Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why the world wants Obama

If the world could vote it’s clear that Barack Obama would win the presidency in a landslide. A recent survey by The Economist magazine showed Obama winning in basically every country on Earth (save for some reason Georgia and Macedonia). But why such a lopsided margin? Perhaps an email I received from a dear friend teaching English in the Russian heartland might shed some light.

Her class includes not only the college-age students hoping to go abroad that you would expect, but also a few well into middle-age who just want to learn English - the American version they stress, not the Queen’s, thank you. Considering the poor state of relations between our governments, that little fact is remarkable, that obviously to these students deep in Siberia, the idea of America means something special.

That idea also made its way onto the PBS news program “World Focus”, which on Tuesday did a report from correspondents in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s not surprising that the Kenyans are backing Obama, since it was the homeland of his father, what was remarkable though was the degree that they had embraced American culture in general. Young people hanging out in malls decked out in baggy jeans and baseball caps singing along to hip-hop, are a far more common sight today in Nairobi than youth wearing dashikis listening to Kenyan music. Even down the coast in Tanzania World Focus reported that while the War on Terror has caused the predominantly Muslim Tanzanians to dislike the government of the United States, they draw a distinction between the government and the American people, whom they still looked on very favorably.

And that’s why I think the world is so overwhelmingly supporting Obama – because his election would validate their belief in America. That in the imaginations of people around the world America remains a place where you are not bound by caste, limited by race, color or creed, or held back by lack of wealth or connections; that it is a place where even the son of an immigrant, even someone from a group once owned as property can aspire to the highest office in the land.

It’s not to say that America is perfect, far from it – we spend too much and save too little, we need to be better stewards of the land, we too often focus on the silly instead of the serious (it will be interesting to see whether more people this year vote for American Idol or President) – in short, we still struggle to be the “more perfect union” our Founding Fathers challenged us to be. But that struggle is a strength, not a weakness.

The world supports Obama not for his policies (I’d venture to guess that outside of some universities and salons in Europe the world is likely not even aware of many of his positions), but because of the simple power of his ideal. His election would reconfirm in their hearts and minds the idea of America as the “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan once said - a place not of secret prisons, rendition flights, extra-judicial detention, and some of the other excesses of the War on Terror that smell too hauntingly of the tin-pot dictatorships so many came here to escape - but of a land of infinite possibilities.

It is the land the world wants America to be, next Tuesday they hope to see their faith renewed.
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