The danger of the dreaded e-word.jpg

The danger of the dreaded e-word

By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

ONE OF the most over-worked words used in the days immediately following the election of Barack Obama as the 59th president of the United States was ‘euphoria’.

It was used to describe how the people of the US, indeed much of the world, felt on hearing the news. Even Tony Blair, the international Middle East Envoy, used it.

‘Euphoria’ was probably used after John F Kennedy won the 1961 presidency, giving people the feeling they were about to enter a brave new dawn. More parochially, it was also probably used in the UK in 1997, when Blair’s election victory for New Labour ended 18 years of Tory rule and 11 years of Thatcherism. However, it’s a word that usually goes hand-in-hand with another – reality.

Maybe we should first look at the major factors behind Obama’s success. The first is that he is undoubtedly a brilliant communicator and orator. Beside him, the Republican candidate, John McCain, looked wooden and uninspiring. The second factor is that Obama is not George W Bush. No matter how hard he tried, McCain could not shake off the image that he was simply Bush in different clothes.

The third, and possible most important factor in Obama’s favour was the Democratic Party’s remarkable ability to pull in donations to fund the final stage of the campaign. Obama went back on an early election pledge, promising to rely on federal funding alone. It soon became obvious that serious money was needed if he were to guarantee reaching the White House – so the inspired decision was made to turn to a relatively new source, the Internet.

His campaign managers opened pages on the chat-line providers Facebook and MySpace to put over the Obama message and to ask for donations – no matter how small. It was this strategy that produced the biggest-ever recorded surge in funding – Facebook donors alone raised about 650 million dollars – thus enabling him to buy 30-minute slots on prime-time television in the lead-up to election day.

Mixed race

I do not subscribe to the view that the colour of Obama’s skin played a vital part in his success. I believe the ‘pros and cons’ on potentially being the first black – or African American – US president evened each other out, just as Hillary Clinton’s bid to be the first female president would have done. Voters in the notoriously racist Southern states voted solidly for McCain, only three supporting Obama.

Besides, Obama is not strictly ‘black’. Born in Hawaii to a black father and white mother, he is actually ‘mixed race’ – a term which tends to fuel bigotry in those who like people to be clearly one colour or another. This misnomer was also used to describe the new World Formula One racing champion Lewis Hamilton, and it has worked against him in his native Britain, where his popularity, and the reverse, are about equal.

However, let us return to the words of Tony Blair. In what could be construed as a rather patronising speech, he says that Obama has “the intelligence and sensitivity” to help the US play a “leading role” in the world. Does that imply that Blair’s great friend, George W Bush, who he supported in launching an attack on Iraq, didn’t? It is ironic that this man is now an envoy for peace.

The ‘Quartet’ that Blair now represents is made up of the US, Russia, the UN and the EU. It was interesting that the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, notably failed to congratulate President-elect Obama in his first major speech after the victory, instead using it to confirm that Russia would place nuclear missiles on Russia’s border with Poland, to protect it against the perceived ‘danger’ of the US nuclear shield being deployed on previously Soviet territory.

Blair went on to say that, in recent conversations with Obama, he found him to be “a very thoughtful and intelligent person who understands that, after the euphoria, there are some very serious decisions to be made”. One of these decisions concerns the nuclear capability of Iran, where President Ahmadinejad gave Obama’s victory a guarded welcome, but still confirmed there would be conditions for any future US/Iranian dialogue. These included that Washington should end both its support of Israel and its’presence in the Middle East, so that’s hardly likely to happen.

While Obama is seen as a refreshingly peaceful man, he has said that Islamic fundamentalism will have to be countered.

Free trade

The new vice-president elect, Joe Biden, caused concern when he predicted that an “international crisis” would quickly emerge to test the mettle of the new president. He was probably right, particularly if he honours his pledge to speed up the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq.

Obama also faces strong tests on the domestic front, where he inherits a huge budget deficit and a national debt which is about to go over the 11 trillion dollars mark. He is committed to 95 per cent tax cuts for “the many, not the few”, better access to health care for the 45 million without insurance and an army of new teachers, with improved salaries, for the school system. However, if he pays for this by levying more taxes on big business, he risks damaging the economy, already in a precarious state, even further.

Another election pledge that could come to haunt him is to re-negotiate “labour standards” in trade deals with foreign countries. This sounds suspiciously like protectionism under another name, which could seriously damage his popular promise to turn the tide for emerging and under-developed nations by developing free trade with the third world.

All in all, it’s not going to be an easy ride for the new president Obama. He will be judged not by his style but by his substance. Anything less will burst the bubble of euphoria.