In DepthColumns

Fri,24Nov2017

Columns

Obama: Enter the great communicator

Gemma Ware

The first-ever black candidate for the US presidency succeeded on his first attempt, thanks to an articulate and positive style, clear values and his powerful communications strategy

 

“This is an unbelievable moment in our history,” was the response to Obama’s victory from Georgia congressman John Lewis, a civil rights movement hero. “This is a great distance from when I was walking across that bridge [in Selma, Alabama] 43 years ago when we were beaten, left bloody and unconscious. Last night something came over me. I just jumped up and kept jumping up. Tears came down my face.”?

 

Barack Hussein Obama did it! He scaled the walls of doubt and cynicism, racism and religious bigotry, hysteria and hate, and on 4 November walked into history, appealing to the ‘angels of our better nature’, by getting elected to become the 44th President of the United States. Almost a century and a half after the US Constitution erased the designation of a black man as ‘three-fifths of a person’, on 20 January 2009, the 47-year-old Obama will become America’s First Citizen, his wife, Michelle, a descendant of slaves, its First Lady, and their children, Malia and Shasha, will become as well known as other First Children before them.?

 

Over the years, many black people have crashed down the barriers to become Firsts, but this was the Ultimate First. Yet, as voters in America and people around the world came to see, Barack Obama is not just any black man. He comes with the credentials of a multi-racial heritage, a multinational upbringing and a 21st century vision that gives him a unique view of a complex time, a complex world and America’s place in it.?

Obama's foreign policy team

 

Diplomats and policy
professionals. Read more

 

So how did he get there and what difference will it make to have him at the helm of the world’s leading, though wounded, industrial nation? Like Hansel’s breadcrumbs in the forest, clues abound, including from the man himself. “I think there is a great hunger for change in this country, and not just policy change,” he said in early 2007. “What I also think they are looking for is change in tone and a return to some notion of the common good and some sense of cooperation, of pragmatism over ideology. I’m a stand-in for that right now.”?

 

The values that have helped Obama capture the White House derive from his peripatetic childhood on two continents – America and Asia – and an identification with a third – Africa, and they have carried him through the thicket of two bruising national campaigns and helped create a superior strategy, combining substance and style.?

 

Giving voice to virtues

 

?Barack Obama’s road to the White House was paved initially with the values of his white American mother, Ann Dunham, and her Midwestern parents who helped raise him. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he writes of his mother’s advice: “If you want to grow into a human being, you’re going to need some values,” and they included honesty, fairness, straight-talk and independent judgement – “giv[ing] voice to the virtues of her Midwestern past”.?

 

Equally, there are links to the values of his Kenyan father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, who left when Obama was two. Dunham told the young Obama of the “distant authority” of his father, who also attended Harvard – “how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard ...he hadn’t cut corners, though, or played the angles”.?

 

Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who studied voting rights under Obama at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times Magazine recently that Obama won not by playing the angles, but by understanding the playing field, specifically that “voters in African-American Congressional districts would have a disproportionate impact in selecting the nominee”.?

 

Obama “grasped the structural path to victory”, said his former student. He wasted no time in persuading the black community he was indeed “black enough”, acknowledging he stood on the shoulders of the civil rights movement’s pioneers. But while he walked the walk, he often talked a different talk from that era’s leaders, recognising class and race, speaking of the common burden of both poor and middle-class whites as well as blacks. And he called for “get[ing] past the racial stalemate we’ve been in for years” and for “forging alliances to walk the path to a more perfect union... binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare and better schools and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans”.?

 

“Change you can believe in” was the Obama mantra that resonated with so many of the disillusioned of all races, and awakened the sleeping giant of the youth across America. Together they rallied to the beat of Will-I -Am’s “Yes We Can” with Obama telling them: “America is ready to turn the page. America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation is prepared to lead.”

 

?‘No drama obama’?

 

Obama has innovated in the ways he communicates. He pioneered a virtual campaign for the digital age generation at home on the internet, Facebook and YouTube. And the message drove the money – from contributions of as little as $5. No campaign in history has raised as much as Obama’s did – more than $600m. A notice to supporters to send in their mobile numbers and pass along the message to others if they wanted to be the first to know Obama’s choice of vice-president generated thousands of additional contacts. Gordon Davis, a New York lawyer and a major fundraiser for Obama, explained: “The fundraising was a basic tool to get people involved in the campaign.”  ?

 

From outhouse to White House

 

Dancing in the streets
of Atlanta. Read more

Even his opponents credit him with running a sophisticated campaign. And he did it while being labelled ‘No Drama Obama’, rarely losing his cool, his face lit up with a broad smile when attacked, a style some supporters found frustrating. But while he insisted he could deliver a hard punch if needed, that went against his natural instincts and style – which also created one of the most harmonious campaign organisations in recent memory. Davis, also a former New York City politician, said: “No internal divisions, fights among consultants, backstabbing or getting off-message... driven as much from the bottom up as the top down.”

