Douglas Adams once observed that the job of a president is "not to wield power, but to draw attention away from it." He was talking about a Galactic President (this was in ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ after all), but it seems obvious to which office he was referring. The role of President of the USA is largely symbolic, anyone who has ever watched ‘Yes Minister’ or read ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ will take note of the sobriquet, ‘Most powerful man in the world’ and instantly recognise how much power that role really carries. As Sir Humphrey Appleby reminds us, always dispense with the tricky part in the title.
Noam Chomsky compares the President to the British Queen. Each year, he observes, the Queen attends the state opening of parliament and makes a speech, outling her government’s legislative program for the coming year. However, no one asks if she agrees with, or even understands, what she is reading. The ritual is merely the remnant of an antiquated political system, long in need of reform.
Now, laughable as it is to describe as democratic a system in which two of the three legislative branches are unelected, the British system does hold an advantage over its American counterpart. The Queen may annually serve as mouth piece to the government of the day, but at least it can be said that the people who compose that speech are, for the most part, elected representatives. Inversely, most US campaigns are bank rolled by rich, powerful men, who then take up key positions in the incumbent administration and dictate policy. The President, as the only elected official in the White House, serves as Town Crier, dressed in the uniform of a higher office to lend him a false air of authority. At no other time in the modern era has this been more true than during the preceding eight years.
Of course even a Town Crier requires basic motor skills, like the ability to read aloud while simultaneously ringing a bell. Even this, it seems, was beyond the skill base of George W Bush, as his bumbling cowboy stance shuffled from one unmitigated disaster to the next, committing so many crimes against the English language in the process that, like the results from an astronomical satellite, satirists will be pouring over the data for decades to come. But then a transmitter is only as good as the programming it broadcasts and in this regard Bush has been done no favours. Neo-conservatism (a neologism which attempts to mask avarice with ideology) would be terrifying if its proponents weren’t so incompetent. Iraq, Guantamo, Katrina, the failure to catch (or even, it would seem, attempt to catch) Bin Laden, global warming, the doubling of the national debt, and the sub-prime lending meltdown, it is hard to maintain a belief in conspiracy when the conspirators are so shambolic. The Dubya Years would have been hysterical, if only so many people hadn’t died as a result of them.
Yet if ‘President of the United States of America’ is largely an affectation, it can still serve as an important symbol in a country as dependent on symbolism as the U.S undoubtedly is. Flags, anthems and triumphalism are substitutes for any real political will, yet the cult of personality the President instils did take that nation to the Moon. It also took it to Vietnam, and Chile, and El Salvador, and Iraq, twice, to name but a handful. Internationally, the President’s election is seen as a barometer to America’s current direction. When Bush was re-elected in 2004, the Daily Mirror asked, ‘How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?’, and America’s standing on the world stage plummeted. Barack Obama’s election has prompted almost universal jubilation around the world, as much a damming indictment on the policies of the last decade as it is a celebration of the first African-American President. Indeed, the world should take hope not from whom Americans have elected their Commander in Chief, but from their final (and, one hopes, ultimate), rejection of the neo-conservative, pseudo-fascist, consensus.
I was a jubilant as everyone else the night Obama was elected, but I know my political history and remain sceptical. I remember the euphoria we all felt upon Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island in 1990 and his election to President of South Africa four years later. I also remember the Structural Adjustment Policies that the World Bank and IMF imposed upon that country in return for granting loans to the ANC. Utilities were privatised and prices hiked, leaving basic amenities beyond the reach of the average poor South African. Like all revolutions (cf. American, French, Russian et al.), the top two tiers of power switched places, while little changed for the majority. And yes, I remember the words of Ghandi (or at least Ben Kingsley), that it better to be governed badly by your own people then governed well by a foreign power. Yet as bad as apartheid was, at least people could afford water.
Still, I am moderately optimistic regarding Obama’s Presidency. This isn’t 1997, when I can remember seeing Tony Blair on the news and having a moment of awareness that he was to become Prime Minster of Britain. In that instant, I realised the country was in deep trouble. With his every breath, Bliar managed to exceed even my low expectations.
I don’t expect America’s hypocrisy regarding Israel’s behaviour will change, it will continue to receive billions of dollars in military aid, and the blockade of Gaza will continue. Hundreds, thousands will die, but then 500,000 Iraqi children under the age five died during Bill Clinton’s Presidency and Madeline Albright, the woman who declared those deaths a worthwhile price for peace, is currently a national security adviser to the President Elect. Similar support will also continue for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, those twin bastions of freedom and democracy. Yet we will certainly see Guantanamo closed and the prisoners there released, or sent for trial in a recognised court on the mainland. One of the darkest chapters in American history will end on that day. We should also see US troops leave Iraq, universal healthcare, one of the pre-requisites of even a dysfunctional democracy, pushed to the fore, and conservation and global warming finally becoming federal issues.
In the words of Churchill, "We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead." This presidency will not be significantly better than any other, no parity will be established between the myriad minorities that make up the United States. Yet Obama’s relative inexperience, touted as his greatest weakness, will prove his greatest strength. He is less mired in the bureaucracy and corruption of Washington and more likely to push forward with his own agenda without being brainwashed into subsidising corporations with money fleeced from the very poorest.
So in summary, I am hopeful, which makes Obama unique amongst politicians in that he is the first in living memory not to fill me with contempt. That said, I end this article with the words of one of Obama’s predecessors, Thomas Jefferson: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." There is hope here, but let’s try to maintain a sense of perspective.