Barack Obama remains our best bet

By Time of article published Jan 18, 2012

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Allister Sparks

Eight years ago, in a speech that catapulted Barack Obama into the spotlight of American politics, the young aspirant senator for Illinois brought the Democratic convention to its feet with this rousing declaration: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is just the United States of America.”

Today, with streaks of grey in his hair after three brutal years in the White House, the still relatively young Obama must realise just how wrong he was.

The United States of his imagination back then is more divided than at any other time in recent history. The gap between the liberal ideals his speech articulated and the rightward swing that has driven much of the Republican Party to the point of radical extremism is now so wide that the country is in a state of political gridlock.

Obama has spent most of his first presidential term trying desperately to span that gap, to fulfil his election pledge to unite the US through a policy of bilateralism between the parties.

But the Republican Party has fought relentlessly to prevent that, particularly since winning control of the House of Representatives in 2010, blocking every Obama initiative to deal with the deep economic recession – caused, it so happens, by Republican predecessor George Bush’s profligacy.

Like the despised one-time Soviet foreign minister, Vyasheslav Molotov, they have said “niet” to everything. To hell with the national interest, their aim has been to paralyse Obama and render him beatable in this re-election year.

It is a campaign being driven by the passions of the new right-wing radicalism. Passions that are shifting the whole centre of US political gravity to the right, while also creating serious factionalism within the Republican Party.

It is hard to determine where the centre of US politics is right now, except that it is far to the right of where it was in the days of Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or even Richard Nixon.

Individuals and institutions regarded as being on the lunatic fringe of the right in those days, such as Barry Goldwater, William Buckley and the John Birch Society, are viewed as mainstream today.

Listening to the debate around the Republican primaries, one is struck by the fact that not only has the term liberal become a swear word in the US, but even to be called a moderate is an insult.

Mitt Romney, who sounds like a moderate compared with the tooth-and-claw extremists he is competing with, is trying to shake off that damning label.

He is sounding well to the right of where he has spent most of his political life. Which means that if he wins the Republican nomination he will have to swing left to challenge Obama somewhere near the political centre, wherever that may be, and risk being called a flip-flopper – a label the Democrats already have ready for use against him.

Where does this leave Obama? His only chance, with ratings no sitting president has recovered from since Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s, is to do a Roosevelt and focus on the poor, the homeless and the middle classes generally who are suffering from the recession while the Republican extremists clamour for less welfare, fewer benefits and less government spending everywhere – together with continued tax breaks for the rich.

Why, you may ask, should any of this matter to us South Africans who have little understanding of the complex US political system?

The answer is that, despite its reduced standing in the world, the US is still the pace-setter of the Western political and economic system of which we are an integral part.

However distant we may feel from the events playing out across the Atlantic, they will affect us – and the rest of the world in which we have to compete and survive.

The whole world is in a fragile state. From the Arab Spring to the euro zone debt crisis, there is economic and political turbulence. Young people everywhere – from Tahrir Square, Tunis and Tripoli to the “Occupiers” of Wall Street, and from the student protesters of Israel to those of Chile and young members of the ANC – are less tolerant than their parents of power abuse and corruption.

Iran may be on the point of getting a nuclear bomb, nuclear Israel is itching to attack it to prevent that, while neurotic North Korea, which already has a bomb, has an untested kid in his 20s with his finger on the trigger.

A dangerous time. It is no time to have another Rambo in the White House.

When Romney says, as he did in New Hampshire the other day, that “if Obama is still in the White house next year Iran will have a nuclear bomb; if I am in the White House it will not”, he can only be pledging to make, or support, a pre-emptive attack – the political, military and economic implications of which make one shudder.

It is also a time of great promise. Those young people of Tahrir Square, of Tunis and Tripoli, of Syria and Bahrain and many other parts of Africa – which, incidentally, will have 20 national elections this year – are all driven by the same self-liberating impulse that swept Eastern Europe 20 years ago.

It will be a slow and delicate process that will be driven primarily by internal forces and regional events.

What it does not need is superpower pressure to win another supposed quick “victory for democracy”, but which would more likely staunch the promise and produce another costly quagmire of problems.

What is needed is a cool head and an ability to stand back, to play an altogether more delicate game. It is time for the US to stop obsessing about the need always to appear strong and in control of events, wherever they occur.

It should ponder the fact that the Iraq war cost $1 trillion, equal to 30 years of what the US spends on development aid annually. Imagine what that could have achieved if spent differently.

As I see it, only Obama has the intelligence and strength of mind to do that at a time when it is most needed.

As for South Africa, my main concern is that if any of the present line-up of Republican aspirants enters the White House, the further swing to the right in US policies will strengthen anti-Western instincts already present in the ANC-led alliance and drive this country deeper into China’s orbit of influence.

Trading with China is one thing, and we have done well to sustain our economy through the recession by boosting our Asian connections. But any accompanying Chinese political influence is something vastly different. China is a one-party authoritarian state.

It is alarming enough that the ANC is sending its young cadres to China for political education and that party heavyweights such as Deputy Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi, and even President Zuma himself, are muttering about our judicial system, and even our constitution, obstructing the ANC’s ambitions, while yet others are wanting to clamp down on freedom of the media.

Down that road lies tyranny. I sincerely hope America’s rightwingers don’t prompt the ANC into heading any further in that direction.

l Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.

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