So the White House announced over the weekend that Barack Obama would make his first trip to Africa in July, a short stayover in Ghana. Why Ghana? It is democratic and relatively stable. But, all things considered, it is not a political or economic powerhouse on the continent compared to countries like Nigeria or South Africa.

This is definitely all about domestic politics for Obama. First black president at the Ghanaian slave castles? OH MY GOD THAT’S POIGNANT. I’m not even joking. Those slave castles are probably the greatest historical draw on the continent for African-American tourists.

Still, surely there could be a visit to Africa that is about more than just a photo op. TexasinAfrica has some suggestions:

It’s interesting, though, that American presidents actively avoid conflict when traveling to Africa. This can’t all be attributed to security issues; presidents regularly travel to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and any number of other places where they’re much more likely to be assassinated. Why do they do this? Part of it has to do with a general fear of “Africa” on the part of the Secret Service, etc. But the postcolonial legacy also plays a role. African countries are generally viewed by American policymakers as immature basket cases, not as functional states. In some cases this is a fair assessment; in others, it is not.

More importantly, however, is the impact that a presidential visit could have on a less-than-perfect situation in a place like Kenya or Uganda, or, dare I say it, the Congo. If anything could force disputing parties to the table in most African countries, it’s a visit from Barack Obama. His presence alone would attract such a degree of attention and respect that serious, high-level negotations could occur. Here’s hoping the president will choose to take a risk on his next visit to the continent.

I sometimes hear people say that South Africa needs its own Obama. Please. You want a charismatic redemptive figure on which to throw all your hopes and dreams? South Africa has the prototype. Nelson Mandela. Madiba. Heard of him?

Insofar as people vote for the ANC because of Jacob Zuma in this election, it’s basically because he is seen as a man of the people. He has little formal education, and spent his twenties in jail at Robben Island, only to emerge as a key intelligence official for the ANC-in-exile during the anti-Apartheid struggle. He can sing, dance, and is conversant in traditional Zulu customs, probably to a fault (saying a Zulu man is duty-bound to have sex with a woman who is the slightest bit suggestive is a bit much). None of the other major candidates can really hold a candle to this populist narrative.

But is Zuma really a populist? He has an obscenely huge motorcade, multiple fancy houses, and don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the fancy suits he wears to press conferences and court dates. In fact, the whole reason Schabir Shaik was giving him money in the first place was because Zuma wasn’t making enough money to support his newly opulent post-struggle lifestyle. So while the nation’s poor languish in poverty, Zuma has been striking it rich on the dime of his questionable associates and the taxpayer. Corruption? Feh. Elitism? Now that’s a charge that might carry a bit more weight if character assassination is the way to go. And the sad truth is that character assasination can often be quite effective no matter where the political games are going down.

Somehow I just don’t see that happening with this crop of opposition leaders. Across the board, they live similarly rarified lifestyles — botox injections, multiple houses, fancy cars, etc — and are too singularly obsessed with convicting Zuma legally that they lose sight of how to obtain a conviction in the court of public opinion.

So then who is the model for a leader in South Africa? I think the clearest example is Lula da Silva of Brazil. Like Zuma, he has little formal education. He also had great trade union leadership credentials (a “struggle” of its own), and ran on a populist platform of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt government, reasonably specific economic proposals, and a compelling message of national purpose. In theory this is not so different from Zuma. Still the way I remember the first Lula campaign, as I observed it from the United States, was that there was a lot more policy heft in the run-up to his eventual presidency. He talked about the Washington Consensus, its pitfalls, income inequality and poverty with the facility of someone who has both seen and understood the lives of everyday people and is conversant in policy prescriptions that convincingly address those experiences.

Zuma is convincing in his identification with the rural poor. After all, the man from Nkandla grew up in reasonably typical rural poverty. But what are his policy prescriptions? Beyond “we can do more” on basically all fronts, how can someone even argue with what he is saying? If Zuma can come up with creative policies that address his own lived experience, then he might even be the transformative kind of president that Lula has been to Brazil. I think this country is still waiting for much of that policy heft.

In the meantime, it might be time for people to give up yearning after Obama (and god knows I’m always down for some Obama love).

