Across the dividing line

Prague Leaders Magazine, July 2008

The Democratic Party primary campaign has just ended and it has been a captivating race, watched not only by Americans but also by the world at large. The final two candidates in the race – a woman and an African American – illustrated just how much times have changed in the United States, not just in the last fifty years, but even over the last decade.

I followed the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination with great attention. Because of my professional interest in communication and cross-cultural issues, a campaign waged by a woman and a man from a visible minority on the highest level of American politics proved a remarkable opportunity for observation. From this perspective, the fact that both candidates were of very different backgrounds, different genders, races and even generations made this one of the most captivating political events in decades.

Moreover, the Democratic Party primary campaign has shown that politics in America is on course for a dramatic change. From our perspective in Europe, it appears that a significant portion of the American electorate is hungry for this change and seeking out a new path from determined candidates who aren’t necessarily white, male and over fifty.

However I don’t believe that we should focus on the stereotyped differences between the two candidates. Neither Obama nor Clinton would have come as far as they did had they not had the drive, grit and ability to rise to the top of the Democratic Party and prepared to fight for a new era in the White House.

From my personal perspective, race, sex and skin color aside, it appears that Obama’s more diplomatic and conciliatory approach is right for the times. While Clinton found it difficult to break free from her reputation as a tough and cold woman, Obama appeared to represent the possibility of a more benevolent America. This of course has nothing to do with the color of his skin or his relative youth. Instead Obama offers a nation torn apart by years of political division the chance for cooperation and hope.

His message is one of unity and inclusiveness and has inspired hope in both the United States and the world that change is possible in Washington. Barack Obama’s ability to bring people together – even across party lines – is a skill that we can all learn from.

The politics of conciliation

Politics is inherently about being able to make tough decisions, about finding sensible solutions to complicated and difficult problems and about bettering one’s adversaries. While there are several means to achieve these ends, an important measure of a politician’s success is his or her ability to bring people together in spite of the differences that divide them.

On every level – physically, racially, culturally – Obama and Clinton were very different candidates. While those differences do make for an interesting backdrop to a political battle of the last several months, I would argue that these disparities didn’t played a fundamental role in Obama’s victory.

Instead, the American Democratic Party primary campaign was won by a candidate with the strongest conciliatory skills. Where as Clinton’s politics was sometimes characterized by a divisive ‘us-verus-them’ attitude, Obama’s approach was far more inclusive and appealing.

Perhaps because of his mixed origins and his experiences growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama can look beyond the racial, ideological or social divides that separate people in America. This unifying approach to his politics means that he is capable of seeing past traditional divisions and can influence a truly diverse range of people by offering real solutions to the challenges currently facing the United States.

“Barack has an incredible ability to synthesize seemingly contradictory realities and make them coherent,” says Cassandra Q. Butts from the Center for American Progress. “It comes from going from a home where white people are nurturing you, and then you go out into the world and you’re seen as a black person. He had to figure out whether he was going to accept this contradiction and be just one of those things, or find a way to realize that these pieces make up the whole.”

Across party lines

Moreover, this conciliatory approach comes at a time when the United States has never been more divided. Americans who realize the perils that such division presents, whether they are traditionally Republican or Democrat, are looking for someone who can bridge the political divide that that has widened significantly during the George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

As the economic situation in the United States looks increasingly gloomy and the strain of the country’s commitments abroad become more difficult to bear, Barack Obama presents a vision of change that isn’t accusatory or doctrinarian but one that appeals to many people regardless of their race, ethnicity or political affiliation.

In contrast to Clinton, who still carries around the political baggage associated to her husband’s presidency, Obama’s unifying message has struck a cord with younger electors, who have been relatively apathetic toward politics in the past. For many younger American’s Obama embodies a significant shift from the politics of their parents’ generation. Many new voters see the Obama campaign as an opportunity to start anew and create a new chapter in American history.

A new style of leadership

Obama’s experience in politics has shown that he is capable of appealing to and gaining the trust of both conservatives and liberals. After the disappointment many Americans feel at the end of the Bush presidency, Obama appears able and willing to work toward cooperation between Democrats and Republicans and usher in a new era of politics.

His time spent in the Illinois Senate has prepared Obama well for his Democratic Party primary campaign and the challenges the he will face in his next test against Republican nominee John McCain.

His work as a senator is well documented and has been described as pragmatic, inclusive and bi-partisan. From the time he entered politics Obama has had knack for seeking out consensus.

“What impressed me about him was his ability in working with people of the opposite party,” said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

By clearing a common ground for Republicans and conservative Democrats to work together in, Obama’s introduced a new political style into the Senate that also produced positive results in a range of legislative areas.

With a solid track record in bringing together diverse political interests to achieve common goals, many Americans are convinced that Obama has what it takes to heal some of the wounds that the last eight years have caused and bring about positive change in Washington.

As Obama said: “The pundits and the prognosticators presumed that a skinny guy with a funny name from the South Side of Chicago couldn’t get any votes outside a pretty narrow band of the electorate. I think the primary blew those assumptions out of the water. And I think people are proud of that.”

While Hillary Clinton did make history by being the first woman to run for the American presidency, her most important contribution to this year’s American election campaign was to prepare Obama for the main race. By challenging him, she has primed him for the next battle, the American presidential race against John McCain. In November both the American people and the world will find out whether he is able to stand up and take on another pugnacious opponent while maintaining his capacity to bridge the gap between both camps while retaining the trust and confidence of both.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.