There are very few who would claim that Barack Obama’s victory falls short of being an unprecedented success. Probably there are even fewer people who would say that four years ago they saw it coming. In the 2008 American presidential election, the fairly unknown (before at least) senator from Illinois gained the trust of a majority of American voters to become the first non-white American president. His election marked the end of the longest and most expensive presidential campaign in American history.
Obviously, Obama’s victory was as much a product of his talent, personality and skillful campaigning as it was a result of voters’ disillusionment with the Bush administration and the weakness of John McCain. However, what counts is the outcome that might transform the United States itself and its relations with the rest of the world.
Barack Obama’s victory, though clear and decisive, was not a landslide. While he won decisively, if counting Electoral College votes (Obama got 365 against 173 of McCain’s and 270 were needed to win the presidency), in the popular vote he received 52 percent of all votes (against 46 for McCain). In sheer numbers it means that about 68 million Americans cast their votes for Obama, whereas 59 million picked McCain. This electoral arithmetic proves something that the president-elect already seemed to know: that he needs to bring bipartisanship to the front of his domestic agenda.
The change that Obama has so extensively talked about, and that has so desperately been awaited by many Americans, deals mostly with U.S. domestic politics. But from the Polish perspective, it is surely the international element of this transformation that should be watched closely.
President of the World?
Rarely can we witness such an abrupt rise in popularity as the one Obama experienced during just several months. And this is not a popularity measured only in votes but in media hype and social networks as well. Moreover, this phenomenon was hardly limited to the United States. On the contrary: Obama seems to have enjoyed more support abroad than at home. When he visited Berlin this July as a presidential candidate, Obama received the sort of ecstatic reception that is usually reserved for rock stars, not presidential wannabes from the other side of the pond. Of course, the Obama-mania abroad does not have to be more than just a short-lasting trend so typical in the globalised, digital world. On the other hand, there might be something more to it. As the International Herald Tribune wrote long before Obama secured the presidency: “Obama’s newfound popularity among Germans underscores not only the breadth of his appeal but also the opportunity he might have as president? to mend fences abroad as well as at home.”
But not so far. Mr. Obama is not necessarily bound to succeed.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Thomas Paine famously observed on the potential of the then-rising American nation. If nowadays there is any truth in that dictum, it seems crucial for Obama’s administration to start “remaking” America itself before even trying to reshape the world over again. The current administration tried to do the opposite, which didn’t serve America’s position in the world well.
Finally, let us not forget that these great expectations for Obama are hugely exaggerated as well as unrealistic. Firstly, the foreign policy of the United States has been quite firm when it comes to exercising American interests, regardless of which party’s candidate happened to occupy the White House. Secondly, as long as the United States remains the world’s only superpower there will always be some people (or even whole countries) that hate America. This tendency was skillfully summarised by Jeff Jacoby from the Boston Globe, who pointed out that “President Obama may speak more softly than his predecessor, but he will still be carrying a very big stick.” According to Jacoby, Obama, like other presidents, will be loudly condemned abroad when he uses this power. And as “George W. Bush can tell him, the abuse goes with the job.”
Love and Prejudice
The American presidential election was watched in Poland quite assiduously. In fact, one might go as far as to say that “the Polish media has been obsessed with the U.S. election,” as Michal Kobosko remarked in Newsweek. Some of the pundits attempted to surmise which candidate would be the better choice for Polish relations with the United States. Generally, their discussion ran along the lines of arguments that Republicans “have historically been better for Poland.” Meanwhile, other journalists remained preoccupied with the rather strange mix of issues which the future U.S. president should guarantee: that is abolishing the visa system for Poland, and keeping the agreement with Warsaw on the defence missile system (the so-called antiballistic shield).
But perhaps the most stunning aspect of the U.S. election frenzy in Poland was the unprecedented interest of (young) Poles who are normally quite sceptical when it comes to politics. A good example of this tendency was the election night organised by the U.S. Consulate in Krakow together with the Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski College and the Jagiellonian University. If someone entered this event and was told that it was taking place in the United States, there would be no reason not to believe in it. Several hundred people (mostly students) gathered there – almost entirely equipped with American flags and hats – cheering on their chosen candidates. There was even an internal election held during the event, in this instance won decisively by Barack Obama. For those who feared that Poland is slowly becoming less pro-American that it used to be, this must have been a pleasant surprise.
However, as is often the case, it was a politician who stole the show with his dubious comment in the Polish Sejm. A couple of days after Americans picked Barack Obama to be their next president, lawmaker Artur Górski of the Law and Justice party made all the evening news by claiming that Obama’s victory marks the “end of the civilisation of the white man.” Mr. Górski, who up until this moment had mostly been known for the fact that he had been unknown, called U.S. president-elect the “black messiah of the new left.” He was swiftly criticised by most politicians (regardless of political affiliation). Nevertheless, the incident was a small reminder that in Poland, “a change” (in terms of stereotypical thinking) might also be needed.
Audacity of Change
President Obama will undoubtedly face great challenges in the first months (or even years) of his presidency. The three most apparent are: the economic crisis, and the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. That is why he needs ? as the British Economist suggests – to “translate his vague philosophy of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ into governance.” Otherwise he might struggle to maintain public support and political credibility. Indeed, he may yet share the fate of the first President Bush, who in 1992 was not able to secure his re-election, mainly due to the economic crisis. Likewise, he might follow in President’s Clinton’s footsteps and lose Congress only two years after the election. This would mark the beginning of his administration’s demise. His supporters must remain confident that Barack Obama will be smart and fortunate enough to avoid the mistakes of his afore-mentioned predecessors. Because the current political and economic situation looks rather gloomy for the U.S., Obama can have no hope of enjoying a presidential honeymoon. To paraphrase his campaign slogan: Yes he could. And he still can. But will he be able to?