Obama-McCain: the World’s Main Event

Here’s a first conversational stab at the point that Obama vs. McCain — while it’s not the world’s election — is a world event like no US presidential campaign before it. This is partly the Web effect, which puts millions, maybe billions, of people in the churn of daily information about the campaign. And it’s even moreso the resonance of Barack Obama, who’s been dubbed “Germany’s favorite politician at the moment” (in Germany) and “definitively… the candidate of Europe” (in Portugal), as Shmuel Rosner of Ha’aretz wrote in Slate this Spring.

It’s different and remarkable, furthermore, as the young editor of openUSA, Kanishk Tharoor, remarks in our conversation, that interest abroad in US politics seems based less on calculations of US foreign policy toward nations and continents like China, say, or Africa or the Middle East. The fascination seems rather with “underlying issues like race, like generation, like globalism.” And the provocative effect of the fascination shows up, for example, in a piece written for openUSA from India that asks: “Can there be a Muslim Obama?” Or as Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy puts it in this conversation from London, Obama “unlocks possibility. He unlocks the imagination. If he could do that, what could I do? What could we do?”

Anthony Barnett

There’s a challenge here for people like Anthony Barnett (and me!) who came to flinch at “American exceptionalism” when Bush-Cheney made it stand for unilateralism and reckless war, but who must be intrigued again with the “only in America” dimensions of, yes, Barack Obama. Here’s the Barnett version:

My views are shifting slightly. I don’t think America is any longer the “indispensable nation.” What Madeline Albright was saying was about power politics: America as Numero Uno — the iron fist and the aircraft carrier behind it. Obviously America is a mightily powerful and economically influential nation, and will remain so. But this sense that it will dominate the century through a combination of wealth and force has, I think, been broken by Iraq — whatever now happens in Iraq. The world doesn’t want it; it’s contemptuous of it. And therefore an element of normalization, and of America becoming a country like other countries, is very healthy and will be very welcome.

But there’s another aspect of this, which is that there was always something about America which said: this is what it’s like to be a modern country. The world will be like us. We are the future. Progress resides here. And for the rest of the world — certainly after 1945, essentially when I grew up — the American way of life, its freedom, its wealth, its liberties, its music… this is what it was to be a modern person. This is no longer the case. For the last ten or 15 years young people have not seen America as what what it’s like to be a modern person. Obama, however, does say something like… “well, it really is an open political system in some ways. Perhaps this recreates a potential for people saying: yeah, right, we want to be like that. America means it. It talks the talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, and actually is delivering. It means it.” That does represent a potential re-lighting of the American example.

Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy in conversation with Kanishk Tharoor of openUSA and Chris Lydon of Open Source, June 18, 2008

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  • jordon

    Interesting conversation. I have no doubt that our allies embrace what Obama “represents.” (An interesting choice of words, because it doesn’t necessarily correlate to who Obama actually is. But I digress.)

    But I wonder if the Palestinians think differently about Obama when he pledges to AIPAC that Jerusalem will remain “unified,” essentially in defiance of international law. This coming from a man who used to march in solidarity with Palestine when he was small potatoes in Chicago.

    I wonder if Latin America thinks differently about Obama when he fails to condemn Columbia human rights abuses.

    I wonder if Iranians think differently about Obama when he intones, “I will do anything in my power. ANYTHING…IN…MY…POWER” to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.

    It’s hard to read statements like these and not get cynical.

  • Chris, when you say that the possibility of Obama being elected would be one of the things that “only happen in America”, what do you exactly mean? If it is having a president from a racial minority, that’s happened before (look no further from latin america). If it was a woman president, again look at latin america or other countries.

    I think there are many, many things that make America unique and special in the world, but those are not part of them. The fascination that Obama produces in some parts of the world is not so much because people can relate to him necessarily more than to anybody else, but precisely because, in our minds at least, this is something very unlikely to happen in America, which suggests a less navel-gazing super-power in terms of it’s relationship with the rest of the world.

