As President Obama prepares to leave the national and global scene much ink would be spent discussing, debating, and dissecting his legacy. While much of this deliberation is likely to focus on his contribution to bare-knuckled politics, raw policy and other fiscal issues I argue that Barack Obama’s imprint on his country and the world goes beyond dollars and cents.
Barack may not be our president but there is a lot we as Africans and the world can learn from him. Obama’s contribution to politics can be viewed through the intangibles: an enduring history of values, process and character.
One of the first powerful values from the Obama era right from his fabled campaign to his two-term presidency is his penchant for bringing people together, cooperation and compromise. This is a value not unfamiliar with Africans. What is the one word that can be used to describe his world view? Communalism. Barack Obama’s philosophical and theoretical framework is grounded in the idea of interaction rather than isolation, communalism rather than individualism, hope rather than despondency and multilateralism rather than unilateralism.
Obama has always fore-grounded the group ahead of the individual. Through his upbringing, his worldview, his Afrocentrism and his own experiences, Obama was naturally one who believed in group interest and group welfare. Barack never denied the importance of individual goals, dreams and aspirations but he always called on Americans to mediate their individual inclinations with a much higher deeper ideal: one that looked out for their brother, one that considered the community/national interest above self and one that called for compromise, consideration and cooperation.
This was a guiding principle which shone through his character and policy making. Throughout his dealings with congress, his watershed healthcare policy, his economic bailout policies and his presidency, Mr. Obama has shown that government can and should be about the people; the group interest above all else. For Obama the mantra was always this: people first.
A second dominant Obama value which should constitute an enduring legacy is his display of decency in politics. This may sound paradoxical. Naturally, politics has always been given a bad name within the public imaginary. As both candidate and president we saw a man who was committed to the highest form of decency, civility and politeness even in the harshest of circumstances.
He did not let politics change him; rather he changed politics. We should never forget what Obama did to politics: he showed that you do not necessarily need to pull your opponent down, malign, insult, denigrate, and engage in personal attacks, shouting and insults in order to be a good politician. This is an invaluable legacy for politics anywhere. For Obama, decency and good politics can be good bedfellows.
“The Audacity of Hope” is Obama’s third enduring legacy. This refers to his values of hope and inspiration. When Obama began running for presidential office, he often justified his candidature by saying his accomplishment would be a lasting example for black and minority kids. Hope was one of Obama’s most used words. It wasn’t for nothing that his campaign became a movement; it wasn’t for nothing that he garnered world wide appeal on several continents beyond the borders of the United States; it wasn’t for nothing that inspiration became the rallying mantra for his campaign.
There was a reason why people cried at his rallies and there was a reason why he was able to hold the country together after taking over a broken country damaged mired in financial malaise and war fatigue. I’m pretty sure most people, including his detractors, would remember Barack as the man who brought hope to a hurting nation. We would all remember his as the president who made us dream.
As Ghanaians and Africans we should never be shy of aspiring to the most lofty and grandeur of our dreams. In other words, we should open our hearts and minds to a world of possibility. As Obama has shown, dreams could be improbable but not impossible.
One of the things Barack never did throughout his political career was to shirk his roots and identity. The world came to know Obama as the son of a Kenyan father who “grew up herding goats”, and “went to school in a tin-roof shack”. By embracing his roots, heritage and identity Barack Obama taught all of us how to embrace our personhood. Before he ran for president, some “consultants” advised him to change his name because it wasn’t mainstream. They believed his ethnic Luo name would be a liability or deleterious to his political career. Obama resisted the suggestion and went on to fully embrace who he was. He has taught us all that no matter where you come from, no matter the sound of your name, one should never be shy or afraid to celebrate their heritage. For Africans or blacks in particular, this is of particular resonance. For Obama, he never denied his identity.
This is President Obama’s last year in office. The presidential campaign season has heated up and we would be saying adieu to the first black president of the United States and the free world. Wherever life takes him, whatever he does, we will always remember Mr. Obama as the leader who made us dream, the leader who made us believe in ourselves; the leader who made us believe in our “better angels”, the leader who taught us to treat our fellow man with love, decency and respect while bringing us together.
Mr. President, we wish you well.
The writer is a lecturer at the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana