Barack Obama - battling mystique and realpolitik (Profile)

By Minu Jain, IANS
Thursday, November 4, 2010

NEW DELHI - The romanticism of being the first African American president who rose from a middle class, mixed racial upbringing to occupy the White House is the stuff of legend. But US President Barack Obama, who lands in India Saturday, is balancing every day realpolitik with the burden of a billion dreams.

There is the best-selling author and the powerful orator who has articulated so powerfully the struggle of being the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother growing up in middle class America. And then there is President Obama, 49, who took office in a world just coming out of the recession, who faces diminishing popularity ratings and electoral rout.

In the last decades, the US has seen charismatic presidents, glamorous ones even, a Hollywood actor, another that was a farmer but none quite like Barack Hussein Obama — born in Hawaii on Aug 4, 1961, to Barack Obama Sr. from the Kenyan Luo tribe and Ann Dunham from Kansas.

Obama — a lawyer by profession who worked at the grassroots level organising a voter registration drive in Chicago — exercises an irresistible, emotive pull.

He is a Christian with a Muslim grandfather who went to a Muslim school in Indonesia for two years and unhesitatingly declared Hussein as his middle name during his oath-taking ceremony much to the discomfiture of conservative America. He is black and white, with the former becoming the leitmotif of his life.

Obama was nine when the significance of his being a different colour hit him. It was in Indonesia, where he lived with his mother for a few years after her marriage to an Indonesian, Lolo.

She left the young Barry in a library; he finished his homework, read his comics and started leafing through the collection of Life magazines when he came across the photograph of a man with a ghostly blue pallor. But he wasn’t sick.

“The man had received a chemical treatment, the article explained, to lighten his complexion… There were thousands of people like him, black men and women back in America who’d undergone the same treatment in response to advertisements that promised happiness as a white person.

“I felt my face and neck get hot… I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show them what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance,” Obama writes in his autobiography “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Life and Inheritance”.

It was a feeling that stayed with him for long. Even with his maternal grandparents, who helped raise him in Hawaii.

Obama writes feelingly in another part of the book about his grandmother Toots being waylaid by a man and an upset grandfather Stanley telling him the real reason she was so bothered was because he was a black.

“Never had they given me reason to doubt their love; I doubted if they ever would. And yet I knew that men who might easily have been my brothers could still inspire their rawest fears.”

If colour was one defining identity, Obama has also been candid about the many conflicting emotions that his name evoked.

Barack means blessed in Arabic, he remembers telling a friend, and adding, “My grandfather was a Muslim.”

In the aftermath of the 9/11, the “day the world fractured”, he writes in the preface of his blockbuster book, the name became an “irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republican operatives”.

Much of President Obama’s life is an open book. Literally. From detailing experiences with a German girlfriend to his beginnings as a community worker that led him to politics, becoming senator and now president, he has laid bare a lot of his life.

Perhaps why so many have felt a sense of empathy for him. That he actually made it to the White House made it a personal journey of triumph for many who have fought long and hard for civil liberties not just in the US but in other parts of the world too.

So, when he was elected the 44th president of the United States Nov 4, 2008, celebrations rang across the world with champagne corks popping not just in New York but also in New Delhi. The sheer ‘audacity of hope’ - the evocative title of his second book - had emerged victorious.

There is also the grassroots politician Obama, who spent days on end on the road, talking to people.

“No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If anything, what struck me was just modest people’s hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion and class… I felt like working harder than I’d ever worked in my life,” he writes in “Audacity of Hope”.

The hard-nosed politician, the dreamer, the conflicted teen - it is tempting to cast Obama in the mould of a legend. But the mystique battles the reality of being president of the world’s only superpower.

The disconnect between the hype and the reality gets sharper every day, say his detractors who criticise him for his healthcare reforms, his stand on world issues and his failure to turn around a failing economy.

Fears he might be seen as a Muslim with a headscarf around his head back home and lead to his popularity levels plummeting further prompted Obama to cancel his trip to the Sikh shrine Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

Is the identity crisis there to stay for this truly multicultural president, with siblings who are Kenyan in origin and an Indonesian half-sister?

As Obama flies in to India with wife Michelle, leaving their daughters Sasha and Malia in Washington, that is the question many are asking. Because this is a world leader who has prompted this personal concern - more than any other.

(Minu Jain can be contacted at

Filed under: Diplomacy

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