US President Barack Obama stands for a quiet moment for Nelson Mandela during an official dinner with President Jacob Zuma at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria on Saturday.
US President Barack Obama stands for a quiet moment for Nelson Mandela during an official dinner with President Jacob Zuma at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria on Saturday.

Obama’s disquieting lesson for SA

By Eusebius McKaiser Time of article published Jul 1, 2013

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Johannesburg - Did US President Barack Obama overpromise when he first entered the global political stage, or did we naively insist that he would be exceptional? This question should be a critical part of our self-examination as we make sense of why Obama is turning out to have an ordinary rather than a transformative time in the White House. An uncomfortable South African lesson lurks in the detail.

The answer to my opener, I would suggest, reveals more about the psychology of voting than it does about Obama.

Many Americans voted aspirationally when they voted for Obama, and it isn’t likely that a sober assessment of the limits of political office was factored into their expectations of what was possible for him to achieve.

There are political limits inherent in the design of the US political architecture that even a public-speaking rock star cannot break.

Obama appeared different. And difference captures the imagination of the public when it is packaged well.

Who can forget when then Senator Obama delivered that career-propelling speech at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in 2004?

I remember my flatmate, Nick, coming into our lounge and insisting I check out this guy.

After the obligatory greetings, the Obama narrative started: “Let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant.

“But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance, my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place: America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before.”

And thus began a journey that would see Obama punt the identity story in many major speeches until he became the first black president of the US.

Americans love exceptional stories that affirm their can-do-ism. Obama’s unlikely story was exactly that. The motif of hope and “yes we can” imbued in crowds a belief in his near-biblical promise to transform Washington.

Not even the sceptics, including black intellectuals like Shelby Steele (who made a quick buck with the now-false title A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win), could stop the Obama mission to prove to US voters that their racial bigotry could be shelved – sort of – for eight years.

Well, if the Obama trailer was an emotional roller-coaster, then the full film is turning out to be a yawn-inducing drag. Time to leave the cinema and accept that Obama escapism is no more.

The truth is that bipartisan politics makes it difficult for a US president to easily achieve his political promises without gigantic amounts of compromise.

Because political power is evenly balanced in the US, there is also no guarantee that there is ever an alignment between one party’s candidate in the White House and the dominant party in another branch of government.

This isn’t a design fault. In theory, it ensures that executive power will always be in check. In reality, of course, it can grind governance to a halt.

More importantly for the Obama story is this: When those speeches about hope, and possibility, and self-indulgent identity reflections were inducing tears in the crowds, no one was thinking of the boring realpolitik truths. Institutional limitations cannot be jumped over with a speech about a Kenyan dad.

Obama should have managed expectations of himself. But it is also the American voters who need to do a sober assessment of their own naivety.

Imputing exceptionalism to Obama just because he wasn’t George W Bush was evidently tempting, but rather imprudent. Like Bush, it seems Obama is comfortable to sign off on killing folks abroad. Obama is American then. Is that surprising?

And so Obama, in the end, is turning out to be ordinary. But one wonders whether the bigger part of the historical explanation in years to come will be the nauseating promise-narrative that his campaign was built on, or whether the US will allow voters, too, to take some flak for how they think about political office.

And there is a lesson here for us as South Africans. Like the Americans, we made two mistakes in the past 20 years. The freedom fighters overpromised what they could deliver, and we expected too much.

The ANC should have managed the expectations of people better. It did not. And that is one reason, among many more, of course, for service delivery protests.

We, too, as voters behave like the Americans. We assumed that a beautiful inauguration speech from Nelson Mandela meant that booming times were immediately ahead. The world is a more frustrating place than public speaking allows.

* Eusebius McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM 98.7, weekdays, 9am till midday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star

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