Meaning

Image

 

Why is this image so powerful?

Even before the caption is read and the context explained, it has a very strong visual resonance.

Obama is obviously an historical figure, a phenomenal orator, a symbol of humanity and intellect. With his image comes a huge amount of that recollection and meaning: the victory speech after the Iowa primary in January 2008 (“They said this day would never come”), the victory speeches after the two elections (2012: “The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote”), the basket ball, the humor of the correspondent’s diner, the battle with Donald Trump and so on.

The pose is somewhat humble and inquiring and Obama is alone, looking confident but curious.

But that is only the start of the meaning. That Obama is sitting on the bus where Rosa Parks once made her historic protest changes the picture altogether. Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger became a powerful weapon in the civil rights movement’s campaign which would eventually change laws and end segregation; her act is a landmark on the continuing struggle for racial equality in the US.

The bus is in a museum now, of course, and Rosa Parks herself died in 2005. But the act lives on a strong symbol. Fifty-two years and a few months after Park’s original ‘disobedience’ led to her arrest, Obama was sworn in as US president, the ultimate proof that – whatever racism remains in America – it is not ingrained in the institutions through which the country is run.

Race at times seems to be the least part of the Obama presidency. I’m sure that’s how it should be. However, this image reminds us that it is no small achievement for a country that – within living memory – built racism into its laws, to elect a president who might have been the victim of such segregation.

Where’s the party?

Here’s a bit written for a magazine (.net) who ended up using ony a few words of it).

Obama sending me an email. Probably.

There’s been a lot written about how Barack Obama raised the funds that got him elected to the Whitehouse last month, with the total running at over $650m (compare that to a combined total of $696m for both candidates in 2004). Symbolically just as important as the huge volumes of cash was where it came from. Nearly half of the funds raised came from donations of under $200 (making up a staggering 93% of donors). And how did he do that? By using the internet.

Raising huge amounts of money allowed Obama to outspend his opponent in media time, including a 30 minute infomercial broadcast at primetime on multiple networks just a week before the polls. It allowed him to compete in traditionally Republican strongholds (many of which he ended up winning), and it allowed him to create a hugely effective on-the-ground campaign organisation. Perhaps most significantly, having 3.1 million donors means having 3.1 million active and vocal supporters who, in a very tangible sense, became part of the cause.

The millions who joined in the campaign through social networks and the its own websites (whether or not they gave money), created enormous momentum; allowing an unknown candidate to battle against the established Washington elite. The intelligent use of the network allowed the Obama campaign to shift its emphasis from traditional ‘command and control’, and to begin enabling groups and precincts to self organise. Given the right channels, the enthusiasm could simply flow. With the result being the huge crowds which came to see Obama speak across the US.

McCain and the Republicans saw the internet as a fundraising Channel. Obama saw it as a way to build and maintain a personal political movement. That’s a seismic shift.

Fundraising and race may make great headlines today but in the long term the Obama presidency will likely be remembered more  for rethinking the nature of political organisation itself.

Obama’s presidency will defined as much by his independence from his party and the media, as the policies he pursues. More than any president in history, he has both the opportunity and the will to listen to and speak to his constituents directly, without needing to engage armies of pollsters or the press corp. And he also has the ability to speak independently of the Democratic party, allowing a more bipartisan approach and clearer, simpler relationship with the electorate.

Take for example change.gov – the website to understand individual voters’ visions of change during the transition – or the email sent to supporters before giving his historic acceptance at Grant Park:

Tom —

I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.

We just made history.  And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.

You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change…. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next. 

The most remarkable  thing about that email is how unsurprising it seems for a newly elected president to whip off a quick missive to the millions who supported his campaign. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of party faithful, iPhones in hand, who would have started beeping before Obama even took the stage.

How long before we see the US’s first truly independent president, running without party endorsement or organisation, a new stage for the concept of imperial presidency.

Hopefully, Obama and his nascent administration can continue in office what they have started on the campaign and we will start to see a vision of democracy which is worth exporting.

[UPDATE: really good post on topic of governing and consensus – but can’t the point be that many supporters want Obama to lead but to listen and to explain himself]  


On progress

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There’s a couple of things that every Brit knows about Americans. The first is that they make terrible TV. Not the shows that turn up as box sets at Christmas, but that stuff they pipe into hotel rooms: 1000s of virtually identical channels packed with ads for erectile dysfunction cures and multi-purpose household implements.

