Friday, October 31, 2008

The Symbolism of Barack Obama

With just 4 days until Election Day, the political ads are flooding the TV and airwaves. However, what has struck me most powerfully, as we come down the home stretch of this campaign, is the symbolic meaning of Barack Obama’s presidency to so many American voters. To speak of symbolism is not in any way to suggest that Obama lacks substance; quite the contrary. I think his ads generally have been some of the most intelligent we have seen in recent political history; he looks into the camera and in his own words explains his plan for the economy, health care or foreign policy. There has been very little mud-slinging at John McCain. Instead he has spoken to the issues, and treated us like we really do have brains and don’t just vote on appearance or emotion. So I recognize and greatly respect the substance of Barack Obama’s campaign.

However, I can not overlook the way in which his candidacy has inspired a renewed hope in the possibility of the United States making a new start as a constructive player in the world. He reflects an attitude of caring, and he uses the words “we” and “us”, as much as he uses “me” and “I”. While being the target of countless ads suggesting he is a friend of terrorists, a socialist, a reckless liberal, and somehow un-American, he embodies in his manner and his speech what we hope is the best of America: intelligence, compassion, inclusiveness, openness and respect. As such Barack Obama is more than a candidate; he has become symbolic of what so many people hope the United States can be.

Back during the Democratic primary, someone sent me the link to one of many songs that have been written about Barack Obama, "Yes We Can." In this video, featuring several well-known actors and singers, I hear not only a spirit of hope, but also a deep yearning for change. Even now when I watch that music video, I get chills because in spite of my cynicism, it arouses a longing in me to see peace in our world, justice on our streets, integrity in our leaders, and a reconciliation and respect between people of different races and ethnicities. As I listen to that song, I begin to believe that “Yes we can” make a difference.

I was seven years old when John F. Kennedy was elected president, so I don’t know how I reacted at the time of his historic inaugural address. However, every time I watch a replay of JFK saying “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” I get chills. I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which almost always brings me to tears even now. Now at 55, I am once again moved to believe that this country can actually live up to its ideals and its principles. Barack Obama, not only as candidate, but more so as symbol, has touched a longing deep inside of me.

I know for many of my African-American colleagues and friends who have sufferred the unending pressures of racism, Obama evokes feelings of hope and vindication that I can not begin to imagine. For my daughters, one of whom will vote for the first time, this election really matters. While I don’t who they will vote for, I know that the excitement Obama has evoked in young people has made politics matter among their peers in ways that young people haven’t felt in a long time. From people who have connections overseas in Europe, Asia, and Australia, I hear that there is hope for a new kind of United States under Obama that will act differently on the world stage. Even the strong reaction of fear and anxiety Obama evokes in his opponents testifies to the power of his candidacy; the face of who qualifies as a “true American” has changed (and that is frightening to some). The fact that a bi-racial man, who identifies himself as an African-American but whose pedigree is global, could be the next President is astounding in both its reality and its symbolic meaning.

I have often wondered why anyone would want to run for President of the United States, but I am glad Barack Obama made that choice. I am cautiously hopeful that on November 5 he will be declared the next president of the United States. However, beyond that, I am thankful that he has evoked in me and in others, the belief that as common people we can make a positive difference in the world. Yes We Can!

1 comment:

Kim Allmann said...

I am excited for the election, and also hopeful about the outcome. It is refreshing to see a candidate that instills a feeling of new possibilities for our country and for our future - one who seems to realize our country's status as global citizens.
"Yes, we can!"