Barack Obama

The challenge of change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 November, 2008, 12:00am

The battle for the US presidency was fought on how far the electorate wants change - change from the George W. Bush era of neo-liberalism and right-wing fundamentalism. As expected, Barrack Obama, a young black leader who was only elected to the US Senate four years ago, won the presidency with a clear mandate from the American people. This has been acclaimed worldwide as a moment of history. Just four decades ago, blacks were still subject to segregation in the south, and the federal law to ban disenfranchisement of blacks was only passed in 1965. Senator Obama's political ascendancy symbolises the final coming of age of a new America that no longer makes a fuss about skin colour.

It is also a display of national confidence. After all, the American system is one which runs on the strength of its many local communities and the free market, rather than the power of a central state. However, the US is held as a superpower in the global arena - sometimes in admiration and sometimes in awe. With Senator Obama at its helm, someone with limited baggage and a fresh look, the US should be able to portray a more human face in its international relations, something badly needed.

The message of 'change' and 'hope' has sent him to the White House. Eight years of the Bush administration have ended with a US widely perceived to be arrogant and even intolerant. The world abhors Mr Bush's jingoistic ventures in the name of fighting terrorism.

The US has been deprived of its moral leadership on the world stage, even though it remains a strong nation in many respects. Traditional American values have failed to give full recognition to the diversity in history, cultures and perspectives across nations. The world has seen more clashes in civilisations as a result of misguided American diplomacy. The US needs to chart a new course of multiculturalism that is less Euro-centric.

Senator Obama has to rescue the US from decline. His election also comes at a time when the world at large is casting strong doubt on American capitalism, the credibility of which has been seriously eroded by the collapse of Wall Street, and the global financial crisis that is pushing many countries into recession. The kind of neo-liberalism that came along with the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s has now reached its 'end of history'.

America is at a crossroads economically and intellectually. As the world's leading market economy, its future direction is still watched closely, and many are expecting the new president to launch another 'New Deal' comparable to president Franklin D. Roosevelt's after the Great Depression.

Although Senator Obama speaks a different language from mainstream US politicians, his ability to deliver fundamental change is not to be taken for granted. Both the Democrats and Republicans had their turn to champion a new course before - Bill Clinton had his days of New Democracy and Mr Bush won his first presidential term by promising compassionate conservatism.

But there are structural problems inherent in the US body politic (special interests and pork-barrel politics) that easily block reforms. Some commentators have also faulted Senator Obama for being vague in policies during his campaign. The election of a political new face, and a black person at that, as the 44th president no doubt demonstrates the vibrancy of American democracy and the US people's readiness for change. Whether change is followed by hope, however, hinges on Senator Obama's ability to lead the US in a more fundamental soul-searching process.

Although he has won by a wide margin in Electoral College votes, Senator Obama's popular vote share, at 53 per cent, is only 6 percentage points ahead of John McCain's.

In Taiwan, the victory of the Kuomintang in both the presidential and legislative elections has not made president Ma Ying-jeou's government more effective when facing a tough opposition that still enjoys a good following. Let's hope Senator Obama has better skills and luck than Mr Ma.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank