During an internship I once did at an American consulate in China, a disheartening experience was walking through the doors each day and seeing three faces smiling down at me: Bush, Cheney, and Rice (though Cheney’s wasn’t a smile so much as an attempt at a smile). The harm that the Bush presidency has done to America’s image around the world was often most acute in its embassies and consulates. Occasionally it was almost a palpable feeling; at some functions it hung in the air like a noxious fume.
Now that a change in those three portraits can finally be glimpsed over the horizon, and now that the primaries have finally wrapped up and we’re getting down to the general election, I’ve been thinking more about why exactly I support Obama. This blog is as good a place as any to unpack my reasoning—which, as should be evident, is not unconnected to my experiences in China.
An ideal scenario is already impossible. I wish McCain had won the election in 2000, served for eight years, and a Bush-like character—perhaps the Decider himself—would now lose in 2008. I like John McCain—I think he’s honest and a healthy product of American politics. This election is a contest between two qualified individuals who are both closer to the mainstream than they are to their parties’ extremes. That is, after all, what American presidential elections should be like—it would be fine if either candidate won, unlike in 2000, in which the election results led to a disastrous presidency and immense harm to America.
But McCain is less fine than Obama. He represents insider politics, he supported key aspects of Bush’s policies that he simply shouldn’t have, and he’s an old white man. In theory that last point shouldn’t matter—if we’re truly supposed to be colorblind, shouldn’t race not be a factor? Shouldn’t we concentrate on the issues and not on race or age, which are merely symbols and are meaningless to good governance? Probably. But the fact is that race and age do matter. What is politics if not symbolism? The good that actually gets done usually happens away from the spotlight; now more than ever the vital role of the President is not as bureaucrat but as inspiration.
I don’t care much about “the issues.” McCain and Obama are candidates of major political parties in the United States. We basically know how they will behave when it comes to specific policies, and we can become familiar with excellent debates about the important issues in American politics (especially domestic ones) by reading editorial pages and by watching West Wing. Obama is remarkable not because he really has anything new to say but because he is so interesting and so exciting, an opinion shared not only at home but abroad as well. Jeremiah over at the Granite Studio recently wrote about those who are skeptical that Obama can win because they don’t think Americans are capable of getting past the racial factor. Another, perhaps subconscious, reservation is the miserable weight of the Bush presidency. How can a population that elected someone like Bush—and it did legitimately elect him in 2004, even if many votes were cast out of fear—turn around and choose someone as vastly different as Obama?
If it does, and if the doubts that Americans can get past race are overcome, it will be a terrific blow in favor of the United States’ work around the world. This is the root of my support for Obama—America’s reputation internationally. Domestic politics will change slowly and with legitimate input from many groups. That’s how American politics is designed to operate, and that kind of gradual change has worked well for us. But internationally, the President and his foreign policy will really matter. If Obama is elected we’ll show the world that we aren’t willing to put up with torture, arrogance, and hubris. We’ll show the world that we are one of the few countries that are mature enough to elect someone of not just a minority but an ethnic minority, the clearest of them all. We’ll show that our political stability enables us to peacefully enact a sea change in worldview and personality in the most powerful institution in the country, the office of the President. And by getting serious about issues like human rights and the environment we’ll show the world that we can be—we want to be—a responsible member of the international community.
In short, we’ll take a giant step forward in restoring America’s moral authority, which will be all-important as the global power structure shifts in the coming years. The United States’ best hope is not to be a preeminent economic or military power but a moral one. Its power will decline but it can find a new role for itself in its moral weight. In argument after argument with Chinese nationalists, they bring up the legitimate point that for an American to criticize human rights abuses or mistreatment of minorities is deeply hypocritical. The best counter to this is that we’ve succeeded in working through many of our problems through open and uncensored discussions in our civil society, but an Obama victory would show that we’re truly serious about moving forward. Remarkable leaders have been vital in the United States' historic rise; they will be equally vital in its decline.
Like much of the world I look forward to the coming campaign, and like many Americans I look forward to casting my vote for Obama in November. Most of all, I look forward to seeing his face on the wall the next time I walk into an American consulate. That'll be a smile I can believe in.