The second is that Americans don’t ‘get’ sarcasm.

The French invented Braille, parachutes and eating horses; the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper money; and the English invented sarcasm. No I’m not being sarcastic. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit but it is the highest form of English snobbery, especially when directed at our American cousins.

And because Americans don’t get it, you see, they are dumb.

Or so we normally have it.

I’ve spent the last week in New York, and have been absolutely enthralled by the election and the response to it.

So first off. Anyone who can turn the five hundredth reading of a stump speech into an interesting two-hour television segment deserves recognition and should be immediately conscripted to the beeb. (The people from the totally unbelievable ‘Paris BFF’ should be allowed to stay where they are.)

But what about the sarcasm? A skill which has been removed from me like the exorcism of an evil spirit.

Here in New York – As the t-shirts say –  Obama is ‘the new black’, (irony and wordplay alert). His relatively narrow win in the national poll (in contrast to the electoral-college landslide) is not borne out in this, most progressive of states where the Chicago Senator won over 70% of the vote, and is feted as a transitional figure by many in the media elite.

But in every sense, it’s a much closer race. John McCain may have picked the gaffe-prone and polarizing Palin as a way of staying onside with the right-most wing of his own party, but when rising above the rough and tumble of combative partisan politics, he was essentially a sound- and independently- minded thinker. And a competent leader at that. If evidence of this is needed, witness his concession speech or the multiple occurrences on the campaign trail where he was visibly uncomfortable with the excessive reactions and and heckles of his own supporters.

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Obama, on the other hand, has consistently talked in only the very broadest terms about his plan for the presidency, vexing some with his lack of detailed strategies, although maintaining a very measured temperament and considered response, even in the finals days where a last minute strike could have robbed him of the vote.

But despite all of the billions spent analyzing and portraying the race  and its themes, this is personality politics of the most simple sort.

The whole point of McCain as a republican candidate was that he could unite the country. And it has been hard not to be impressed with him when he has talked freely in town-hall meetings allowing journalists and voters to ask unrestricted questions, showing honesty, openness and courage.

For his part Obama has been inspirational, consistent, even and positive throughout this longest of election campaigns.

Whilst race may be the most startling headline of Obama’s victory, it is not the most interesting difference in the two candidates, and neither, really was politics. Does your average Jo (plumber or not), have a view on a distributive vs trickle-down policies? Were significant numbers voting for or against race and ethnicity  (not according to exit polls, age was more important). Were they voting along party lines? (not the swing voters  that have sent Obama to the Whitehouse).

Instead, voters chose the candidate, I believe, who best fitted into a national narrative about unity and progress (interesting thoughts from Ciaran on this here). And the narrative is that things get better if you are sincere and work hard. We Brits savor our sarcasm and irony as hallmarks of sophistication and intelligence. For us, the best way to achieve success is by a kind of complex act of good fortune combined with guile. America is simpler, it is about taking the chances you are given and making something of them by hard work.

John McCain’s issue was not that he couldn’t fit this narrative, it’s that he temporarily ignored it to try and take out his opponent, at times getting dangerously close to stirring up bigotry in his own party. Whether this was actually his fault (or the actions of the GOP without his consent) seems of little importance. At every turn, it weakened his position.

The war hero who returns to the United States to make a difference is a great start to his story. The ‘maverick’ who  battles against lobbyists  and wasteful spending is a great start to his story. The primary candidate who comes back from the brink is a great start to his story. But all of these were drowned out when McCain started defining his campaign by what it wasn’t and what was wrong with his opponent.

On the other side, of course, the first African American president is a great story. Although Barack Obama had to leave this option alone for much of the campaign. Instead he communicated a vision of a whole country getting behind the next phase of the nation’s growth, did so very consistently and positioned integrity as the key ingredient in that progress.

Is it symbolically significant that Obama has been elected? Without doubt. Will he do a good job? Who knows, there seem to be a lot of good signs. Would McCain have done a good job? Probably, and especially if he could have stayed far away from the extreme flanks of his own party.

But the reason that Obama’s victory is met with such jubilation is that America can go on believing that they are capable, always, of defining their own future. Obama is both proof and promise of that dream.