Sunday, February 1, 2009

Global Responses to Obama Presidency

Here are a few quotes from friends of this blog, reporting from around the world:

Peter Kjeseth in Cape Town, South Africa:

On election day some people stayed up all night to be sure of the results—and not just U.S. nationals. Both before and after the “historic day” all English language newspapers featured Obama’s smiling face on the front page.

At Holy Trinity, the Anglican parish we attend in Kalk Bay, on the Sunday after the election, one of the retired priest/members preached. He is a gentle, non-flamboyant guy, but three minutes into his sermon, he dramatically rolled down from the pulpit a full front-page newspaper featuring Obama’s victory scene in Grant Park, with the gigantic headline LANDSLIDE across the full page. The good priest proceeded to inform us with quiet pride, about his wonderful trip to the U.S. a few years back and how he had always had great faith in the American people. Now the U.S. had returned to its better self, and that gave hope to the whole world.

He was not the only one to feel this way. Ray Ackerman, one of South Africa’s leading businessmen, gave an inspiring speech at a business breakfast in which he celebrated Obama’s victory.

There were a few precautionary voices. We must not expect too much of Obama. After all, he must undo the tragic mischief and neglect of the Bush years. We should not all load our hopes on him and the Americans.

But the loudest sound was euphoria.

As Obama mounts the world bully pulpit almost daily to remind us that the struggle will be long and hard, the mood here is more than sober. Throw in the disintegration of our neighbor, Zimbabwe, where starvation and cholera continue to wipe out the most vulnerable, and you have signs of panic.

South Africans expect to be inspired by his charisma [in his inauguration speech]. But a mood of watch and see, words are words, but deeds are what count most, has set in. Our media sees Obama as preoccupied with U.S. economic recovery. What will the implications be for Africa, for the whole global system? How NEW with the new beginning be?

Tanya Wittwer in Australia:

Together with all of my friends, I was absolutely delighted at the outcome of the election (and terrified for Obama’s personal safety). It followed on from our own significant change of government a year before. We have already experienced that year, with jubilation at important (mostly symbolic) things that were quickly done – Sorry Day (longed for by so many, for so long), holding a summit of citizens and a summit of young people, which felt like a great counterbalance to the years of suppressed dissent under Howard. But the reality of the economic downturn, for which the greed of individuals and the unregulated nature of banks in the U.S. seem to be fairly and squarely to blame, has tempered our expectation of what might be achieved. Australian hopefulness of building a better and fairer country at this time is somewhat diminished.

So I think that is the background that I have in thinking and feeling about President Obama. Absolute joy over a new person in the White House. That feels very important for the US, and ultimately for the world (and for women). Much hope that the US may relate differently to the rest of the world, particularly parts of the world that have been much burdened by its policies and war machine. A quiet confidence that decisions get made differently by people that have significant experience outside of the U.S. But all those positive feelings are strongly tempered by the reality of the global situation into which this President walks: climate change, economic crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe. Decisions and actions of the U.S. have a wide-reaching impact on the rest of the world, but one person cannot achieve miracles.

And yet, he already has. Already there is a noticeable cultural shift. He has invited collaboration between people that think differently about things. That’s huge. He has been very clear that the U.S. will not be known for its torture, invasions, incarcerations (which have coloured all western nations in the eyes of particularly the Muslim world). So the hope remains.

Leigh Newton in Baku, Azerbaijan:

In Baku, in the party I was at, there was a communal sigh and anticipation. Only a few were from the U.S. The hope was almost tangible. They held an inauguration party. Interesting that they could do that without worrying about political differences – this is one election in which the non-U.S. part of the world is relatively unanimous in their support for the outcome.

Chris deForest, traveling in Haiti:

On Inauguration Day, I was leading a group on a cultural encounter trip, in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Haitians we talk with that day are optimistic, but cautious – so many past days of American dreams have come and gone, only to leave behind empty promises and false hopes. As we drive past a newsstand, one of our U.S. visitors yells out – “Hey! Can we get that newspaper?” He points to a young man holding a tabloid-sized print, so we stop and buy a copy. None of us know much Haitian Kreyole, but even we can interpret the paper’s headline: “A NEW PRESIDENT FOR THE PRESIDENT!” Under these words: a full-page photo of two men – one Obama, the other a smiling, confident Haitian gentleman – we assume, the president of Haiti. Our Haitian friends traveling with us laugh quietly, and shake their heads. “What’s so funny?” we ask. Our interpreter explains: “This is not the president of Haiti. This is a popular singer, who calls himself ‘The President of Music.’” Now we get it: We’ve just bought a copy of an advertisement! My American friend jokingly remarks: “Well, I could still give it to my family. They don’t know the president of Haiti either!” We all laugh, Haitians and Americans, but don’t fail to miss the bigger point: Haitians know much more about us, than we know about them. We always expect the world to follow our lead.

Karen Bloomquist at Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland:

Excerpts from Epiphany, January 2009 “Thinking it over” series:
Seldom has so much of the world’s attention been focused on and infused with such hope in the midst of such foreboding darkness as it has been by one political figure. The hopes and dreams of not only US citizens but also of much of the rest of the world have been placed on him—in ways that seem to transcend race, nationality, religion, culture and political divisions.

Many have attached deeply religious meanings to this event, especially those who long have interpreted their struggles for justice and equality in light of the biblical witness. As sung in the well-known African American hymn:
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered…
treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out of the gloomy past, ‘til now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

Many of us have grown skeptical of political leaders and movements who all too readily align themselves with biblical figures and stories—especially when such leaders claim to be acting on God’s behalf or as God’s chosen people or nation.

But something else may be going on here. Might God be active in these stirrings of something new, initiating the beginning of a shift away from the ways of empire? Might we be moving toward a new sense of human community…seeking greater justice for the most vulnerable?

Obama embodies the diversity not only of the USA but of the world. The world’s hopes have coalesced around a highly gifted yet fallible human being. He is a different kind of world leader…in both his [diverse] lineage and the nuanced complexity of his thinking.
Yet, because of how desperately our world is yearning for hope, there is the danger of placing too many hopes and expectations on him. Thus, it is crucial to insist that he is not a messiah or savior. Obama has been consistently clear and sober in reminding us to except disappointment, mistakes and failures—not miracles—and insisting that the focus be not only him but on what people can do together.

Obama was shaped by grass-roots community organizing of which he was a part, and through which he was elected. This style of widespread democratic participation which has been quietly growing in the US for decades now—in and through churches, synagogues, mosques and other organizations—resists divisiveness of partisan politics. It is similar to many of the civil society movements around the world that in recent years have grown exponentially. In such movements the focus is less on the leader than on what he or she inspires in others….Leaders who know their own fallibility and still have the audacity that hope can inspire and encourage us.

For Dr. Karen Bloomquist's full article, go to "Thinking it over..." Issue #21 January 2009 at

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