Amid all the uproar over the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma, it’s worth noting that state prosecutorial cronyism is not the unique domain of South Africa. The U.S. recently exhibited similar tendencies, and ended up with a similar result. Former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption shortly before last November’s election. Recently, though, the charges were dropped due to claims that the federal prosecutor’s office mishandled the case. Stevens lost his re-election bid, though he very well may have lost had he not been convicted at the time. Like Zuma, the facts still seemed quite damning whether or not he was convicted in a court or not. Perhaps the main difference is that in the Stevens case, the U.S. government appears to have suppressed evidence, whereas the Zuma case was more a matter of interference in the general protocol and procedure of the prosecution. You can listen to my interview with political analyst Adam Habib about the NPA decision here.

Anyway, to those who think this is an example of South Africa “going to the dogs” or, as the more timely lament goes, “the way of Mugabe,” it’s helpful to remember that long-established democracies still encounter similar situations to that currently facing the South African legal structure. Then again, who am I to say the U.S. isn’t also going to the dogs.

Don’t tell that to my man Bob Dylan. He is characteristically — and wonderfully — out of his gourd in this new interview. He seems positively smitten with Barack Obama.

He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Way to just come up with words that refer to almost every different region of Africa, Bob. Later he muses on Obama’s literary abilities in Dreams From My Father:

His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

Then Dylan puts on his Jewish mother hat and second-guesses Obama’s latest career choice:

In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

You can also hear the Obama-ified “I Feel A Change Coming On” at the same link as the interview.

After Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of the office of the presidency for the first time, cannons blasted mere yards away from me in the 21 gun salute common to the inauguration of every new president of the United States. The pageantry that often marks off a capital “H” Historic moment was loud and clear in my ears. The new president took a podium looking out over us 2 million onlookers and implored my generation and our seemingly cashed and failed preceding ones to give a chance to government and to give a chance to ourselves. A skeptic — wow, that’s an understatement — of presidential politics for my adolescent and young adult life under the Bush administration, I found myself willing to open myself to this new presidential figure if at least momentarily. To hear a United States president speak of our commitment to developing nations, acknowledge non-believers as equals in our national spiritual compass, and note, with bittersweet pride, the blood of slaves that was spent bringing him to this podium, rang true for me in a way unique to this new president. Even as his rhetoric occasionally echoed the words Bush used throughout his presidency, his tone indicated a more ambitious, less vengeful, more fundamentally decent understanding of the world. It was fitting, then, that both Rev. Joseph Lowery and poet Elizabeth Alexander both clung to “love” as the value to cherish under this presidency, something surely limited to the dregs of hippie-dom at most other times in modern political memory.

I, along with my girlfriend, clawed through crowds in the fabled purple ticket holders “line” to our obstructed view spot on the Capitol lawn beginning at 5:15 am, reaching a spot at about 11 am, and, like a vast majority of the country and much of the world witnessed the oath, the cannons’ blast and heard a speech that I found uniquely inspiring, particularly in its call for individual work and decency. These are not themes unique to Obama as far as inaugural speeches go, but in conjunction with my time on his presidential campaign, as well as my longtime following of his writings and career, I believe that his inclinations as a politician are uniquely geared towards rewarding the realization of those values.

What I had not considered was how much of this pageantry drove the days proceedings. The parade of former presidents had the assembled crowd display their relative affections for the respective aging politicians. I relished joining the rest of the crowd in showering Bush with boos and a rendition of “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” but by the time Obama had begun to impose his new sense of decency as presidential prerogative, I felt shamed into letting go of my urge to shame the thankfully former president. Then again, perhaps a little shaming was in order.

It is hard to fathom a crowd as large as that which assembled on Tuesday in Washington, DC, especially for the ones who were in it. Suffice to say, a willingness to give up personal space and physical well-being was a necessity. While I was legitimately inspired to witness the inauguration of the country’s first black president, it was clear that there was an aspect of perhaps less inspiring celebrity worship that permeated the events. This was especially true at the official Southern inaugural ball, where I worked as a volunteer escorting journalists around the floor of the DC Armory to interview ball attendees. A significant number of the 10,000 attendees arrived only to immediately stake out a spot in front of the podium where the VP and President would dance with their wives… for one verse each of a song. The scripted grace of both couples was great to see, though hilarious in its acknowledgment of how ridiculous some of this pageantry is. Can you imagine going to ten different dances in one night and asking thousands of random people, “How beautiful is my wife?” In any other world but that of the absurd official balls, you’d have to say Obama was just being a self-important horndog!

