The 'O' Factor
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Thu, 01/29/2009 7:33 PM |
During his victory speech in Chicago in November 2008, Barack Obama invoked the “the true American spirit” as thousands of delirious supporters cheered in response: “Yes we can.” His message of hope is spearheading a new global movement to make change for the better, together. Maggie Tiojakin reports on Obamania here at home.
On the fall morning that millions of Americans cast their votes and waited for the outcome of the presidential race, a crowd of Obama supporters gathered at Grant Park, Chicago. When his election as president was confirmed hours later, they rejoiced, as did hordes of people from Kalahari to Naples, Tehran to Sydney, who danced in the streets as they chanted his name.
It wasn’t just a victory for Americans – it was a victory for everybody. Obama, a groundbreaking presidential choice because of his mixed race, also represents a refreshing change for a world wearied and baffled by the leadership of George W. Bush.
Born of a Caucasian American mother and an African father, Barack Obama is said to be the embodiment of the American dream in the 21st century. In his best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father (1995, 2004), the man once known as Barry revisits his struggles as an African-American child who grew up in different parts of the world, including Indonesia, and was therefore forced to face the issue of his identity early in life.
In 2006, he published another book, The Audacity of Hope, which also became a best-seller.
His second book, although less a biography and more a lengthy thesis, is regarded as the political version of his first work. It delves into his values as a leader, his vision for America and his principles as a human being.
Several theories have been concocted by political scientists concerning Obama’s win: Some say he owes it to his well-organized campaign strategy, while others believe his ideas and optimism for a better America are responsible. A few people simply find him to be “mildly more entertaining than McCain”.
Indonesians, on the other hand, feel that the “change” Obama brings to America will inevitably cross over to other parts of the world, especially his third home country: Indonesia. The years he spent living in Jakarta with his mother, Ann Dunham, and step-father, Lolo Soetoro, between 1967 and 1971 became a tie that binds him, and his American-Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, with this diverse nation.
“I have been watching him ever since he announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidential race back in 2007,” says Mili Sampun, 54, an economics lecturer. “Profiles about him were all over the newspapers, and it surprised me to learn about his connections to Indonesia.”
Mili believes Obama “brings something different to the plate”, aside from his personal history.
Hamdani Surpahan, 49, is an entrepreneur who divides his time between his restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and his home in Jakarta. As a political enthusiast, he claims to have been following Obama’s career since 2004, when Obama won the primary as a U.S. senator for the State of Illinois in a landslide.
“He’s young, energetic and has a lot to offer,” says Hamdani. “I didn’t think he would make it as president, but I certainly noticed his vigor as a leader. He’s a God-fearing man who respects his fellow human beings and listens intently to what they have to say.”
Throughout history, world leaders have achieved lasting popularity through three things: their leadership style, a charismatic personality and family values. Obama is revered by his voters as someone with the kind of charisma only a handful of American presidents have possessed, including John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. The Kennedys, during the so-called “Camelot” years, and the Clintons enjoyed high-profile exposure. Starting this year, the Obama family, including the two young and photogenic children, are set to garner their fair share of attention.
Incidentally, or perhaps naturally, Obama shares the same trait as other charismatic leaders: the oratorical skills that can instill the spirit of nationalism in his audience, transforming his presence into a symbol for change.
In the comparatively short history of the modern state of Indonesia, Sukarno is probably the only leader renowned for inspiring oratorical skills and a natural, enthralling charisma (like Obama, he also was of mixed heritage, with a Javanese father and Balinese mother). Still with a strong following today, Sukarno brought Indonesia through what was perceived as a turbulent transformation from an occupied land to a free and united nation in the 1950s.
Are we waiting for the next Sukarno to emerge, just as America waited for (and was granted) its next JFK?
“I don’t know if we will ever have someone as influential as Sukarno,” says Yusuf Habilah, 56, a sociology teacher. “We’re lucky if we can find someone who is half the leader he was … and, concerning the recent U.S. election, I think Obama has set a great example for other nations.
What he’s saying is that change is possible, pluralism is a good thing, and everyone should have the chance to dream.”
Ricky Johandi, 29, is a young executive who works at a financial consulting firm on Thamrin. He has never voted, because he believes it to be “a waste of time”. Obama’s victory changed his views.
“It’s not so much who he is, but it’s really about what he can achieve,” says Ricky, who has made Obama his personal idol. “He was just a guy, like any one of us, with an idea, a sense of patriotic duty. And he went out and did something about it – that’s leadership.”
As for Indonesia’s upcoming election, Ricky says he’s ready to cast his first ballot.
“Maybe this whole democracy thing does work,” he mutters. “What I’ve learned from Obama’s campaign is that no matter how small our contribution to the nation is, it still counts as something.”
Obama has been criticized as being too young with little to no experience in foreign relations, yet the international support he received throughout his campaign was significantly greater than that for any other first-term candidate who ever ran for the Oval Office, with the exception of Kennedy.
The skeptics will try to bury his leadership qualities under the notion that he’s young, capable and good-looking with a penchant for dramatic orations. But no nation elects its leader based on those superficial criteria, and no world leader gains respect by slapping on anti-aging creams. Even the most gullible voters know that it takes a certain kind of man or woman to head their nation, someone who knows where he or she is going and leads with passion, instead of power.
“I do hope Indonesia can learn from our American neighbors,” says Mili, who refuses to divulge the name of her probable pick for the 2009 presidential election. “In the past, our [presidential] elections ignited the wild reaction of a people whose stomachs are empty, whose lives flounder under pressure. For once, I’d like to see this nation rise because the people believe in its ideology, in its future – and not just for the sake of which leader has a better access to lowering oil and gas prices.”
Fingers crossed: Yes, we can.