 

?One close campaign advisor said: “He’s not the lone ranger, but he is the leader.” Obama is also a listener, who takes in all points of view before coming out with his own. And he assembled a team that was encouraged to voice their own opinions, including some 300 foreign policy advisors, the area that was initially his weakest. He has promised a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with an end-point of 2010, and telegraphed his plans for new approaches to America’s old enemies, saying, while there would be a need for staff preparation, he would meet with them without preconditions. And he is expected to appoint an administration mixed with both seasoned Washington veterans and new faces who share his vision.?

 

Despite his legendary confidence and the well-chosen backfield that bolsters it, Obama has been dealt a tough hand – two wars, a sick economy and potentially bitter losers among the Americans he must now attempt to lead. This comes along with a host of other 21st century problems requiring global solutions at a time when America’s image is at one of its lowest points ever, having lost much of the moral authority and leadership it once enjoyed.

 

?International affairs expert John Stremlau said: “Here’s a case of a black person set up to fail, but no better person to rally the country and the world at a time like this.”?

 

African roots and Africa policy

 

Hopes for a new direction.
Read more

The reception Obama has enjoyed at places like the Berlin Wall and from world leaders, as well as the pride he has generated throughout the African continent, give him at least a running start.?

 

As far back as 2006, when his presidential aspirations seemed more than a distant dream to many, Obama told New York magazine: “I want to be a really great president. And then I’d worry about all the other stuff.”?

 

Despite “all that other stuff”, Barack Obama’s election has affirmed the audacity of hope.

Obama's foreign policy team

Gemma Ware

 

Although Barack Obama won support for his stance against the Iraq war, foreign policy was meant to be the strength of his Republican opponent John McCain, who backed the invasion. To counter McCain, the Obama campaign built up a team led by policy professionals Susan Rice and Anthony Lake, both of whom served in ex-President Bill Clinton’s administration and have extensive experience in Africa. Rice was assistant secretary of state for Africa and Lake was national security advisor during South Africa’s transition from apartheid to majority rule.

 

?Lake introduced Obama to the diplomatic circuit about four years ago, after which Obama quickly assembled a group of advisors from a wide range of backgrounds: veteran diplomat and ex-ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson; Samantha Power, the author of the seminal analysis of genocide A Problem from Hell and a campaigner on Darfur; former navy secretary Richard Danzig; and retired Air Force major general Scott Gration, who grew up in Africa.?

 

Washington insiders tip Richardson for secretary of state and Rice for the national security advisor; and there is competition for the assistant secretary of state for Africa post – given the President is expected to have a special interest in it. In the running are the two co-chairs of the Obama campaign’s Africa policy group: Michelle Gavin and Witney Schneidman. Among the professional diplomats there is support for former ambassador to Nairobi, Johnnie Carson. Stephen Morrison, Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is also in the running.

 

Back to Obama: enter the great communicator

From outhouse to White House

Gemma Ware

 

The state of Georgia may have voted for John McCain, but you would not know it in the city of Atlanta. Black Atlanta, white Atlanta and increasingly mixed Atlanta went all out to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory, with dancing in the streets and shouting in the churches. In the Ebenezer Baptist Church, spiritual home of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, even though family members squabble among themselves, hundreds attended services and chanted: “We started at the outhouse, now we’re going to the White House. Yes we can!” Dr King’s daughter, Reverand Bernice King, exhorted them to change the Obama campaign mantra “Yes we can” to “Yes we have”.

 

?In the streets, where horns honked and lights flashed, whites held up signs to passersby with the words: “It’s A New America. Yes we have!” Once labelled “The city too busy to hate” by the so-called ‘white power structure’, who nevertheless saw to it that blacks were relegated to separate theatre entrances, the backs of buses and away from whites-only restaurants and water fountains, Atlanta today is a star among progressive US cities, where, except for one who went to jail for corruption, black mayors have run it, including Andrew Young, a one-time lieutenant of Dr King.

 

?Shortly after Obama’s victory, Young, who went on to become US ambassador to the UN under former President Jimmy Carter, told a crowded ballroom: “Thanks to Barack Obama, vision is replacing violence, faith is defeating fear, and grace is putting an end to greed.”?

 

At house parties all over town, guests wore Obama tee-shirts of varying designs and brought presents to the hosts, including chocolate squares stamped with the smiling face of the President-elect. At work the next day, women wore black-and-red dresses, imitating Michelle Obama.