The city was packed with visitors for the inauguration at every turn. Even as we drove back to Philadelphia the next night, a rest stop in northeastern Maryland was packed with travelers donning their newest Obama buttons, hats and t-shirts. There are obviously people who aren’t on board the Obama train, even after all of this pomp, circumstance, and a bit of substance. But to not at least be willing to give it a chance as observers and participants in Obama’s calls for work, responsibility, decency, and opportunity would be the work of a cold heart indeed. In a world where those things are possible, I can still hold out even the slightest bit of hope for progressive, dare I say liberal change in this country. Or at least health care!

Originally published in Swarthmore’s Bulletin magazine:

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

An Obama campaigner shares the jubilation of his candidate’s victory.

By Benjamin Bradlow ’08
obama_1.jpg

Barack Obama

When I found myself in Barack Obama’s campaign field office in South Philadelphia on Election Day—where I had worked for the past month—I couldn’t help feeling somewhat surprised to be there. For almost the entirety of my awareness of politics, I had been alienated from my government, estranged from my country, and unsure of my generation. That night, campaign workers cried, screamed, and high-fived their way through the office and into the dancing multitudes on Philadelphia’s Broad Street, a block away from our office.

I felt the empowerment of my youth. I screamed, hugged, and danced in the streets of this struggling, emotional city, with friends and with strangers, black and white. This was my country, shorn of the shackles of our parents, of our teachers, of our former leaders. After years of feeling that the Bush administration was just one constant attempt to hoodwink the country and the world, I could begin to consider that maybe we had pulled the ultimate trump card in what had previously been just a high stakes game of political frivolity.

Soon after I had started at the South Philadelphia office, in early October, reports emerged that John McCain would be making his last stand in Pennsylvania, hoping to chip away at Obama’s support in heavily populated Philadelphia by targeting white, working-class neighborhoods in Northeast and South Philadelphia. Obama visited four areas of the city during my first weekend working for the campaign. His last stop was at 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, long a key shopping avenue for the city’s historic African American community. The crowd overflowed at least two blocks beyond the designated area for the rally. Old ladies cried; crowds chanted, “Yes we can”; and street hawkers entertained by contorting the candidate’s name as they shouted into bullhorns, “Obamaobamaobamaobama!” It was both moving and fitting that his last stop in Philadelphia would be to this area of the city, which surely had never before been the focus of a presidential campaign. Still, this was all he would offer as help in our fight in the biggest battleground city of the election.

We were left with our “bodies on the doors” strategy, to use the vaguely dehumanizing, gung-ho language of the campaign field staff. So I went to the doors in the wards where Hillary Clinton had rung up large margins—up to 50 percent—in her primary challenge to Obama earlier in the year. These wards were full of the white, working-class voters who, we had been told, would never vote for a black man. My pleas were sometimes met by aggressive, racist ripostes. “It’s been the White House for 200 years, and I don’t want it to become the Black House,” one man with a thick foreign accent told me, somehow laying claim to an imagined legacy that was clearly an adopted one for him.

A father playing with his children at a playground in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza predicted, “If he gets in, he’s going to bring Sharpton, Jackson, and Farrakhan with him.”

But more often than not, and, it seemed, as the economic picture became increasingly bleak, I heard tales of lost jobs, financial insecurity, and a desire among Republicans and Democrats alike to vote for the person “who cares about me.” The stories fit right into the Obama pitches I had seen in TV ads and speeches, and I began to adopt some of his rhetoric in selling his candidacy when I spoke to voters: “John McCain wants to double down on the failed Bush policies of the last eight years.” “Obama is working for you.” “We can’t afford John McCain.”

More and more South Philadelphians seemed to agree as the weeks went by. But the campaign fight in the area was going to go down to the bitter end. One undecided old lady, skeptical of Obama’s experience, couldn’t help but note, “The young people really seem to like him.” “That’s why I’m here,” I almost replied.

We had to convince the people who had heard all about how Barack Obama was not like them that he actually was. This occasionally became a tougher proposition than I had bargained for. In late October, I made a call to a woman in a predominantly African American area of South Philadelphia. I stuck to the script. “Can we count on your support for Barack Obama this Election Day?”

