terrorism’ in his inaugural address. More troubling are his failure to utter a word of criticism about Israel’s destruction of Gaza, and his intention to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. He might remember the example of Lyndon Johnson, who presided over the most ambitious programme of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation ever launched in the US, while pursuing a murderous, wasteful and futile war that for ever stained his presidency.
Obama’s inauguration has been likened by many to King’s march on Washington in 1963, the occasion of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But Obama’s war in Afghanistan (as the New York Times eerily anointed it) puts one in mind of another King speech, the thunderous denunciation of the Vietnam War delivered in New York on 4 April 1967, a year to the day before his assassination. ‘If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,’ King said, ‘part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.’ The war, he suggested, was ‘but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit’, a ‘Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.’ The only remedy, he believed, was a ‘true revolution of values’. The United States has, at last, a president who seems to share this belief, but it remains to be seen whether he is able, or willing, to act on it. For the first time in his dazzling career, he won’t be judged only by his words.