The case for Sen Obama

Posted in politics by jrahman on October 28, 2008

In about a week’s time, Americans will choose their next president.  The regular reader would be aware that I support Sen Obama.  Now, I am not an American, but the outcome on 4 Nov will affect us all.  Hence it is natural that most of us would have a view. 

My support for the Democrat candidate might seem unsurprising – after all, ‘the rest of the world’ is the strongest ‘blue state’, and I suspect Bangladeshis overwhelmingly prefer Democrats.  However, as explained below, I could have contemplated supporting Sen McCain.  In 2000, I did seriously think about supporting Gov Bush, and if I were around in 1980, I’d have heartily supported Gov Reagan.  So this post is partly a record of my reasons.  More importantly, just in case there are any undecided American voters among my readers, this note tries to swing your vote to Mr Obama.

I work for the government of an English-speaking country that is one of the strongest allies the United States has.  Gen MacArthur set up his headquarter here during the Second World War.  Soldiers from this country have fought in every one of America’s wars outside the western hemisphere since the 1940s.  And yet, in 2007, communist China had a more favourable image here than the US.  That is what 8 years of Bush administration done to America’s image abroad.  I’m not sure Sen McCain presents a decisive enough break from the current administration.  Sen Obama does.  In the corridors of power here, senior people were heard earlier this year thus: An Obama presidency will make it respectable again to be pro-American.

And it is important that being pro-American is respectable again.  As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the cause of liberty that seemed so secure a decade ago is under siege once again.  And as in the earlier struggles against economic collapse and political tyranny, it is America that must lead.  It is then vitally important that a page is decisively turned on the Bush years.  That is the first reason to support Obama.

Of course Obama’s very candidacy probably has improved America’s image abroad.  One in four citizens of my adopted country is born overseas, and yet I don’t expect the son of an international student from any third world nation to lead this country any time soon.  The Obama story is possible in America, and only in America.  Rumi Ahmed captures the symbolism of an Obama candidacy very vividly here.

While symbolisms matter, substances underlying the symbols matter even more.  For an Obama administration to sufficiently atone for the sins of the Bush years, American foreign policy must take a different turn.  Will this happen?  I’m under no illusion whatsoever that on some issues – the Palestinian cause for example, or comprehensive nuclear disarmament – Pres Obama would alter policies of his predecessors.  On other issues – climate change – it is not clear that whether a break from the past is sufficiently high on his priority.  But on some crucial issues – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of diplomacy – Obama does offer a decisively better approach than the current occupant of the White House.  And as Mridul Chowdhury argues, he offers a very different world view than his rival.   

To be sure, not all of Obama’s stated positions are better than his rivals.  In two crucial areas affecting Bangladesh directly, Sen McCain’s positions deserve serious consideration.  Firstly, the senator from Arizona is unambiguously a free trader.  One hopes that Obama’s protectionist posturing earlier this year was little more than a result of a heated primary season, but Mr McCain’s commitment to free trade seems more unequivocal.  Secondly, unlike his rival, McCain has consistently opposed America’s ridiculous biofuel policies that wrecked havoc in the global food market in recent years. 

Given the importance of foreign trade for our development and our vulnerability to global food price inflation, shouldn’t we support the Republican?

My answer is a resounding ‘no’, for two reasons.  Firstly, whatever his stated views on trade, how can we take anyone who picked this person as running mate seriously?  And secondly, McCain shows a clear lack of understanding when it comes to social and political dynamics of a country like Bangladesh.  As Asif Saleh notes here, his mollycoddling of dictators betrays a distinctly 20th century approach that has utterly failed.  This is not a policy we need.   

So, Obama has stated positions that would be, on balance, better for Bangladesh.  On a range of other issues, Sen Obama’s approach has been noted as better.  For example, the London Economist reports that the economists it surveyed overwhelmingly prefers his plans, while the Financial Times endorsed him in part for his health plan.  Andrew Sullivan makes a conservative case for Obama here.  For a day-to-day coverage of the election, I refer to Mash’s blog.  It seems to me that Obama is the better choice on offer in this election by miles.  

I noted at the beginning that it wasn’t always clear that I’d have supported Obama.  Let me now note how my thoughts on Obama has evolved. 

Like most people outside Chicago, I first heard Mr Obama in 2004.  While his speech at that year’s Democratic Convention was widely praised in the US, elsewhere the focus was on Sen Kerry – that year’s nominee.  I happened to be in Washington DC when Obama announced his candidacy nearly two years ago.  He seemed to be a very charismatic fellow, and my American friends told me that he would make a great running mate for Al Gore.  Like most people, I too was surprised by the Iowa caucus and its aftermath.  In late January, I expected Sen Clinton to wrap up the nomination soon enough, and thought to myself – what a pity that this exciting guy will lose

I found the Democratic primary quite fascinating.  On the one hand, Mrs Clinton’s mastery of the policy matters were beyond reproach.  On the other hand, Obama’s oratory was extraordinary.  And the very fact that the speechifying appealed to me was something of a revelation to me – I’d much rather discuss a 6-point plan than soaring rhetoric of hope and change, or so I used to think.  Meanwhile, the Republicans were choosing someone who at that time looked like a very attractive candidate.  It was a fascinating time. 

Then something happened.  Obama showed that he too is capable of mastering policy details, and I’ve already noted why he is unquestionably a better candidate than the Republican.  And his grand speeches started showing more than just rhetoric.  For example, in his nomination speech, he said this about the most divisive of issues in America: We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing unwanted pregnancies in this country.  In most other mature democracies, Obama would be considered the conservative candidate, and McCain some wingnut.  The case for him became pretty simple.

And even in America, Obama’s Burkean temperament has been noted.  This is what David Brooks, a conservative pundit said: His instinct is to flee the revolutionary gesture in favor of the six-point plan.

Let’s think about that sentence for a bit.  The most signifcant figure in Bangladesh’s history did eschew revolutionary posturing for a six-point plan.  And Sheikh Mujibur Rahman too was known for his oratory.  Obama is the better choice, on this there is no doubt.  But I do worry about him meeting a Mujibian end (politically, though his physical safety is also an issue).  The task before Obama is no less daunting than what was before Mujib in 1972.  The Financial Times noted this in its endorsement of him:

Rest assured that, should he win, Mr Obama is bound to disappoint. How could he not? He is expected to heal the country’s racial divisions, reverse the trend of rising inequality, improve middle-class living standards, cut almost everybody’s taxes, transform the image of the United States abroad, end the losses in Iraq, deal with the mess in Afghanistan and much more besides.

Succeeding in those endeavours would require more than uplifting oratory and presidential deportment even if the economy were growing rapidly, which it will not be.

The challenges facing the next president will be extraordinary. We hesitate to wish it on anyone, but we hope that Mr Obama gets the job.

 I think that about sums it up.  Those of you who can, vote Obama.

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  1. button said, on October 28, 2008 at 8:32 am

    “The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the name of ‘liberalism’ they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

  2. The redneck factor « Mukti said, on November 1, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    […] Empire, obviously I have an interest in who our next Imperial Overlord will be.  Four years ago, I urged my American readers to vote for Barack Obama.  Those arguments, broadly speaking, still holds. […]

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