  • Speaking to Jordon’s first point in the comment above: This could appear to be splitting hairs, but in fact no distinctions are too fine, and no language quite coded enough, for the Middle East conversation that Barack Obama joined in his appearance before AIPAC. My friend Bernard Avishai noted in his blog that Obama had chosen his words with utmost care and spoke of an “undivided” Jerusalem, not a “united” Jerusalem. I quote just an excerpt here, but it’s all worth reading at: http://bernardavishai.blogspot.com/2008/06/undivided-attention.html

    “But even the most apparently contentious thing he said—contentious, at least, outside the room—was carefully worded. Obama said that in any two-state solution Israel would have an “undivided” Jerusalem as its capital. He did not—note well—say a “united” Jerusalem, which would have pushed him from the Democratic Party to the Likud.

    “Indeed, let’s be clear about this, since some (including Mahmud Abbas, alas) have interpreted his phrase to mean exclusive Israeli sovereignty in the city. Again, when Israeli rightists say that Jerusalem should be exclusively theirs they say the city should be Israel’s capital and united. “Undivided” is the Labor Party euphemism for a city whose Arab and Jewish quarters are not separated by a wall, as before 1967 (and—though this is not usually mentioned in this context—the wall Israel has more recently thrown up).

    ““Undivided” does not prejudice the question of who is awarded formal sovereignty where. The Geneva Initiative, for example, proposes an undivided Jerusalem with international forces helping to keep the place an administrative whole.

    “OBAMA, TO BE sure, didn’t make any new friends in the Arab world yesterday. But he is likely to be the only president who will get something of a honeymoon from the Arab world nevertheless, as with the rest of the world. He is establishing himself as the Mohammed Ali of conflict resolution. If anyone expected the jabs to start landing yesterday, nobody laid a glove on him.”

    So in general I am fighting the daily temptation to get cynical.

  • In response to Ismael Celis’ question: “Only in America!” was an expression — spoken with a Yiddish accent. Then it was a title of a popular book by Leo Rosten. Then, of course, it became a cliche, containing some truth and some lies. Then it became a joke, then many jokes. As in:

    “1. Only in America……can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance.

    2. Only in America……are there handicap parking places in front of a skating rink.

    3. Only in America……do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front.

    4. Only in America……do people order double cheese burgers, large fries, and a diet Coke.

    5. Only in America……do banks leave both doors to the vault open and then chain the pens to the counters.

    6. Only in America……do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our useless junk in the garage.

    7. Only in America……do we use answering machines to screen calls and then have call waiting so we won’t miss a call from someone we didn’t want to talk to in the first place.

    8. Only in America……do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight.

    9. Only in America……do we use the word ‘politics’ to describe the process so well: Poli’ in Latin meaning ‘many’ and ‘tics’ meaning ‘bloodsucking creatures’.

    10. Only in America……do they have drive-up ATM machines with Braille lettering.”

    Okay, all earnestness again. The rise of Barack Obama still reminds me urgently of Nick Lemann’s observation on our radio show years ago that the American meritocracy is made up of three types: Lifers (Bob Dole, John Kerry, John McCain) who served their way up close to the top rung; Mandarins (Bill Clinton, the Rhodes Scholar, and George W. Bush of Skull and Bones) who got certified by the right institutions; and Talents (Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot) who had neither Ivy degrees or years of time in grade, but had the sort of skill, dazzle or charm that makes a career in athletics or, say, jazz. Nick Lemann’s concluding point was roughly that ours is the only political culture in which Talents can rise all the way. Barack Obama has Mandarin credentials, of course; there’s none better than being elected president of the Harvard Law Review. But he also is supremely a Talent. And his rise, even more than Reagan’s as the two-term governor of California before he became president, has a lot of those “only in America” qualities I referred to above. He also has the sort of authorial mind and writing flair that makes me think he is still doing a great deal of thinking for himself.

  • RC32

    Jordan, I woul not be to worried. Hammas has endorsed Obama.

