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America electing a transformational president

Barack Obama greets supporters at saint peter's college in jersey city (project 365 - day 9), Flickr image by graciepoo'In just one week, you can give this country the change we need. You can do that ... all of us have to come together as one nation ... we must shed our fears and our doubts, we must choose hope over fear ... together we will change this country, and we will change the world.' –from Obama's 'closing arguments' speech in Ohio one week ago, 27 October 2008.

Retrospective wisdom is that the plummeting US economy has made an Obama victory inevitable. But his lead over McCain remained puzzlingly narrow until into the final month, when it solidified to 5–8 per cent nationally.

So much could have gone wrong: the unquantifiable Bradley race factor; suspicions of Obama's exotic background, his youth, his radicalism; the incompetence and bias of some vote-counting systems in key states; the presumed stupidity and selfishness of much of the US electorate.

Obama campaiged tirelessly to overcome his strangeness, to make himself known and trustworthy to voters. Hilary Clinton's formidable challenge in primaries steeled him.

Obama's likely win will radicalise the American national agenda. To listen to his magnificent half-hour closing oration in Ohio is to encounter a politician in the Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy class. After America's worst president, Obama may prove its greatest.

He calls for nothing less than a change in the American ethos: from self-love to caring for one another; from divisiveness to unity; from short-term consumerism to taking responsibility for the world of one's children and grandchildren.

His campaign oratory takes Americans back to barely remembered communal values, to a gentler nation, to the America of Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. The question he posed: could the US citizenry — labelled by many foreign observers as the most greedy, self-satisfied people in the world — embrace this radically challenging new vision of themselves?

Today, under pressure of frightening economic recession, Americans seem certain to have the grace and wisdom to do so.

Obama offers policy solutions that the Republicans could not. His message is that a major Roosevelt-style rebuilding of America's decayed infrastructure and hollowed-out economy is needed, a federally-funded transformation to a self-reliant, renewable-energy based economy that will cut greenhouse gas emissions and end dependence on Middle East oil.

He promises to use the tax system and Keynesian deficit funding boldly to restore public health and education, to reward American entrepreneurship, to create new 'green' jobs in America, to penalise companies that export jobs, and thereby to rebuild public confidence and demand. He rejects the corporate-led globalisation model that has both taken too much of the world's wealth and also demoralised and impoverished the American working class.

This will be a presidency that puts the American people first, as did Roosevelt's during the great Depression.

It is a Christian vision, imbued with a sense of compassion and common purpose. Obama understands the need to rebuild world confidence in America, but knows that only by putting its own house in order on an ethical basis of loving one's neighbour, can America again inspire the world.

So now the hard work of change will begin: as President from January, can Obama wean Americans away from the bankrupt public values of the Bush years? And how much of his visionary program might be achievable? There will be powerful losers who will fight reform. Obama will need all his resolve and communicative skills to maintain credibility and momentum.

Despite obligatory pre-election national security tough language, I believe he will tread prudently in the Middle East. Moderating the national security culture's headkicking style, as taught by Rumsfeld and Cheney, will challenge Obama. He will need the support of clearheaded strategic contrarians, like Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson, to challenge entrenched unilateralist security doctrines.

We know he will not stake American lives in combat unless the national interest is supreme. He won't play risky wargames, and will wind back Bush's discredited war on terror. I predict he will be responsible on greenhouse gas emissions, but next year's climate conference in Copenhagen will test his administration's priorities and negotiating style.

To press health, education, infrastructure and renewable energy transformations, he will build pragmatic coalitions with efficient US state governors and responsible corporate leaders. The economic crisis opens the way to radical Keynesian deficit public spending.

For Australians as responsible international citizens, the victory is good and exciting. But in terms of traditional diplomatic currencies of national security and national interest, less so. For Obama has no reason to be particularly impressed by Australia.

We carry baggage. Howard strove for 11 years to lock Australia in as a dutifully dependent tributary state in Bush's aggressive American world order, and Rudd has not yet clearly distinguished his Australia from Howard's.

Australia's recent international agenda — pursuit of global free trade, pressing for US military-strategic engagement in Asia, an indecent enthusiasm to join Bush's worst military adventures abroad, aggressively promoting our coal, a tricky negotiating stance at Kyoto, cruelty to boat refugees and terror suspects (Detainee 002 at Guantanamo isn't forgotten) — sit poorly with Obama's agenda and values.

We now pay for what Howard wrought. I fear that for Obama, Australia may still look much like the selfish conservative go-it-alone America which he wants to leave behind.

Obama's foreign policy will be more American-hemispheric, concerned to strengthen the Democratic power base through reaching out to Caribbean and Latino immigrant communities. World leaders wishing to engage Obama in their agendas will have to earn their place. Being Australian won't give Rudd a privileged status in dialogue. So it is good that Rudd has China connections to build on, because Australia will experience looser US links for a time.

Is Rudd smart and nimble enough to see that Obama's election should be an agenda-changing signal for Australia too? It's surely time for Rudd to get out from under Howard's policy shadow, to find his own ethical voice, better to share Obama's vision of a kinder, more decent world.

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department.

Topic tags: tony kevin, barack obama, us election, john mccain



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Existing comments

I am concerned that Kevin Rudd is more like John Howard than I or others appreciate. If Howard was a black rat, then perhaps Rudd is a white rat. Only a president can act and talk like a president. I continue to be surprised that people expect a prime minister to be a president. Is the day coming when Australia will have, in some form, its own president? Could it be that only a president elected by the people will have the courage and occasion to speak in a style approaching Obama's?

