The long lines outside the polling stations on Election Day meant unprecedented numbers and history in the making. The US woke up having made history by electing its first coloured president. What happens in the US impacts the rest of the world, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, the first man to go the moon, “the election of Barack H Obama is one small step for Americans, it is one giant step for mankind.” John McCain, one of the most decent and deserving candidates to ever run for the US presidency (he would have made a great president anytime in US history) was not running against a person alone, but against an idea whose time had come. The founding fathers of the United States of America set down in the Preamble of their Constitution that “all men are created equal.” They could not possibly anticipate (or was it buried in their sub-conscious?) that for two centuries white human beings would be more equal than others.
The American Dream envisages that every citizen, regardless of race, colour, or religion, has equal chance in life. In keeping with what the US preaches to the rest of the world about justice and fair play in unfettered democracies, the American people have taken a significant step in convincing skeptics by putting their own house in order. Obama’s rhetoric at the Democratic Convention in 2004 singled him out for the future, 2008 put substance to that rhetoric. Obama emulated one of his political heroes in going from a freshman US senator to becoming a US president in four years. John F Kennedy Jr (whose daughter Caroline is one of Obama’s closest advisors) overcame the prejudice of sect (he was a Catholic among the majority Protestants). Obama has overcome a far greater handicap, the stigma of colour.
Despite the loneliness of choice in the polling booth, enough white men went with their conscience to vote a coloured person to the seat of power, reinforcing the greatness of the US as a nation. Obama’s middle name “Hussein” remained an issue in the presidential race. This century may well see Americans overcome their final prejudice of religion.
Fighting a losing battle against civil rights in the latter part of the previous century, it must be a black day for white supremacists to see a coloured person poised to enter the White House. Blacks make up only 12% of the US electorate. Obama crafted together a “rainbow coalition” of white and coloured, young and old. It was pathetic to see McCain, a man of great personal honour, emulating his running mate Governor Sarah Palin in making Obama’s person an issue rather than his ideas. Democracy envisages a contest of one set of ideas with another, compromise is necessary when they become divisive, with violent repercussions. The first world is no different from the third in that individual personalities in politics transcend the importance of ideas.
Energising the Republican Right, Sarah Palin did give temporary bounce to the polls. She did not add to the female vote a la Hillary Clinton. More damaging, she turned off “independents” and the “undecided” in huge numbers. The “Palin Albatross” added to the reasons that brought McCain down, the irony is her celebrity status as a far-right icon positions her to take the Republicans further to the right, the ultimate disaster for a great party. Neo-con Cheney did tremendous harm to the US image by his “Darth Vader” act. In contrast Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, has a “Santa Claus” profile. Even without the generous deep pockets the US once had for the third world he will be an effective point man for foreign policy in the new Administration. Realpolitik must take a backseat to principles in setting the foreign policy agenda if the US image has to be restored.
Obama needed to reach the magic 270 electoral votes, he went well past 300. He carried all the states John Kerry won in 2004 and make inroads into states considered safely Republican. Before Election Day Obama was well-positioned in 19 states (with electoral votes given in brackets): California (55), New York (31), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Maryland (10), Colorado (9), Illinois (21), Massachusetts (12), Vermont (3), Washington (11), Rhode Island (4), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10), Hawaii (4), New Mexico (5), Connecticut (7), Oregon (7), Iowa (7) and the District of Columbia (3)–a total of 254 electoral votes. Polls had McCain leading in 21 States, among them Texas (34), Georgia (15), South Dakota (3), Alaska (3), Missouri (11), Alabama (9), Idaho (4), Kentucky (8), South Carolina (8), Wyoming (3), Indiana (11), Arizona (10), Louisiana (9), Kansas (6), Nebraska (5), Utah (5), Arkansas (6), Mississippi (6), Tennessee (11), Oklahoma (7), and West Virginia (5)–a total 179 electoral votes. In battleground states the polls were within the margin of error, Obama won, as was projected, in Florida (27), Pennsylvania (21), North Carolina (15), Ohio (20), New Hampshire (4) and New Jersey (15). When McCain lost Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, his challenge was over.
The wide swath of Republican “Red” through the American heartland in the US map is bracketed by the Democrat “Blue” along the west coast and the northeast. The four big ticket (15 or more electoral votes) Democrat states, California (55) New York (31), Illinois (21) Michigan (17) made up 124, almost half the electoral votes needed, there were only two big Republican strongholds Texas (34) and Georgia (15)–totaling 49 votes. McCain was weighed down not only by the Bush legacy but with the US economy in deep recession and in danger of sinking into a depression and the US engaged in two wars in which analysts question the possibility of any success. Add Obama’s charisma and appeal, the man of courage McCain was always fighting a losing battle. His concession speech in which he asked all Americans to unite behind their nearly elected president personified his character and patriotism. Obama’s response was gracious, acknowledging McCain’s long service and tremendous sacrifice for the country.
The “American century” as the 21st was labelled, was in danger of ending before it even began. As the American electorate has shown, writing off the US was wrong! To paraphrase Mark Twain, “the rumours about US demise are greatly exaggerated.” It has now a new lease of life, Americans having chosen “hope and change” over “scare and despair.” The early celebrations in Grand Park, Chicago, by Obama supporters was justified. In rejecting the “Cheney Cabal” disguised as the Bush Doctrine, Americans heeded Edmund Burke’s admonition: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” The people in charge now have a whole set of issues on the drawing board requiring change. We must admire the American people’s firm rejection of the Bush regime’s policies. Nevertheless, given the popular vote it was a close run thing!
For Pakistanis a silver lining of note: Obama has said Kashmir needs to be resolved to contain the terrorist problems bedevilling the region. Wait a minute, haven’t we been saying this for many decades?
The writer is a defence and political
analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org