Barack Obama

“The time for change has come,” has been the catchphrase for Barack Obama’s campaign for presidential candidacy. It has certainly struck a chord in Americans’ hearts, as is evident in their overwhelming response to the democratic senator’s primary campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire.

I have always been nothing more than a casual observer of American politics, much less a well-informed one at that. In the year 2000, I placed my bet on George W. Bush winning the presidential seat in White House, just in a for-fun game with my then co-workers. Well, my bet was right, but in retrospect, I could not have made a worse choice for an American political leader, if only for the sole reason of the Bush administration’s pro-rich radical right-wing policies. If I were an American, I would have had deep regrets for my imprudent choice.

As a fallible human being, I have made mistakes in my life, and sometimes huge ones, and inevitably have had to pay the price for them. Luckily for Americans, they have a well established and functioning democracy in which people can make mistakes about their choices but are allowed chances to remedy them. It is not to say that their system is perfect; but it is a system that at least allows all voters freedom to choose and change their leaders. Democracy is not just about the right to vote, it is also about the responsibility to make a sensible and educated choice. If voters make a bad choice, they have no one to blame but themselves, period.

One doesn’t have to be a political observer to be able to sense that many working Americans are disillusioned with the self-indulgent Bush administration. But perhaps their gripe goes deeper than just outrage at the administration’s blatant curtailing of human rights in the name of national security, or even despair over the sub-prime loan crisis and financial imbroglio. Society seems to be filled with an air thick with disenchantment over the way the American moral, economic and social life has been decaying in the new century.

I remember Obama saying, in an interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey, that there was a “coarsening of culture – people more interested in gaining power and wealth than in doing the right thing”.

Americans have for too long been obsessed with the virtues of free markets to the exclusion of morality and human decency, which have led to their undying belief in Gordon Gekko’s motto “greed is good”. In their praise of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, they seem to be forgetting his earlier work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, where he explored other aspects of human motivation, including benevolence, and where he expounded on moral issues relevant to the free market economy. This latter book should explain much of what Obama means by “doing the right thing”.

Obama also commented in the same interview on the phenomenon where people were more interested in spin than truth - a celebrity culture where politics blended in with celebrity. Some may say that this is a chicken-and-egg situation: does people’s taste determine what the media produce, or do the media guide people’s interests?

Complicating the media landscape further is the continuing decline in the influence of print media. Paul Krugman, Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, points out in his book “The Great Unravelling” that “all five sources of TV news are now divisions of large conglomerates, which have major commercial interests that inevitably tempt them to slant their coverage, and more generally to be deferential to the ruling party.” A less and less discerning audience certainly does not help in a highly concentrated and biased media environment.

But I was far more impressed by Obama’s take on what values to instill in children. He suggested saying thus to children: “How are you useful to other people’s lives? What can you do to help make other people’s lives better? Life is more than just having fun with play stations.” This should be good advice not only for American parents, but for parents in all developed and developing countries.

It is easy enough to vote for a change of president or government, but the much harder part is for the chosen leader to promote changes in the social culture and values of a nation. I certainly have no intention of speculating on who will eventually move into White House this year. But if it turns out that Obama becomes president, I think that I have some faith in him stepping up to the plate on steering American society back on the right course.