  • hurley

    Chris correctly says that no distinctions are too fine. But there remain distinctions without a difference. “Undivided” as opposed to “united” in this context a case in point. Why the code — to be generous — when change is the mantra? Why not a clean break, or a clear statement of principle unclouded by rank political semantics. Politics, of course, but that’s what in part he’s proposing to free us from, and more power to him if he can. What does he propose to back up the general perception that he might be marginally more progressive than his predecessor in these and other matters? I’m certain someone out there can tell me. Nother, maybe — and this is no jab, just a question to open up the conversation, where I hope to be bested/worsted, what have you. But then Nother presents a vote for Obama as an obligation rather than a choice, on the basis of rhetoric, and I back off even further, retreating to the point about Nader and no one owning your vote. Chris’s advocacy of Obama — and I hope it’s justified, it would be a credit to both –ignores his record altogether. I understand he’s he’s trying to register the effect rather than the man. But the two begin to blur. In any event, I hope Obama redeems all this good faith. Comments, please.

  • No, no, no, no! That’s just the undercard, the warm-up event. As a friend of mine put it, the main event’s going to be:

    Obama vs. Osama — Two former Muslims competing for world domination!

  • Not to be the negative voice here, but might the fact that the rest of the world is focusing on “underlying issues like race, like generation, like globalism” rather than on foreign policy be in some part because folks think–and I know this is definitely a factor in Pakistan, for example–that any real difference between the two on that score–will be one of style rather than substance? [Of course, barring Iraq, *maybe*; but then there’s Palestine, Afghanistan, not supporting the aspirations of people from Pakistan to Turkey to South America…

  • @ Ismael C.: Couldn’t agree more!

  • RC32

    Obama just pulled a 180 on public financing. Looks like he has decided to try and buy the election. If a Republican had done this he would have been demonized by the media and other liberals. But it’s Obama so that makes it OK

  • Potter

    Chris- I read Harry Golden’s ( not Leo Rosten’s) “Only in America”- all the rage back in a certain era. We also read “For Two Cents Plain”. Fun.

    I also fight cynicism- but I am fighting it by not expecting too much. As I said to Nother- just being will be enough for Obama in that office for while anyway. And where are the progressives going to go anyway. Still they ( we) can nip at his feet… and should. But not yet. If Hurley here is on one end- Nother on the other, then I will be neutral. Still I can’t help but feeling good even about Obama’s nomination, that Democrats will put him up. Even that is enough. I totally agree with what Chris said about McCain in the interview. There is really no one but Obama at this point.

    But it’s a good question or point but not much of a puzzle as to why so many, including myself, feel that Obama and Michelle and their kids in the “White” House will have great meaning for this country. Let the rest of the world make of it what they will. At the same time- Obama, as was said too, transcends this all. Pretty soon we collectively may not see the color of his skin and there will be a collective yawn about it. So what and for goodness sake! And only perhaps a “man of color” who has not the history to overcome that many African-Americans here have had, can do it and show the way.

    Obama voted in February 08 to supportthe Dodd- Feingold amendment to the FISA bill to repeal immunity given to the telecommunications companies who participated in Bush’s illegal wiretapping program. Now he is going to support the FISA bill without that amendment- not even clear he will be in the Senate when this happens. See Russ Feingold’s list-reasons why this is a bad bill.

  • Potter

    Sorry I forgot to add to that last complaint that my husband was so angry that he donated elsewheresome anti- Stennie Hoyer group and actually posted on DKos about it let Obama know. (It takes a lot to get him going. )

    Also while I am here- I am with Hurley about “undivided” and “united” Jerusalem being a distinction without a difference for many who do not know or speak in the code. They seem the same and as such I see no reason why an undivided united Jerusalem need prejudice one side or another in a final settlement. People who live in the holy city should evolve already or be forced to.

  • jazzman

    As usual, in our for all intents and purposes binary party system, the voters are presented with a choice between representatives selected by the public during the primary process which in my opinion does not yield the optimum candidate either in electability or ideology. Obama narrowly squeaked out the win over Hillary, but the virtual dead heat indicates that practically ½ of the democratic voters preferred Hillary to him and more than half preferred someone else. I was supporting Edwards but he’d dropped out before the MA primary so I was left with the 2 main choices (Kucinich was the most closely aligned to my personal politics but was a non-starter.) My wife voted Hillary solely on gender – she wanted a female presidential role model for my granddaughter) while I voted Obama due to my dislike of Hillary’s voting record. I would have supported either one over McCain or any of the Republican candidates (Ron Paul had some interesting rhetoric but I wouldn’t trust him.) So it’s McCain or Obama and despite Barack’s shortcomings, would you rather have a fearful recalcitrant uncompromising warrior from a long line of warriors who is approaching senescence and whose straight talk is as rigid as his mind, or would you prefer a reasoning person who isn’t afraid to talk with our “enemies” and has rhetorical skills equal to or surpassing the great presidents of our nation. For me it’s obvious.

