I admit I was a little bleary-eyed as I watched Obama accept his party’s nomination for a second term as president of the United States. It was morning in Kolkata and I had not yet had my first cup of tea.
Other Indians were much more awake than me. Kiran Bedi, for example, was in a tweeting frenzy demanding that the PMO show Obama’s speech to our PM and all his ministers. “America provides platform for merit. In India merit has to struggle to survive,” she tweeted.
Obama is the poster boy of merit, of a man with no great political connections, no famous family name who rose from being a community organizer to president of the United States. But the true miracle of Barack Hussein Obama is that even though Tea Party types detest him, enough ordinary Americans, and not just those in that convention hall in Charlotte, seem to genuinely like the man.
There is every reason for Americans to dislike Barack Obama. He truly defies popular wisdom about what it takes to be a political candidate. He is admired around most of the world which immediately makes Americans distrustful. He won the Nobel Peace Prize which should make him an object of derision. He is Harvard-educated and is an intellectual in a country filled with some of the smartest minds in the world but which is suspicious of smarty pants.
Obama comes across as someone who can understand the macroeconomic forces behind your pain but can’t feel it the way a Bill Clinton was able to. His story is not the story of log cabin America but immigrant America, a fact that many who don’t believe in his birth certificate still hold against him. In his four years in office, he has certainly taken a lot of knocks. The healthcare plan he ended up with is a shadow of what we wanted and its effects are yet to be widely felt. The man who came to power promising that there would be no more red states or blue states but only the united states has found himself accused by his own party of being too ready to compromise too quickly.
Despite the slogans that say “Osama bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive”, the economy is still limping and Guantanamo is still open. And Obama will never look like the kind of guy who can hop in a blue-collar bar for a quick beer.
Logic dictates that Americans should have had enough of their oddball president after four years. Yet there he was, not on the defensive, in the middle of an amazingly diverse crowd that was full-throated in its embrace of the man.
I think it’s because he has never tried to be anyone but himself – somewhat cerebral, irredeemably sober, and terribly earnest. There is a fundamental decency about the guy that even his opponents cannot quite puncture. So they make an issue about his origins, his birth certificate, the preacher of the church he went to.
In a speech that covered the usual checklist of a convention speech – love my wife and kids, America is the greatest country on earth, saviour of the middle class – Obama said something that jolted me awake.
It had nothing to do with his achievements of the last four years or his promises for the next four. In fact, it was not even his own quote.
He quoted a Republican president – Abraham Lincoln.
“I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
It was profoundly moving because it’s been a long long time since I heard a politician admit to anything like that. George W. Bush famously said he had no sleepless nights over Iraq and that he could not think of one thing he had any regrets for. Over here, whether it’s Narendra Modi or Mamata Banerjee political leadership seems all about projecting that you are always indisputably right and that soul-searching is for weaklings.
Four years ago Barack Obama was the repository of so many people’s hope for change. That’s not terribly unlike what Mamata Banerjee had to live up to just a year ago here in Kolkata. Both have struggled to manage those great expectations. But their roads post-election have been markedly different. Mamata says she has already fulfilled 90 percent of her promises. Obama says “hope has been tested” and the path he is offering is neither quick nor easy. The Obama who came to the convention was not prickly, defensive, ready to blame everyone except himself for his failures. When he told the stories of ordinary Americans – an auto worker, a sailor with an amputated leg, who gave him hope he said he didn’t know what party they belonged to. Our chief minister wants to ascribe party colours to every question that gets thrown her way.
When he looked at his audience and said “I’m hopeful because of you” he did something remarkable that few politicians do. Instead of selling hope to his people, he drew on hope from them.
Kiran Bedi is right when she says Obama’s speech should be shown to our PM and his cabinet. But it should be shown to all politicians not for the clarity of communication or its rhetorical flourish.
It should be shown because whether you like him or not, he has shown that humility, fallibility and leadership are not incompatible.
The leader who has been driven to his knees many times but who still rises again because of the strength and hope he draws from his people – now that’s a radical concept for all of us, whether in Washington D.C. or Kolkata.