Barack Obama and the burden to be great
January 21, 2009 § 5 Comments
By Khaya Dlanga
Barack Obama expects to be great. Please allow me to digress before I delve into the reasons. Rarely has any American president inherited a country in such shambles. And so it is with great interest that the world looks at this defining moment in the history of America. Because, let’s face it, people generally have low expectations for blacks. The travesty is that many black people are guilty of being active participants in this low expectations disease. When then senator Barack Obama announced that he would be running for the presidency of the United States of America, finding a black person who believed that he could win was as difficult as finding a prostitute walking the streets of heaven.
I followed the American election in 2004 with great interest because I firmly believed that Americans would not make the same mistake twice. In my mind there was no way they would elect George Walker Bush twice. As I crawled the internet for news about the 2004 Democratic National Convention I read news reports singing the praises of this young black state senator from Illinois. I searched the internet for his speech. This was the BY era, Before YouTube.
When I found the speech I told myself that here stands a future American president. Of course I didn’t think he would be president in four years. Eight to twelve years seemed more realistic. It made sense. He was not yet a United States senator. He was a mere state senator for crying out loud.
But when he announced that he was running for the presidency early in 2007 I made an impassioned video on YouTube stating my excitement and belief that Obama would be America’s first black president. I got more abuse from African Americans than I anticipated. I couldn’t believe the low expectations.
The kind of comments I got were that White America still harboured a lot of racist feelings. They would never allow a black man to win the presidency. It was just in America’s nature to put the black man down. America has not changed. Of course there were far worse comments. I was told to go back to Africa, the irony of course was that I was in Africa. While these people were in the slumber of cynicism, they didn’t realise that America had and was changing. America still has the capacity to change. And to surprise.
Today, the very same people who did not believe he would win claim not to have had a single shred of doubt he would win. This reminds me of the great difficulty I have of finding a white person that actually voted for the National Party during the apartheid era.
Ironically now that he has won, he is not just expected to be a good president. Being good will be tantamount to being like George Walker Bush. He cannot be good. He must be great. The only modern American president to have expectations of greatness thrust upon him was John F Kennedy. But he did not live long enough.
As I wrote in one of my blogs a while back, and so to quote myself, “He is not unaware of his burden to be great. Just two weeks ago at the Al Smith (the first Catholic to run for the presidency of the United States) dinner where both candidates (Obama and McCain) were invited to poke fun at one another, Obama said of himself, “Contrary to the rumours you may have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton, sent here by my father Jo Ell to save the planet earth.” It’s an amusing take on what he knows and what everybody knows. Unlike Jesus he is not expected to walk on water, he is expected to levitate. People almost see him as some deity. But he is a mere man who has chosen to be extraordinary.
Well, he certainly expects to be great. Any president who can meet the challenges that America faces can only be great. Take a look at these lines from his inaugural address, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.” America – they will be met. He said those words with conviction and so we believed him.
Then later he goes on to say, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” He knows that he has to earn greatness. It is not a given because it is expected. From him who much is given, much is expected.
Obama’s confidence in his abilities cannot be understated. Back in 2004, the day he was due to deliver the speech that made him at the Democratic National Convention, Marty Nesbitt, a successful black businessman, says that Obama was calm. According to the New Yorker:
Obama has always had a healthy understanding of the reaction he elicits in others, and he learned to use it to his advantage a very long time ago. Marty Nesbitt remembers Obama’s utter calm the day he gave his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which made him an international celebrity and a potential 2008 Presidential candidate. “We were walking down the street late in the afternoon,” Nesbitt told me. “And this crowd was building behind us, like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters.”
“Barack, man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said.
“Yeah, if you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow,” Obama replied.
“What do you mean?”
“My speech,” Obama said, “is pretty good.”
Some may call this arrogance, but I believe that he just sets very high standards for himself. Standards he expects to meet. Impossibly high standards he often meets.
Had he not demonstrated signs of greatness along his path to the presidency we might not have had as great expectations as we do as a people. The manner in which he dealt with the Reverend Wright saga was one such demonstrate of a man of extraordinary makings.
Of course he will disappoint here and there. How could he not? He is human.
In the same way that Bush’s failed presidency did not surprise many of us foreigners, Obama’s success will not be a surprise. It is expected.
Rarely has there been such a wide gap of expectation between two men who would assume the mantle of most powerful man in the world. When George Walker Bush, the 43rd president of the United States was elected, the peoples of the world had nothing but low expectations of him. We were wrong, he exceeded them beyond our imagination. He left office with two unfinished wars, an unprecedented deficit, an ailing global economy. At one point the price of oil was over $140 a barrel on his watch. He left a major US city to drown. Now there is Gaza too. The list of incompetence is endless. And he left a black man to clean up the mess. Ok, that was meant to be joke.
Barack Obama expects to be a great president too. He has often referred to Abraham Lincoln. He was sworn in, he placed his hand on the very same Bible that was used by Abraham Lincoln when he took the oath of office. He is the only president to have been sworn in on that Bible since Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps most presidents just didn’t want to set themselves up to such symbolic great expectations. He even announced his run for the presidency on the very same steps as Abe Lincoln did when announcing his presidency.
Lincoln was skinny, so is Obama. Lincoln had large ears. So does Obama. Except for one difference, Abe was not considered a good looking man. In fact he is said to have retorted to a senator who called him two-faced in the following manner, “If I were two faced, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”
The only president to have inherited a worse America must have been Abraham Lincoln. He had to prevent the union from being divided. If war was the only option to keeping a United States of America united, then he would make room for a civil war. It was just one crisis. Obama is facing several. And the world looks to him to lead it too.
As Obama stepped on the podium to deliver his inaugural address I saw a man carrying the great expectations on his shoulder. His shoulders seem strong enough to carry this burden. I don’t think he sees this as a burden. To quote someone else other than myself – Bono. When the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) awarded him the Chairman’s Award, he made an impassioned speech where he said the following words as he spoke about us as being the generation that could end extreme poverty, “This is not a burden. It’s an adventure.” I suspect that Obama does not see this as a burden at all.
From now on, blacks no longer have the excuse of setting low expectations for themselves. Thank you President Obama.