 

Back to Obama: enter the great communicator

African roots and Africa policy

Gemma Ware

 

Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga has already tried to inject some realism into Africa’s hope for an Obama presidency: “He is first and foremost answerable to US voters, maybe under him Africa will receive more attention in US foreign policy.” Odinga hopes he will be able to persuade Obama to offer fairer trade agreements to Africa, and also nudge the recalcitrant Europeans and Japanese in that direction.

 

?The clearest ideas on Obama’s foreign policy come from a security strategy edited by former assistant secretary of state for Africa, Susan Rice. It lists counter-terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and oil dependence as top policy priorities, of which three are of key concern to Africa.

 

?There is also likely to be a sweeping reorganisation of foreign aid agencies in Washington, perhaps with the creation of an international development post at cabinet level. Given budgetary pressures, few believe an Obama administration will spend more on aid but it will try to spend it more effectively.?

 

With campaigners on Darfur such as Rice and Samantha Power on board, an Obama administration is likely to proceed more determinedly on Sudan: the campaign pledged to provide the UN/AU mission with helicopters and more surveillance capacity as well as to give backing to a ‘no-fly zone’ over western Sudan.

 

Back to Obama: enter the great communicator

Luring them (or their money) back

Gemma Ware

 

Unlike India, China has made it easy for people who had left or fled the country to invest on the mainland, using foreign knowledge and capital to build up the manufacturing base


China is once again the Middle Kingdom. Both feared and fawned over, it has posted decades of unprecedented economic growth.?But 30 years ago, China was poor and dysfunctional, envying the success of Hong Kong, a British colony carved from Chinese territory and a vibrant manufacturing and financial centre. Further offshore, the authoritarian Kuomintang government, arch-enemy of China, had transformed the island of Taiwan into an economic powerhouse.?

 

Change began in 1978. Deng Xiaoping became chairman of China’s Communist Party, a post vacant since Mao Zedong’s death two years earlier. Deng intended to salvage his country with ‘market socialism’ – to do that, he reached out to China’s estranged family.?Hong Kong’s large population of mainland migrants fled China during the 1940s civil war, and many had since thrived in business. They were well-placed to capitalise on their ancestral links.

 

Hong Kong’s labour-intensive industries rushed to the Pearl River Delta. By the late 1980s, Hong Kong was the largest direct investor in China, accounting for more than half of inbound investment. The ardour has not abated.

 

?It was a richer, more confident China that regained Hong Kong in 1997. Taiwan, on the other hand, has proved a trickier catch. Beijing hopes that economic integration will lead to political submission of the island it has claimed since 1949 but has never ruled.?

 

In the 1990s, China lured enormous sums of Taiwanese capital to low- or no-tariff investment zones. From 1991 through 2007, it snared more than 55% of Taiwan’s outward investment. ?

 

There are believed to be about a million Taiwan citizens on the mainland. Aside from the rare political defection and (rather more common) gangster-on-the-lam, most are Taishang (Taiwan businesspeople). They are the executives, engineers and entrepreneurs who have delivered the expertise and international perspective that China needed for its transition from planned to market economy, from low-tech producer to high-tech manufacturer of iPods and semiconductors. Sixty percent of China’s high-technology exports are produced by Taiwanese-operated factories.?

 

But far from integrating into Chinese society, the Taishang formed enclaves. Typical of them is Kunshan or ‘Little Taipei’, a city 55 km from Shanghai. A dense concentration of Taiwanese companies brought white-collar workers with them. Their families followed, then restaurants and schools that cater to them.

 

?From 1994, Taiwan investors enjoyed preferential treatment. They could remit profits and wages, purchase Chinese real estate, and send their children to local schools. Taiwan students pay home fees in mainland universities and have access to special scholarships. Bureaucratic tangles persist, though: border crossings require a permit, though the application is now less cumbersome, and driving licences cannot be freely exchanged.?

 

Sometimes business is just business?

 

And sometimes there is unwelcome attention. In December 2003, in the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential election, China rounded up 24 Taishang on charges of espionage; the following day Chinese President Hu Jintao gave unprecedented face-time to a group of Taiwan’s business leaders. The two events were seen as a carrot-and-stick attempt to turn them against Chen Shui-bian’s re-election. (The strategy either backfired or more likely overestimated the influence of the Taishang in Taiwan’s politics: Chen won.)?

 

Taishang can be relied upon to lobby against investment restrictions and little else. They face pressure on the mainland, then return home to accusations of disloyalty. Most would rather avoid politics entirely.?

 

Manufacturing brought most Taishang to China, and manufacturing could take them away, should China’s comparative advantage of low-cost labour disappear—as may already be happening. l?Charles Moré

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