Andrew Sullivan was right last year when he wrote “Good bye to All That: Why Obama Matters.” for the December issue of The Atlantic magazine. Sullivan could not have foreseen the role of the financial crisis in sweeping Obama into office. Who saw that coming? But he did predict the sheer importance of being Barak–his unique suitability for this moment, his singular ability to cross over the Vietnam War divide, to overcome the religious wars and to begin closing the racial chasm.
And Sullivan clearly saw the power of Obama as symbol of America. Here’s how he put it:
What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.
Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
I usually write about virtual government in terms of the immersive Internet, social networking, games for training, and other matters Web 2.0. But today, I am deeply moved by America 2.0, this amazing place where white men and African Americans, and Latinos and young people and millions of brand new voters carried an African American man into our highest office.
This astonishing act of hope and belief and love of all that is good about the country overshadows all the YouTubes, MySpaces, Facebooks, wikis, Twitters, -pedias, synthetic worlds, serious games, multitouch screens, blogs and artificially intelligent agents that usually excite me so. The mere fact of President Obama opens lines of communications, opportunities for collaboration and most of all minds and hearts in ways none of that can.
Yes, day-after euphoria over what we have achieved will give way to the cold, brutish clanging and clashing of governance. But consider what Noah Schactman over at Wired’s Danger Room blog already found out about the meaning of Obama.
In January, Shachtman sat next to a flag-level U.S. military officer at a conference about U.S. information operations. The officer, a Christian conservative and warrior in what he sees as a religious war against terrorism, praised Obama. Shachtman explains:
You see, this officer oversaw special operations work around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Sensitive stuff, that requires delicate negotiations. And already, just as one among many candidates for president, Obama was making this officer’s job easier. Officials in other governments were more willing to provide his troops access to their countries. Foreign intelligence services were more willing to share information.
Just as a President Obama forces change in the way black Americans view this country and white Americans, he also bleeds away the hypocrisy that has so damaged us abroad.
What is this new place we live in, where crowds gather in cities, horns blare and we shout a new president’s name from our porches into the night? What might we become after choosing a man who lauds the struggles of women and gay people while accepting such a heavy mantle? Have we finally left our agonizing teenage years of rebellion and contentiousness to enter a national adulthood?
In June, I wrote: “With Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination today, comes a rare return to the feeling that anything is possible here in Washington. It likely won’t last long, but it’s stirring and wonderful, like the fresh breeze after one of our sudden, thunderous storms washes the stale, humid air of summer.” Now, in the crisp orange and auburn of autumn, the wind has come. It blows clean the trees and streets, chills the shorter days and longer nights, augurs the icy winter, but also the spring, when all becomes possible again.