Great leap forward

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am

For many months now, the world has been ready for a black US president. The question was whether the US was ready. That has been answered with a resounding 'Yes!' The election reflected a seismic shift in America. It is truly remarkable that an African-American with an 'unusual' name could be elected president.

Senator Obama's election was the result of a combination of circumstances. He is a charismatic figure whose oratory brings tears to the eyes of listeners. He was also helped by the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the onset of the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Senator Obama is a phenomenon. His election brought rapturous delight to Americans and foreigners alike. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Bush Republican, was so overjoyed that she met the media to proclaim her pride in a country that has 'been through a long journey in terms of overcoming wounds and making race not the factor in our lives'.

So, was race a factor in the election? Of course. About 95 per cent of African-American voters chose Senator Obama. But he could not have won without the support of white voters; about 43 per cent of them chose him. While most whites voted against him, this may not have been primarily because of race: none of the last three Democratic presidential candidates - Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry - won more than 43 per cent of the white vote.

What Senator Obama did was to transcend race. As former secretary of state Colin Powell said, he was a presidential candidate who happened to be an African-American - not an African-American candidate. Throughout 20 months of campaigning, Senator Obama stayed away from the race issue. But after race became an issue because of his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama confronted it. In a speech in Philadelphia on March 18, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence, which he called 'America's improbable experiment with democracy'. And he made much of the phrase 'a more perfect union' saying, 'working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds' and 'in fact, we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union'.

Senator Obama's election has been welcomed around the world. Kenya, his father's homeland, declared a national holiday. Among world leaders who sent congratulatory messages was the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is the first such message in the 28 years since the US and Iran broke diplomatic relations.

From now, it will be a lot harder for foreigners to condemn America as a land of hatred and hypocrisy, with an African-American at its head. Within America, it will be a lot harder to deride the American Dream because, day in and day out, people will be able to see the fruition of that dream.

A key component of Senator Obama's winning strategy was the registration of new voters - not just 18-year-olds but older people, many of them African-American, who had never taken the trouble to vote. To them, there was no real choice, with each campaign throwing up two white male candidates. Karl Rove, Mr Bush's former political strategist, calls them 'decitizenised Americans'.

Senator Obama's success was in convincing them that they could make a difference. Millions not only registered to vote but actually took the trouble to do so, standing in line for hours.

This means that they have now bought into the American Dream, which previously was only a dream for white Americans. African-Americans, for the most part, did not share in that dream because they believed that it was beyond their reach.

Now it will be a lot easier for non-white children to be told that they can do anything and be anything they want, including president of the United States. It is about time this happened, since whites are forecast to be a minority in the US by 2042.

America has embarked on a new start. As Dr Rice said: 'That work is not done', but election day was 'obviously an extraordinary step'. For now, the world wishes the US well.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator