Barack Obama, America’s new President Elect, has promised his daughters Malia and Sasha they can have a puppy when the family moves into the White House in January. It’s a promise that captures the mood surrounding Obama’s victory more generally, at least among Democrats, most younger people, and the majority of overseas observers.
The excitement about Obama’s election as the first black president of the US is palpable, and in many ways it would be churlish to demur. At a time of widespread cynicism and disengagement from politics throughout the Western world, the enthusiastic turnout for Obama, including many first-time voters, is certainly refreshing. Moreover, while some enthusiasts undoubtedly harbour illusions about Obama, imagining that he will transform American society and make the world a better place, it is possible to greet the election result as a ‘good thing’ while recognising its limited significance in real political terms. Indeed, a McCain victory would likely have reinforced illusions in ‘what might have been’, while the realities of an Obama administration are likely to be more sobering.
Discussions in the Battle for America strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London at the weekend mostly hinged on Obamaphilia versus Obamascepticism. American writers Susan Jacoby and Lionel Shriver were the Obamaphiles on the ‘Election USA’ panel, both emphasising the significance of their candidate’s race, while worrying it still might prove an obstacle in the end. James Matthews of the New York Salon focused more on Obama’s political approach, and found little to inspire enthusiasm. Elsewhere British philosopher Simon Critchley has described Obama’s self-acknowledged opacity: the fact that people can project their own ideas on values onto Obama no doubt contributes to his appeal.
In the Battle of Ideas session on ‘Is America still the world’s policeman?’, it became clear that there’s little to substantiate claims that Obama will be less militaristic than Bush. As Tara McCormack has argued, both candidates shared a desire to use foreign policy to give meaning to domestic politics, and we can thus expect further military adventures from Obama, albeit with perhaps more idealistic rhetoric. The final session, ‘What does it mean to be American?’, considered the universalism of the American idea, but culminated in a fierce argument between the two Americans on the panel: legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, who spoke movingly about the historic significance of Obama’s likely election, and playwright Adriano Shaplin, who sees Obama as no better than other politicians he feels have betrayed American ideals.
It remains to be seen whether Americans will feel betrayed or otherwise disappointed by Obama’s presidency. What’s certain is even that his victory will not by itself change America. The idealism and enthusiasm of those who put an energetic pup in the White House, rather than McCain’s grizzled mutt, may yet change America, but to do that they must do more than put their faith in a presidential mascot.