    Rc21+11: Despite many attempts, no one has ever been able to buy a U.S. presidential election (with money – political favors are another story.)

    Peace to ALL,


  • Potter

    Hello Jazzman-

    I agree with practically everything you say. We were for Edwards too. Not Hillary- whatever good will she started with was lost along the way. Then we looked to the “too green” Obama and fell for him. Now we have sobered a bit. McCain is almost a joke but not the funny kind. Oddly though he takes a position here and there I prefer ( not on the war, oh no!). Also I am dismayed that preferences across the country are so evenly divided which shows such different sensibilities/world views. Kucinich, bless his soul, is still trying to impeach Bush I understand.

  • jazzman

    Potter: OK I’ll bite, would you care to divulge some of the odd here & there positions for which McCain professes he maintains that you prefer? I’m sure he must have some positions which coincide with my own.

    One of my “laws” is that anyone who is able to appeal to a mass audience through rhetoric has to intersperse greater than 50% of what most persons would consider being “THE TRUTH” in the rhetoric, otherwise the mass appeal would not occur (even for the prime subject of Godwin’s law.)

    I used to listen to rabble rousers of all stripes in order to winnow the fallacies and what I considered valid points from their speeches (the better to discuss them with proponents.) Now I usually forego listening to the type as it accomplishes little.

    I too am disheartened by the numbers who (IMO out of fear) support such a psyche, but as Tolkien, Lucas, and Campbell are fond of noting, even the darkest of characters has a positive role to play in our dramas.

    Peace to ALL

  • Odds are that the next several years will be so unrelentingly grim that whoever is elected President will have license to make bold moves that have been unthinkable in recent years. We will need someone with the orientation to try big things. That means Obama. And the fact that Congress will be Democratic reinforces that only Obama can do the big things we will need.

    We need a Roosevelt now. McCain would just be a Hoover, wasting time on the impractical luxury of a discredited ideology. Let’s elect Obama and not have to wait until the next election.

  • Dr. Seuss

    America’s involvement in Iraq has become a sort of quagmire of which many analysts have predicted that our presence there will span somewhere between one and four generations. At least that was the thinking in 2004. These things being time sensitive we’ve now come up with an idea that will negate the necessity of a formal surrender to the enemy. We will always be involved in the Middle East to a greater or lesser degree and we will always have troops there, but now we can go from an aggressive military posture to a defensive one with troop reduction. The familiar ebb and flow of wars gone by has transformed into a more technologically cohesive environment in which real time decisions yield real time results; leading to a more protracted situation in which the disputants and their egos have NO REASON to capitulate. We have finally figured out how to save face in the 21st century. How are we going to do this? With an American President who is the polar opposite of George Bush: Barack Hussein Obama. He has a Muslim middle name (not that that means anything by itself), he is black (not that this means anything), and he is far to the political left (also meaningless). He is the perfect candidate to negotiate a peace in the Middle East and win back worldwide respect for America. How? Because he is black, he believes in change, and we owe him at least that much for slavery. So what is the point of this post? Barak Hussein Obama is being INSTALLED to the Presidency of The United States of America by the CIA as THE ONLY SOLUTION to end our current level of involvement in Iraq: a familiar technique used by certain warriors throughout time. He came out of the blue and raised over a quarter of a BILLION dollars in campaign contributions given by individuals who work for companies such as Goldman Sachs and Time Warner of which only the amount is made public, but not the names of the multiple individuals within these companies who send in the money.

