The World and Barack Obama

As an American who has spent about half of my adult life in Asia, I am far outside the mainstream in my country. Being a more-or-less permanent expatriate has caused the homeland to recede somewhat. But with US elections coming next week, I have been thinking about politics back home and what it means to stay away so long.

Watching American political life from this remove has become almost painful. I cringe over the bitter partisan divide that immobilizes legislation, the willful ignorance of politicians who deny global warming, who blame women for being raped and who allow and even encourage, massive numbers of firearms to flood the country.

Countless times, I have had people ask me why America is so violent, angry and seemingly ignorant. I have no explanation. I don’t understand why Americans don’t have universal health care, why high school kids can get hold of automatic weapons or why some Republicans want to teach creationism in public schools as if their theological interpretation of reality trumps science.

Barack Obama is different. He may not be the most effective politician in Washington, his promises have fallen short and at times he seems lost in the scrum of politics. But he is a man of reason who seems anchored in the fact-based world, unlike “birthers,” who have spent the last four years trying to prove that he isn’t really an American. In the current crisis brought on by Hurricane Sandy, he has done a fine job of looking interested, talking to officials and responding, which is, after all, what people everywhere expect of their leaders in a crisis. If he gains some benefit in Tuesday’s election by doing his job, that’s a good thing.

I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat and I have never involved myself in US electoral politics other than as a journalist. But we can ill afford the kind of nonsense uttered by Mitt Romney when he threatened to launch a currency war with China on “Day 1.” The world is a complicated place and threats like that are destructive and silly.

Romney seems like one of those Americans whose view of the outside world is shaped almost exclusively by tourist experiences in good hotels and who has no idea what the rest of the world is thinking.

Because he is of mixed parentage and lived in Indonesia as a child, Obama is part of a broader global community. He comes across as aware and worldly-wise. His foreign policy in Asia has largely repaired nearly a decade of neglect. In a world where American power is undeniably shrinking, US leaders have to cajole friends and negotiate with enemies, not bark orders that may very well be ignored anyway.

As with Europe, the United States has to share the table with countries like China, India and Indonesia, whose increasing economic power is leading to well-earned traditional power.

Ask many Americans living abroad and they will tell you that Obama has been a refreshing antidote to the poison of George W. Bush, whose line-in-the-sand foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks turned much of the world against the United States. Now people actually like our president. How nice.

In the exhilarating rush I felt when Obama was elected in 2008, largely because he crossed the shameful color line in American politics, I giddily told a friend that Obama would prove to be a “transformative” president who would reshape the political landscape. That has not proved to be the case, but he has made a lot of people, me included, feel better about the United States and its prospects for adjusting to a changed world. With so many challenges everywhere — global warming, shifting economic sands, geopolitical uncertainty, sectarian conflicts — US leadership remains important and that makes this election, as always, something other countries watch with great interest.

As Indonesians know only too well, the reality of governing in a democracy tends to shatter great expectations. That said, I have little doubt that we are all better off with Obama in the White House.

(A. Lin Neumann is one of the founders of Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared in the Jakarta Globe.)