By the way, if I was a Republican supporter I would be quite angry that Eureka Street has published an article that effectively names Obama as president before enough votes have been counted. Perhaps some respect should be given to due process.

Andrew McAlister | 05 November 2008  

Rudd would not have been elected had he presented himself radically different from Howard. I agree, however, that it is past time for him to demonstrate just how different he really is. You are, aren't you, Mr Rudd? Or do we have to wait another decade for the kind of leader who truly inspires? As for Eureka jumping the gun, a kind of reverse osmosis, I hope.

Bill Farrelly | 05 November 2008  

Obama is in.
Let the transformation begin.

Charles Boy | 05 November 2008  

No transformation in any fundamental respect. U.S. abortions are at 3,500 per day, and Obama's past accomplishments include unrelenting opposition to any reasonable limit, like parental notification, ultrasound imaging, etc. The issue of abortion is tangled in a 35 year old network of secrecy, deception, pitting of teachers and physicians against parents, manipulation of statistics, concealment of statutory rape, public funding under pretense of humanitarianism. In pending legislation, Obama supports eliminating any remaining constraints. 'Obama's Christian vision,' you say. Not only that, but 'imbued with a sense of compassion.'
What Christ is that? The social corruption and systematic suppression of truth which is necessary to sustain the abortion enterprise is blinding and crippling. You are dreaming if you think Obama can make everything all nice and clean without confronting that lie.

David Williams | 05 November 2008  

I write as one who, like Mr Kevin served Australia abroad in five countries including USA.
I also share Mr Kevin's view that Mr Rudd should get "out from under Howard's policy shadow"---certainly in foreign policy.
Pity President-elect Obama is a proponent and advocate of legal abortion without restriction.

Bill Barry | 05 November 2008  

A very well informed assessment of the US President elect as is clearly shown in Obama's gracious acceptance speech. Also a very well informed assessment of our P.M.Time is running out for Rudd to show he has the courage and integrity"to get out from under Howard's policy shadow and to find his own ethical voice." Rudd cannot be blamed for the economic crisis but his failure to speak out against capital punishment and his failure to insist that Dr Moeller and his family should be warmly welcomed into our country are just 2 examples of how Rudd is falling far short of the electorate's expectations 12 months ago.

David Dyer | 05 November 2008  

It may appear great but I think it's a great lost of conscience of the majority of American, who now value more of the economic security than the importance of life.

To have a president radically in favour of abortion, particularly partial birth late term abortion, doesn't sit well with someone like me with moderate commonsense & compassion. This is very cruel, loaded with the most injustice act of all, when a baby is half delivered and the brain is sucked which causes the baby's head to collapse and died.
Be careful my friends and not be deceived by promises which we like to hear. Evil comes very cunningly as an angel of light. What's the use of eloquence speech and big promises if our most defenseless brothers & sisters do not get any legal protection. Ask Jesus in your prayer if you are a true Christian who practices your faith, what does He think?

Is America now truly a country where there is real freedom? Where is the most basic freedom, which is to live? I don't think America has had its worst president. May God bless America and have mercy on us.

David Lemewu | 05 November 2008  

I watched Obama's victory speech with the hope that America will once again be the beacon of hope for the world. The Bush years were an absolute disaster by an administration that bankrupted America involving it in two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and alienating it from its allies.

Obama's top three priorities are health, education and reviving a terrible economy. I hope the change we need will translate into policies that will improve our lives in America.

Terry Stavridis | 05 November 2008  

Obviously, Mr Tony Kevin does not know that on Oct,7,2007 Sen. Barack Obama spoke to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and promised 'The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing I'll do'. The Freedom of Choice Act is the most sweeping pro-abortion ever proposed in the United States.

Ron Cini | 06 November 2008  

I'm not sure why my piece on Obama as a transformational president at a time of national crisis in the USA might have attracted the particular angst of four [male, out of the nine comments so far] correspondents whose particular concern is Obama's position on abortion. I have not seen that priority reflected in newspaper letters columns. Nevertheless, I sought out what Obama has said on the subject, and found this measured and substantive statement earlier this year on Roe vs Wade:

Rather than finger-pointing soundbites on U-Tube, Eureka Street readers might want to read that statement as an indication of where Obama is coming from on these issues.

I also wonder at the outlook of people who are prepared to condemn a political leader on one particular issue, out of the thousands he now must confront as US President. I would have thought his firm commitment to rebuild the broken public health system, thereby saving the lives of thousands of poor sick mothers and children who are now dying in Bush's America for lack of health care, would weigh in the balance.

tony kevin | 07 November 2008  

I totally agree with Tony's assessment of the behaviour of the government that Kevin Rudd leads
- aside from the much touted apology, which - while being long overdue and by dint of this fact - did not require much courage to carry out, they have been particularly unimpressive in being in any way inovative with regards to the major challenges that Australia faces.
It now appears that they are going to use the current financial challenges as a reason to be even less impressive.
This is not simply a wasted opportunity - it reveals a government that has not got the political will to do what needs to be done.

Noel Will | 07 November 2008  

What a tragedy it is that Obama is so Pro-Abortion.
Very little was made of this fact during the election campaign.
In so many other ways he would make an excellent president.

John Tobin | 08 November 2008  

You'd have to be a fool to believe that Obama's going to be able to fulfil any of these grandiose promises

Harry Schrefer | 09 November 2008  

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