Monday 18th February, 2008

Debbie Jacob
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A vision of hope

I am so excited I can hardly stand it. In the 36 years I have been eligible to vote, no election in the US has given me more hope than the presidential race that we are now facing. I have been so turned off from politics, I have not bothered to vote for the last 20 years. I have not been proud of my apathy. I have never donated money to a presidential campaign, but all that has changed. My ballot is on its way to Trinidad as we speak and I am about to donate my first US$100 to the candidate of my choice, Barack Obama.

I have been following Obama’s meteoric rise even before he won his Senate seat. There was no doubt in my mind that Obama would rise to the level of a presidential candidate. Even before he was elected to the US Senate, I wrote a column claiming that he had a good chance to become the first black President of the US.

I sure had a lot of people laughing at me when I wrote that. I also had a lot of cynical souls scoffing at me and saying, “A black man in America? It will never happen.” For many people Obama’s mixed heritage was an even bigger obstacle to overcome. In America, I have always been told, mixed people belong nowhere; neither white people nor black people want to claim mixed-race people. Obama has proved all those prejudice people wrong.

Obama’s charisma, selflessness and integrity are evident in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, an inspiring story about a bright, young American man of mixed racial heritage who transcended race and became a confident individual.

For me, politicians have always come from the same mould. They are selfish, power-seeking individuals who care about their own self-aggrandisement, but it has been clear from Obama’s track record that he genuinely cares about people—particularly the grassroots. After graduating from Columbia University, Obama worked in Chicago ghettos. He left when he got a chance to attend Harvard University.

Obama made a name for himself and created history as the first black man to head the Harvard Law Review. When he graduated, he could have gone to any big law firm and worked in a posh job. He could have taken the fast track to stardom. Instead, he returned to the same Chicago ghetto where he worked for about US$15,000 a year, a paltry salary. But it’s more than this act of selflessness that gives Obama a universal appeal.

Obama is one of those rare individuals who exudes confidence and promotes hope. He is an upbeat, optimistic individual who has overcome unspeakable racial barriers. He also manages to be worldly and not stuck in some colloquial American mould. His roots reach far. With a father who was an African from Kenya and a mother who was a white American with Cherokee blood as well, Obama grew up in Kansas, Hawaii and Indonesia. His mother was an anthropologist, who must have given him a broad cultural perspective.

That Obama was able to develop the level of confidence and commitment to all people that he has demonstrated in his career is nothing short of miraculous.

In a country that still carries the baggage of slavery, he has been able to find a sense of self. The proof of his power lies in the influence he has had on this presidential campaign.

This is the first political campaign I can remember that did not totally focus on mudslinging. Obama set the tone for this election and when the Clintons tried to inject race into the picture, he quickly turned the campaign back to what it should be: a discussion of issues. He has not tried to play the race card in any way. He has demonstrated great class.

The John F Kennedy clan has thrown its support behind Obama with Kennedy’s daughter Caroline saying Obama represents the same hope her father represented. Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, who is married to the Republican governor of California, also agrees that Obama is an heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy.

There are people who say that Obama doesn’t have experience. Experience in what? Party politics and all its tired, old workings that often wreak of mismanagement and cynicism? Obama has no scandals; no skeletons in his closet like the Clintons had in their political past. He worked as a community organiser and civil rights leader in Chicago’s slums and he left those slums a better place. He was one man working in the trenches and he was able to make changes. That’s more than I can say for any other candidate.

Obama has run a well organised campaign and he’s been able to fight the well-oiled political machinery of the Clintons with admirable strength. He offers a new vision for American politics because he seeks to understand the people of the world and the problems that encompass all of us. He is not haughty. He believes in solving problems.

All elections are important, but this one feels particularly important. It feels like a pivotal election, one in which old stereotypes of politicians are being challenged. Obama reminds me of how hope always rises from despair. Just when I think nothing will ever change, a strong, charismatic leader comes along and makes me realise how cynical I have become. Now I look around for a vision of hope and new leadership everywhere I turn. I know, deep down, that someone always rises to the challenge. Someone defies the odds and demonstrates that there really is no way to move but forward.

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