Obama and Illusion in Indonesia

Barack Obama's visit this week to Jakarta prompted me to recall the feelings I had when he was elected president of the United States in 2008. At the time, I was bowled over by optimism for my country. Had we Americans, collectively, come to our senses?

It seemed that the bitterness and willful appeal to anti-intellectualism that characterized the eight long years of President George W. Bush's White House was gone. In the process, this man, seemingly out of nowhere, was being credited with ending centuries of racial division and ushering in an America that could debate ideas without barring anyone on the basis of skin color.

It is small wonder that here in Indonesia, and in many parts of the world, Obama was hailed as a "different" kind of American soft-spoken, open-minded, alive to different traditions. Where Bush the Younger had barely traveled overseas before he was elected president largely on the strength of his family's aristocratic political dynasty, Obama was a multicultural kid attuned to a globalized world.

I have had countless conversations with people in Asia and elsewhere in which I explained that not all Americans are purposely abrasive. We don't all want to conquer the world, I have heard myself saying. But this was all a bit wearing, as if I had to justify myself to an unsympathetic audience of strangers who accosted me in bars and airplanes simply because of my blue passport and Bush's embarrassing presidency.

Obama was going to fix all that, along with Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, a shattered economy, declining influence in the world and the brutally divisive politics of hate that define what passes for public discourse back home.

"This is a transformational presidency," I enthused to a close friend of mine. "We'll see," he answered.

It's not working out, of course. The American know-nothings, in the form of the "Tea Party," Sarah Palin's mutterings, Fox News and Web sites that claim Obama was born abroad quickly organized a counterattack and have now put Obama on the defensive following the mid-term election debacle. Rather than ushering in an era of civilized political discussion, Obama has prompted a vitriolic backlash in which an attempt to provide health care for uninsured Americans and to find a way out of the last administration's economic disaster are characterized as somehow "communist" and un-American.

I came of age in the late stages of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in the United States and I remain unreconstructed in my belief that racism and overseas aggression have been the twin domestic and international plagues, respectively, of my country. Obama, I believed in my middle-aged burst of naiveté two years ago, would finally make it all good. We would all just get along, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would somehow end. I might even be able to afford health care if one day I returned home with my family.

Mind you, the burden of expectations place on Obama was obviously unrealistic. He is a politician, not a millennial figure sent from the heavens to redeem his people. He gives a good speech and he talks sense but his policies are far from perfect. He cannot fix the economy in a flash or remove the US from the quagmire of Afghanistan. The US is falling behind China and the rest of the so-called emerging world. As its power declines that fact alone is certain to prompt generations of angry political rhetoric from Americans who cannot understand what has happened and who will fight the inevitable at every stage, perhaps with tragic consequences.

This muted reality of who Obama is and what he can do will likely be reflected during his brief visit to Indonesia this week. He remains overwhelmingly important to the world, of course, but he is not running the victory lap that we might have seen a year ago if his first planned visit to Jakarta had come through. He is in a fight now for his political life against an array of domestic foes who seem to hate everything he stands for, many of them with barely disguised racist vitriol.

But I am still glad he is here. I think the visit is good for Indonesia and it at least shows that the US is not abandoning the field in Asia any longer. Indonesians have good reason to like Obama, not because he lived here as a child or because he reaches out to the Muslim world but because he really is an example of genuine diversity. No less than the US, Indonesia also needs to come to terms with those who would dismantle a vibrant tradition of secular harmony and religious tolerance. Obama is an ally in that struggle.

A. Lin Neumann is the editor in chief of the Jakarta Globe, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.