Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Obama Tsunami

The presidential election was kicked into high gear when Iowa and New Hampshire held their primaries within a week of each at the beginning of the new year, 11 months advance of the presidential election. The surprisingly strong win of Barack Obama in Iowa Democrat caucuses has shaken the political landscape so much that some pundits called it the Obama earthquake. As I watched his inspiring caucus victory speech late night on TV, I was moved. It was certainly one of the most impressive and uplifting speeches in US since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” in 1963. No, this is not an earthquake; it is a tsunami!

Over a year ago, Boston Globe published an article "At Harvard Laws, a Unifying Voice" about Barack Obama. It traced back the history making event in Feb 1990, almost 18 years ago, when Obama was elected by 60 mostly white peer editors to become the first black president of the prestige Harvard Law Review in its 104 years history. As Obama related the event later to the school newspaper of a black editor giving him a long and hard hug in congratulations right after the election, he said "At that point, I realized this was not just an individual thing. . . but something much bigger." Indeed the candidates and voters year after year have continued to miss THE point. This (and other) election is not about just political issues. This is not even just a personal issue like Hilary Clinton and John Edwards emotionally articulated about their convictions. Only when one understands he or she belongs to something much bigger, can one begin to respond to the awesome challenges and make lasting impacts.

Some highlights of Barack Obama’s background: 46 years old, elected in 2004 from Illinois first term US senator, community organizer, civil rights lawyer. Born in Hawaii 20 months after Hawaii became the 50th state of US (This is what Mike Huckalbee would call “divine intervention”!) and shortly after when the 42 years old John Kennedy was sworn into the office. His black Kenyan father and white American mother from Kansas met when they attended University of Hawaii at Manoa. Two years after Obama was born, his father left them for Harvard, and later went back to Kenya and never returned. Obama lived and schooled in Indonesia for 6 years until age 10 with his Christian mother and Indonesian Muslin stepfather. He returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii since 5th grade and followed a typical middle class schooling/working path, completed with a Harvard Law School J.D. degree magna cum laude and a successful professional career. From his brief bio, one can imagine the diverse environments and interactions, confusions and triumphs, and joys and pains Obama has experienced from which he emerged as a compassionate political figure and became the defining voice of change.

Yes, CHANGE has become the most often used magic word in this presidential election since the Jan 3rd Iowa Caucus. It was used to sometimes a laughable degree by the candidates of both parties who desperately tried to catch up and wanted to be associated with and hopefully ride the wave created by Obama. Further amplified by the press and pundits with 20/20 hindsight, the word floods all channels over the air, wires, and the paper. However, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and other candidates all missed it again, perhaps intentionally. This is not about incremental changes; this is not about tweaking and negotiating a new policy, nor is about passing a new bill with different mixes of compromises. This is about business is no longer as usual. This is about mental and attitude rather than merely a physical or appearance of change. That is why younger voters are responding and why it is a generational change - older generations have too much invested and have come to be used to the status quo.

No, no one including Obama himself should underestimate the incredible obstacles and challenges in realizing and sustaining such a change. The most difficult one however is not the so-called special interest groups or corporations like John Edwards wants us to believe. After all, we are the ones elected representatives, the governors and president. Who else can we blame? Not to mention special interest groups and corporations are supposed to do everything possible within legal limits to maximize their profits for which we are culprits through our financial activities! The biggest challenge is to change ourselves – we are our worst enemy with human nature of fearing of uncertainty. This is what Geroge W. Bush’s camp has been exploiting (successfully) for last 8 years and the subliminal message that Hilary Clinton is delivering when she spoke of experience in comparing herself with Obama.

The fundamental solution is to educate ourselves and to participate in the process. The level of overall participation, the awareness and understanding of important issues is simply embarrassingly low. A democratically elected government is by design a reflection of its people’s will (or lack of it). While the results may not be visible for a while, historians have told us that there have been a few critical moments in history the president’s decision have moved the direction of the nation, for better or worse. I am excited that this election could be such a moment when we start walking down a new path with a different and higher level of empathy. As extensive media coverage of Obama continues and as his supporters echoed in the air “Yes, We Can!” during his New Hampsire’s primary concession speech the other night, I am sure of one thing: Obama has created a tsunami. Win or loose, he has personified and delivered the message and thus left the mark for a truly fundamental change. The rest is just a question of whether we will have the first women president or first black president in Jan 2009. How exciting!!!

Talk to you soon!

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