Americas

Obama: Waiting on the Black President

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama makes announcements during a news conference at the transition headquarters January 7, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

I have deliberately called Barack Obama 'the' black president, rather than 'a' black president because no election of any black president anywhere has been as historic as his election as the 44th president of the United States of America. Besides, any President of the USA, the only remaining super-power, is generally regarded as President of the world. In that sense Obama is the first black president of the world.

As monumental an achievement as his election was, his regime, to be inaugurated on 20 January 2009, faces tremendous challenges.

Obviously one of the biggest challenges will be managing expectations. These expectations come from different constituencies: from African Americans who gave him an unprecedented support, perhaps hoping that his regime will at least lead to a change in the way the black person is perceived, and from America's political left of the centre which had become disenchanted with the Reagan brand of market economics that coincidentally tanked during the presidential campaigns and helped to elect Obama president. In fact, expectations from Obama are as diverse as his constituencies of support across the globe. Even the geeks believe that Obama, who is said to love BlackBerry, and once collected comic books, would be the first geek-in-chief. Benjamin Nugent, author of the book American Nerd: The Story of My People (2008), was reported as saying that Obama is good at "repressing his inner geek, but you can tell it's there." That is regarded as a compliment rather than insult but still some expectation to live up to!

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Obama has won kudos for the speed with which he has assembled his cabinet. Similarly by selecting familiar and experienced officials, mostly from the Clinton era - an era that evokes powerful memories of prosperity and peace - Obama may be subtly trying to appropriate some of the halo from that period. He could also be signalling that his regime would be a sort of extension of Clinton's, in style and substance. Bill Clinton remains popular across the world. The selection of experienced and familiar names also helps to assuage fears in some quarters of a black president with little experience and a funny sounding name.

One of Obama's most praised moves as president- elect has been his selection of a 'Team of Rivals'. Inspired by another President from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who appointed not only his three rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edwards Bates) to key wartime posts but also gave important jobs to three Democrats of renown (Gideon Welles, Montgomery Blair, and Edwin M. Stanton), Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate and appointed Hillary Clinton to the powerful post of Secretary of State. Both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton contested the Democratic presidential nomination against him. Additionally he retained Robert Gates, a Republican, as the Defence Secretary.

There are opportunities and threats in Obama's 'Team of Rivals'. On the plus side, some have argued that Obama's 'Team of Rivals' might be a clever long-term political planning rather than any attempt to imitate Lincoln whom he openly admires. It is for instance argued that by co-opting Hillary Clinton into his administration, Obama might be hoping to neutralise a potential challenger in 2012. The co-optation could also be aimed at checkmating her ubiquitous husband, Bill Clinton, who has a propensity for foreign policy freelancing, some of which could embarrass the new regime. It was in fact reported that part of the deal that paved the way for Hillary Clinton's appointment was an agreement by the former president to let the State Department review his future speeches and business activities. The 'Team of Rivals' could also help to re-assure Americans and the world financial markets that Obama, who was suspected of being a 'liberal' (a term more pejorative in the US than in other political climes) and even a socialist (remember the 'Joe the Plumber' jibe?), would indeed rule from the centre.

There are however flipsides to the idea of 'Team of Rivals'. While pundits have hailed Hillary Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State - arguably the most important cabinet post in the US - there is always a distinct possibility that she could use the job to define herself in preparation for a 2012 run. Members of this 'Team of Rivals', with their over-sized egos, could also find teamwork difficult. Similarly can Obama really count on the unalloyed support of these former rivals who had derided his experience during the primaries when the inevitable challenges, pummelling from the G.O.P and stumbles that every first term president must face, begin to happen?

Obama also faces a special challenge of managing expectations from the developing world, especially Africa. By America's one-drop rule, Obama is a black man. By the system of patriarchy dominant in Africa, he is seen by many Africans as an African. There is therefore a certain belief that Obama will be able to understand the problems of Africa better than any previous American president, and would be more compassionate when dealing with issues concerning the continent. The problem here is that American foreign policy, like the foreign policy of any nation, is fundamentally driven by national interest, not altruism. To that extent the difference between an Obama administration and any other American administration is likely to be more in style rather than in the substance of governance.

There is of course the daunting challenge of the economic meltdown, which arguably handed the presidency to Obama. With the dire economic outlook for 2009 and the coming years, can Obama deliver? This may be too early to predict. But with George Bush's massive 600- billion dollar bailout, Obama has been provided a well-needed cover to increase the bailout and provide other stimulus packages that perhaps could enable him to spend his way out of the recession. Without George Bush's massive state intervention to save capitalism from imploding, allegations that Obama was a socialist would have been more difficult to shake off had the bailout started under his watch.

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Jideofor Adibe is the editor of the multidisciplinary journal, African Renaissance, and publisher, Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd, (www.adonis-abbey.com), a London-based publisher of books and journals.

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