Friday, February 29, 2008

Adventures in American Presidency

As the campaign of Barack Obama gained momentum, Kenyans - embroiled in campaigns of a more dangerous nature - noted with chagrin that the United States could have a Luo president before Kenya. This raises an interesting question: would Obama's ethnic roots help or hurt him as president?

Obama, of course, does not identify himself as a Luo. He may sympathize with Raila Odinga - a Luo who believes he was elected president of Kenya on December 27 - but if so because of Odinga's similarities to Al Gore circa 2000, not Obama's similarities to Odinga. No matter: those who send their scions on to great success in America remain fiercely proud and possessive.

Hopefully, the Kenyan crisis will be resolved soon. But if it is inherited by the next president, it is difficult to imagine Kikuyu leaders accepting President Obama as a fair arbitrator. The politics of ethnicity and identity could be played out elsewhere: Indonesians think Obama is one of their own; black Sudanese will claim him as "their kind" in conflicts with white Sudanese; a few deluded Sunni Muslims might even assume that Obama pere's conversion to Sunni Islam gives them the president's ear.

America has seen shadows of this before - Germany thought Theodore Roosevelt, fluent in German and a former exchange student there - would be particularly friendly. He was not; he carried an awfully big stick to chase the Kaiser's navy away from Venezuela (src). Obama, however, has already attracted more attention from the world than a whole stable of Anglo-European candidates. As president, he would garner still more attention: most of it good, and for good reason. The words "President Obama" would speak volumes about America's opportunity and openness, and his friendly (if not knowledgable) approach to the world would repair the damage from Bush's impatient diplomacy.

Nonetheless, his perceived identity would crop up again and again, and the world would have to get an education in American politics: that our leaders do not merely govern for those who look like them or talk like them. Obama's Kenyan relatives would probably be sorely disappointed by an Obama presidency; likewise other groups that assume they can cash in on some tie they think they have. Managing those demands and disappointments would be an interesting and bemusing job for Foggy Bottom.

Needless to say, none of this ought to have any impact on voters' choices. Obama, in my opinion, would be an extremely liberal and ultimately deeply divisive president, some of whose proposals risk dragging the U.S. into recession and plunging countries who depend on commerce with us into depression. But so would Hillary Clinton - and she's apparently a Kikuyu.

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