A new beginning – and not just for America

The new US President is an exceptional politician the like of which is seen once in a lifetime. His election is also a response to three of America’’s worst legacies.

It is no exaggeration to say that Barack Obama’s election as US President is a historic event. Apart from anything else it is a response to three of America’’s worst legacies, its burdens from past and more recent history. While his victory does not automatically transcend them, it presents a way of coming to terms with them.

The first legacy is skin colour, the race issue. The second is 11 September 2001. The third is the disenchantment and disappointment over the country’’s direction, often accompanied by a sense of helplessness, pessimism and cynicism as to whether social change is possible.

The race issue is no longer as acute as it was in the period of the heroic struggle for human and civil rights. African Americans have grown their own elite, their own politicians, businessmen, generals and philanthropists. Nevertheless, it is still a very real and painful issue that has many manifestations, including all kinds of discrimination, violence within the black community, as well as such vicious circles as young single mothers living on social security.

The 9/11 terrorist attack has left a deep wound in the American psyche. Most Americans perceived it as cruelly unfair: why do they hate us so much? What did we do to deserve this?

Disappointment and helplessness often make people believe there is no point in being involved in social affairs because an individual cannot make an impact, since it is always somewhere else, behind closed doors, that the key decisions are made.

The American Dream

Barack Obama has confronted these traumas head on through his entire life story, his presidential programme and his personality. He has broken barriers that we may have hoped no longer existed – but someone had to test them first. Americans had to see a living proof that race did not play a key role in the final vote. It is not by abandoning security programmes that he can help America come to terms with the legacy of 9/11. It is by seeking new allies, moderate representatives of other races, other continents and other religions, who can make their due contribution to stemming the tide of terrorism and militant radicalism.

Here in Europe we have yet to fully appreciate that Obama is an exceptional politician the like of which is seen once in a lifetime. He is possessed of talent, determination, discipline and charisma. He realizes that current problems cannot be resolved by government alone, without the cooperation of committed individuals. What this means for Americans is the revival of their traditional myth, the American dream: the belief that everyone can succeed thanks to their own abilities and hard work. It is a dream of freedom, prosperity and equal opportunities. This narrative has long been part of US politicians’ stock in trade. President Abraham Lincoln emphasized equal opportunities for all. President Roosevelt reminded his people in the difficult years of the 193os economic crisis that the only things Americans had to fear was fear itself. In his 1960 acceptance speech, President Kennedy spoke of the New Frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And the black civil activist and priest, Nobel peace prize laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, has become indelibly ingrained in American memory with his historic speech about his version of the dream of equality and freedom for all Americans.

Barack Obama has consciously built on these traditions and he has managed to apply them creatively in his campaign. The American dream includes the new beginnings theme. It is the epitome of optimism, the belief that you can always start anew, keep on trying and seize every opportunity. This is a way of reading Obama’’s key slogan Yes we can! This is how we should understand the frequent use, in key words of his speeches, of the prefix re-: revive, renew, restore, revitalize, reinvigorate.

Impact on Slovakia

A strong and cooperative USA is a top priority for the European Union and Slovakia, as allies of the USA. If an Obama administration succeeds in overcoming the current economic and financial crisis, it will help restore faith in democratic capitalism, and this is not without importance for us in Slovakia. What I mean by democratic capitalism is a social system that is not doctrinaire but open, capable of self-correction and learning from its mistakes. Our faith in this system has been badly shaken and it would be unfortunate if this opened the door to other, less desirable models of state-controlled or authoritarian capitalism.

It needs to be said that Obama had a worthy foe, a man of character who has served his country well. John McCain helped Obama become a better man. Now what lies ahead is a second, more demanding and longer chapter that will be played out in the realm of limited possibilities of day-to-day politics. There is no guarantee that he will succeed in achieving his goals. Nobody knows what his style of government will be, but perhaps we can assume that his approach to carrying out public office will characterized by qualities that have already been on display: a willingness to listen, the ability to surround himself with top quality people, and outstanding leadership skills.

The wider political context and specific public policies in relevant areas, from the economy to foreign policy, are certain to come under detailed scrutiny – which in the Central European case will no doubt be peppered with a healthy dose of irony and skepticism – but first we should note Barack Obama’’s ability to inspire, motivate and attract young people in business, politics and in civil society. In our country, too, we have minorities in need of such role models. Back in the 1960s Slovak students used to have photos of President Kennedy on their dormitory walls. The world has since become a smaller place and we should not be surprised soon to find a picture of the new US president adorning the desk of a young Roma leader.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the SME on 06 November 2008.

We are grateful to Martin Bútora for the permission to publish this text in English.