Barack Obama at a Crossroads

Balaji Chandramohan believes that the world needs Obama the intellectual and multiculturalist. But will the American people agree?

President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009
President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “A politician thinks about the next election whereas a statesman thinks about the next generation.” The 44th president of the United States may aspire to statesmanship but he still needs to think about his reelection in November 2012.

There is no doubt that Barack Obama is a clever politician. If he weren’t, he would have been defeated by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Party primaries two years ago. Obama somehow managed to sway the crowds with his charisma and physical presence, winning his party’s nomination before winning the presidency in November 2008.

Much has changed since. Obama entered the 2008 race with a thin résumé compared to his Democratic rivals during the primaries and his Republican rival John McCain during the general election. That résumé has thickened considerably but not necessarily improved. The United States are still struggling to get out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economy remains in recession and there is a great upsurge in the Middle East.

In that context, the question arises what Obama has achieved during the last two and half years that he’s been in office. If voters decide that he hasn’t achieved much, Obama will lose and be remembered as another Jimmy Carter. If they give him the benefit of the doubt, a great statesman may emerge yet.

In fairness, Obama cannot be blamed for all that’s troubling his presidency. He didn’t choose the world in which to lead. Many of the problems confronting the United States today have been in the making for decades and both Democratic and Republican presidents can be blamed.

Unlike most of his recent predecessors however, Obama belongs to the rare breed of politician who wants to shape the world without being overtly political. In that sense, he resembles intellectuals who occupied the White House before, from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison to Woodrow Wilson. His Ivy League education and foreign upbringing provide him with a broad understanding of the world that has yet to be seen in full. It has, indeed, largely escaped the public eye.

If Obama survives for another term, there’s a good chance that the world might finally see that side too. Victory is far from certain. Across the liberal democracies of the English-speaking world, conservative parties are on the rise while the left is in decline. This doesn’t bode well for world politics especially with Arabs in the streets across the Middle East. The world needs a leader like Obama who is able to mend fences and reach out across cultures. It is time for American voters to understand this — before they have their president at crossroads.