Disunited States Of America

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 9, 2012

Presidential re-elections in America historically tend to be surly affairs, sadly lacking the passion of the first time. But Americans’ convincing re-election of President Barack Hussein Obama, a visibly black man whose Kenyan-born father was never even a citizen of the United States, was less a dreary renewal of vows than a promissory note to which unborn generations will be heir. It throbbed with a love of self, a self-preserving self-love, perhaps even a yearning for an idealised idea of self. The 59,170,872 people whose vote, at the time of writing, is recorded in Obama’s column were expressing, once again, the audacity of hope.

By re-electing a black president whose first term was marked by tepid economic growth, high unemployment and paralysing political war in their legislature-and whom 16 per cent of the population still erroneously and poisonously think of as Muslim-Americans demonstrated that they were able to consciously do what Martin Luther King dreamt. On that August day, 49 years ago, in an America where it was still legal to deny a black man a job, a house and the right to vote, King had expressed the hope his children would one day live in “a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

In re-electing Obama despite everything, including a jobless rate of 7.9 per cent on election day, Americans showed that post-racial politics was finally a reality. It was a defining point in their nation’s history and one that their President recognised in his victory speech with his trademark, pitch-perfect, soaring oratory: “We are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions… We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.”

Obama’s victory in seven of nine key battleground states proved that demography is destiny. He fashioned a new coalition of the willing from black, Hispanic and college-educated women voters. By ballot, not bullet, Americans imposed shock and awe on a wondering world. In 2012, it was 2008 all over again even though history could only be made once and surely, that was four years ago, when the first African-American president was installed in the White House. Yet, on TV, on radio and online, the world watched the richest, most militarily powerful nation on earth pledge itself to four more years of togetherness with a man who looked different from the conventional establishment and spoke of the “destructive power of a warming planet”, sparking hope that an American president would finally speak the truth to the power of the energy lobby.

It was a soft-focus end to a sour 17-month slugfest of a campaign that cost the two sides nearly $3 billion, making it the most expensive election in American history and arguably the most nasty, with a record two million negative political advertisements aired across the country. It was, says John Carroll, professor of mass communication at Boston University, “a post-truth presidential campaign.” In the end, it was what Samuel Johnson, another canny wordsmith like Obama, said of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ that became the epitaph of the bitter contest between Obama and Mitt Romney: No one ever wished it longer.

But what, if anything, does the outcome really change for any one? “Not much,” says John Gizzi, the veteran conservative Washington pundit, using a quote from Abraham Lincoln when he stubbed his toe to describe the morning-after feeling. “I’m too old to cry but it hurts too much to laugh.”

The reference is to the ultimate irony of this election victory. It has produced a status quo outcome with a Democratic president still at the top of an executive structure that will remain in gridlock with the Republican Party controlling the House of Representatives and the Senate dominated by the Democrats. When Congress returns to Washington next week for a post-election legislative session, the re-elected President and policymakers will have just 49 days to reach consensus on what is fearfully being called America’s “fiscal cliff”, a nearly $500-billion doomsday machine cobbled together by the last, deeply-divided lot that would see dozens of tax breaks for all Americans expiring in January, alongside deep government spending cuts. It is a fearsome combination that would throw the US back into recession with consequences that would obviously affect everyone, everywhere, from the sub-continent to the South Pacific islands.

“What matters most to the rest of the world is what matters to Americans right now, a stronger economy and maintaining economic competitiveness as we dig our way out of the deepest recession in 80 years,” emphasizes Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Adds Phyllis Bennett, director of the New Internationalism Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, “When we elect a president, we elect the head of an empire and whoever the US voting public elects is the most important person in the world, it is a very serious obligation and foreign policy is a huge component of the economic crisis.”

Clearly then, Obama’s first foreign policy priority of his second term needs to be getting a firm handhold on the domestic “fiscal cliff”. Alden, who specializes in US immigration and trade policy, insists that “second-term Obama will be a continuation of first-term Obama” and there will be continued emphasis on efforts to force the Indian retail market and service sector open through the Trans Pacific Partnerships negotiations and World Trade Organization plurilateral services agreement respectively.

Is that all India can expect of this second-term American president who famously displays a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi above his desk and wants to rebalance foreign policy by weighting it with an Asian “pivot”? Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, says the bilateral relationship is blessedly mature and on an even keel. “It says something that we’ve seen less negative rhetoric on outsourcing to India in the 2012 campaign than in the 2008 one,” she points out, recalling Obama’s infamous and hastily recalled swipe four years ago at Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. “He put out a press release saying Senator Clinton of Punjab.”

Over the border though, in Pakistan, it is a fair bet there will be deep disappointment at the re-election of Obama, the president who escalated the drone war and violated Pakistan’s sovereignty by stealthily sending Seal Team Six into Abbotabad to take out Osama bin Laden. The day before the election, a BBC World Service opinion poll found that Pakistan was one of just two countries (Israel being the other) around the world that favoured a Romney win. But, Pakistani pique cannot take away from the basic truth. Obama’s re-election offers the best chance America has had to “lead from behind”, as this President proudly described the collaborative coalition he fashioned with the United Nations to deal with Gaddafi’s Libya.

Rashmee Roshan Lall

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