Barack Obama – Term II of balancing mystique and realpolitik

By Minu Jain, IANS,

New Delhi : The burnish may have dulled, the excitement of “Yes we can” somewhat diminished from four years ago. But the romanticism of being Barack Obama, the first African American president who rose from a middle class, mixed racial upbringing to occupy the White House, continues to be the stuff of legend.

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Obama was Tuesday re-elected for another term in the White House – writing in another page of history. He is still up there as the icon of hope in a world battling discrimination but the US president twice over is balancing everyday realpolitik with the burden of a billion dreams.

There is the best-selling author and the formidable orator who has articulated so powerfully the struggle of being the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother growing up in middle class America. And then there is President Obama, 51, who took office in a world just coming out of the recession, struggled for four years to keep the economy afloat and battled challenges abroad.

On Victory Night II in Chicago Tuesday, his famous “Yes We Can” speech came back in a happy refrain as the president reminded his supporters: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

In the last decades, the US has seen charismatic presidents, glamorous ones even, a Hollywood actor, another that was a farmer but none quite like Barack Hussein Obama, born in Hawaii on Aug 4, 1961, to Barack Obama Sr. from the Kenyan Luo tribe and Ann Dunham from Kansas.

Obama, a lawyer by profession, exercises an irresistible, emotive pull. Still.

He is a Christian with a Muslim grandfather who went to a Muslim school in Indonesia for two years and unhesitatingly declared Hussein as his middle name during his 2009 oath-taking ceremony much to the discomfiture of conservative America. He is black and white, with the former becoming the leitmotif of his life.

Obama was nine when the significance of his being a different colour hit him. It was in Indonesia, where he lived with his mother for a few years after her marriage to an Indonesian, Lolo. She left the young Barry in a library; he finished his homework, read his comics and started leafing through the collection of Life magazines when he came across the photograph of a man with a ghostly blue pallor.

“The man had received a chemical treatment, the article explained, to lighten his complexion… There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.

“I felt my face and neck get hot… I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show them what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance,” Obama writes in his autobiography “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Life and Inheritance”.

It was a feeling that stayed with him for long. Even with his maternal grandparents, who helped raise him in Hawaii.
“Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.”

If colour was one defining identity, Obama has also been candid about the many conflicting emotions that his name evoked.

Barack means blessed in Arabic, he remembers telling a friend, and adding, “My grandfather was a Muslim.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the “day the world fractured”, he writes in the preface of his blockbuster book, the name became an “irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republican operatives”.

Much of President Obama’s life is an open book. Literally. From detailing experiences with a German girlfriend to his beginnings as a community worker, he has laid bare a lot of his life. Perhaps this is why so many have felt a sense of empathy for him. That he actually made it to the White House made it a personal journey of triumph for many who fought long and hard for civil liberties not just in the US but in other parts of the world too.

Champagne may not have popped across the world this time but it was that same hope that echoed this Tuesday, exactly four years to that Tuesday when America voted in Obama for the first time.

The hard-nosed politician, the dreamer, the conflicted teen – it is tempting to cast Obama in the mould of a legend. But the mystique battles the reality of being president of the world’s only superpower.

The disconnect between the hype and the reality did indeed get sharper every day of his four year presidency. His black identity, his Muslim identity, his white identity… all have been called in to play in the last four years.

Two years ago when he came to India, fears he might be seen as a Muslim with a headscarf back home had prompted Obama to cancel his trip to the Sikh shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar.

As Obama begins term two, can those crises be laid to rest?

(Minu Jain can be contacted at [email protected])