    Obama’s obscure origins are reminiscent of the lives of many great leaders including Moses and Jesus. We should take heed not to forget that religious imagery and war strategy are not mutually exclusive. Obama has been chosen … now that’s what I call true democracy.

  • Potter

    Hola Jazzman!- look here under the topics “Energy & Oil” and “The Environment” he has a few good positions. But as you run down the others- he is a disaster.

  • Potter

    ( I am out of practice ) here is the link http://www.ontheissues.org/john_mccain.htm

  • Dr. Seuss


    What is even HARDER to comprehend is why some people automatically fly off the handle when an American politician makes a statement in defense of his own country. Should EVERYONE have nuclear weapons? Would the world be “safer” that way so spiteful souls can say “now they have what we have” “we are no better than they are” (even though moral judgments aren’t the issue)? I got it – why don’t just GIVE the rest of the world ALL of our technology so we don’t have to be so spiteful and self loathing. Then we can relax in the thought that since everyone now has what we have, even though they DO NOT have the same legal and philosophical history that we do, we nevertheless put our faith in THEM; that they will not lose their temper on some silly personal detail and light the world ablaze. LOL, wanna take the risk? I’d rather try it out over YOUR tent, not mine! Perhaps the temperamental African warlords should also be given nuclear technology – so we can come full circle in our SPITEFUL WORLD VIEW that everyone is, well, “equal” – even though YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA or familiarity with what you’re talking about. Perhaps defending America should not even be a part of Obama’s job description, since being black AUTOMATICALLY bestows him with a greater wisdom on violence than his white colleagues. Oops, did I just say that? So then, when it comes time to brief President Obama on critical military issues when the COUNTRIES safety is at stake, we should just ignore the idea of telling him about it because he is so far above these things that he has become morally obligated to ignore it. OK, sounds like a plan.

  • RC32

    Dr Seuss. Good points. I wonder if the same people who feel that other countries should also have a nuclear arsenal becuse we do,and as you state ”We are no better than they are” (I love moral relativism) Would also wish that Nazi Germany,and Japan had been given the Bomb during WW2. After all, we were no better than them.

  • Dr. Seuss


    I feel obligated to warn you about the Leprechauns and the Fairies. They were isolated for a long period of time in the forest and their social skills are not exactly fully developed. As a consequence they shun the light and do not make spiritual progress in their realm. They feel guilty that they did not contribute to the collective in an industrial manner, yet they reap the benefits of the resources. To compensate they use spite, antagonism, and tit for tat for its own sake while shunning other ideas and solutions. It is actually SPITE based on circular applications of a crude form of Natural Law.

  • RC32

    Your Leprechauns and Fairies seem to share many of the same traits as our academic elites.

  • jazzman

    Potter: Thanks for the link – sorry to be so long in replying, I just got back from vacation and had to clean my work slate. I checked out McCain’s position list and quotes (as well as Obama’s,) but with little knowledge of the context of the quotes, (i.e., who is the audience? Is he pandering etc.?) As for the votes on congressional bills, what layman has a clue to what deals, riders, and pet pork are embedded in there? (Even the Congress is ignorant of many bill’s contents, leading to fallout from the law of unintended consequences.) As you say, the assumed negative positions far outweigh the putative positive positions, and the more Obama’s vagueness disappears with his mounting position trail the less I agree with his take on the world. Still as a far lesser of the perennial 2 evils, he would have to mess up in a brobdingnagian fashion to tip the balance toward McCain.

    Dr. Seuss: Re: Should EVERYONE have nuclear weapons?

    No! No one should have nuclear weapons, it is folly to think that the insane doctrine of mutually assured destruction results stalemates vis-à-vis us vs. them or them vs. them. The sooner the nucular WsMD as well as “peaceful power purposes” genie is banished to the bottle the better off we’ll all be. If it is defending one’s country to rattle the saber of “total annihilation” (Hillary) or “anything in my power” (Obama) rhetoric, then don’t be surprised if the bluff is called and fearful nations on all sides of the manufactured threat believe that we have to get them before they get us. This is madness. I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s Who’s Next.

    BTW are you still in WW2 mode? Dr. Seuss’ Dark side

    Peace to ALL