President on global scale

Barack Obama is a political figure and an international cultural phenomenon

Obama's Inaugural

January 18, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,

Washington - Barack Hussein Obama will complete a remarkable breakthrough when he is sworn into office on Tuesday.

As the first African-American president, he will immediately, and forever, stand apart from the 42 white men who preceded him. But his significance goes beyond that indelible achievement.

Obama will also become America's first global president, taking charge under the shadow of what he calls "the worst recession since the Great Depression," a worldwide contagion with no end in sight.

His rise to power resembles John F. Kennedy's triumph over religious prejudice, though it is an even more profound one, because of America's long, defining struggle over race. Like JFK, he embodies generational change and has triggered a level of anticipation that exceeds anything in recent memory.

In a sense, Obama will be an entirely new kind of president: a political figure and an international cultural phenomenon.

His most basic political theme - a simple message of hope - has found a receptive audience across borders.

"He's telling the whole world it doesn't matter if you grew up poor or had dark skin. You can be a world leader," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. That idea resonates not only in the United States but also in "Kenya or Indonesia [and] Pakistan and Colombia and beyond."

In Kennedy's time, a young American president and his glamorous wife seized the imagination of foreign audiences. But the world they charmed was, in some ways, rather primitive by comparison with today's.

The revolutionary web of online networks that Obama exploited in winning the White House has made Washington the epicenter of a planet drawn closer together than ever before. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, observed that Americans had held a "world election" in 2008, and interest in Obama continues to run high in other countries.

Thanks to modern communications and his personal appeal, Obama's inaugural address could well draw a larger audience than any other speech ever delivered.

"It's only natural, since America is the world's media center, that we'd eventually have a leader that is playing to an international audience," said Brinkley.

Like many others his own age and younger, the 47-year-old Obama grew up in an era in which globalization is taken for granted. His personal life and perspective were shaped by his African roots and Indonesian childhood, both of which may have implications for his presidency.

As a candidate, he argued that, because his step-grandmother lives in a hut in Kenya and his half-Indonesian sister is married to a Chinese-Canadian, his arrival in the White House would, by itself, help transform the country's image overseas.

He and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have promised to put a new face on American diplomacy and reach out to Iran, Syria and other adversaries. Drawing a bead on one of the greatest irritants in U.S. relations with foreign leaders, Obama plans to swiftly redeem his promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"We will send a message to the world," he said, "that we are serious about our values."

Even skeptics, convinced that expectations are too high for Obama to meet, think that a new cast of leaders in Washington will give U.S. foreign policy a fresh start.

"The music's going to change. The process is going to change. The faces attached to American diplomacy will change. And people in other countries are going to be falling all over one another to give us the benefit of the doubt," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "The fact that Barack Obama knows the world is a complicated place, that he can be empathetic and has a sense of nuance and context, is all very important."

The way he is taking office, becoming the world's most powerful figure through democratic means, also sends a powerful message about American values. It has inspired a legion of admirers, many of them young, from the inner-city to Tobacco Road in the Carolinas to the remote reaches of the Far East.

News of his election was cheered in the Jakarta elementary school he once attended, the Kenyan village where his relatives live and in countless cafes on every continent.

A 16-year-old girl in a provincial Chinese city more than a thousand miles from Beijing excitedly e-mailed an American friend: "We like his energy, enthusiasm, youth and his speech! We watched his speech when he won the presidential election, it's moving and encouraging!"

But as he takes office, Obama will be grappling with the worst economy to confront a new president since Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in 75 years ago.

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