“Yes, but I never hear him talking about us,” she said. “It’s always ‘the middle class.’ Well I’m definitely not the middle class. When is somebody going to talk about the working poor?”

All I could say to this woman, as I listened to the cries of her young children in the background, was, “You’re right.”

A black woman was unsure of Obama despite his being black, and white people were doubtful because he was black. Some were hopeful despite their fears of being let down, while others were afraid to hope. And I was beginning to regain my own political inspiration — “to drink the Obama kool-aid,” as my younger brother liked to joke — as I watched this inner battle playing out with voters across South Philadelphia.

As the last days of the campaign piled up, I received an e-mail from my mother encouraging me to keep working hard so that we could all celebrate on Election Day. She signed off as “the original Obamamama.” I shook my head in wonder at her motherly idiosyncrasies. I thought of what this election meant to her and my father, white South Africans who emigrated in the late 1970s and were now planning on moving back to their home country.

In my house, growing up, there was always one political hero: Nelson Mandela. By the time Mandela was actually on the ballot in South Africa, my parents had lived in the United States for more than 25 years, had become citizens, and had voted in many American elections. On Nov. 4, it struck me. They had left a country that, among its many injustices, denied the possibility of a black man for president in a majority black country. Today, they would cast their first vote for a black chief executive not in South Africa, but in the United States, a country with its own fraught history of racism. As I made my way through that day, I thought about when they would vote. Maybe they would see it as their election, just as much as I saw it as mine.

The street celebrations of Obama’s victory seemed to belong to the young and racially diverse crowd that gathered that night. I felt one with this crowd and our victory. The next morning, I realized an even more profound truth. This election belonged to everyone. At Greater Mount Olive A.M.E. Church, where I had coordinated volunteer canvassers in the days leading up to Election Day, older members of the African American church laid their claim to the victory, drawing the lineage of King and Kennedy to Obama. White and black of all ages were smiling at each other on the public bus I took back to the campaign office to begin cleaning up. This was not just my election. This election belonged to my parents. It was the election of the tired old lady in South Philadelphia worried about her dwindling retirement money and skyrocketing pharmaceutical bills. It belonged to African Americans across the country waiting on Martin Luther King’s dream.

I took it as my own as well. I ran into a friend in the streets near the campaign office that day, and all we could do was hug and talk about our hopes for the future. Barack Obama was our next president. We had inspired and become inspired along the way. Such optimism was out there in broad daylight for everyone to see and feel.

I scoured the Internet throughout the day for reactions from around the world, waiting to see what Mandela, and my family’s number two hero, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid, would say. The first time I cried during the entire election season was when I read of their public joy at this momentous occasion.

A few days later, my parents forwarded me a private e-mail a family friend had received from Tutu. On Election Night, Barack Obama recalled the soul singer Sam Cooke’s powerful “A Change Is Gonna Come” when he told America and the world that “change has come.” And in his message, Tutu—that voice I had always admired that combined wisdom, justice, old age, and youthful exuberance all in one—articulated in his response what every single one of us was feeling at that moment: “Yippee!”

If anybody arrives to this site from the link the editors put at the end of the article, welcome!

Woah. Check out the video of celebrations in Accra following opposition leader John Atta-Mills’ close victory in the Ghana’s elections. Once I got to his speech I couldn’t help but think of Obama’s whole “we are the United States of America” schtick. It’s an understatement to say that there’s a lot of political dysfunction in many African countries, but could Obama’s victory in the United States be at least some small inspiration to the hopeful election in this West African country? Atta-Mills is around the 40 second mark.

George Packer weighs in on the Obama inaugural team’s selection of Elizabeth Alexander as the poet for the big day:

Judging from the work posted on her Web site, Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry—a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

Obama’s Inauguration needs no heightening. It’ll be its own history, its own poetry.

So is Packer’s argument that a certain style (Alexander’s or, for that matter, anything “contemporary” or “academic”) is bad for an inauguration or is the idea of poem itself generally bad for such an event? Either way, I’m still holding out hope for a last minute addition of Bob Dylan.

Originally published on WHYY’s It’s Our City blog:

President-elect Barack Obama is already under the spotlight as he tries to cope with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. But walk by any curbside clothing stand in Philadelphia and you are likely to see one positive economic benefit from an Obama presidency that hasn’t even begun yet. The Obama image is dominating the street fashion world and some clothes sellers are hoping to take full advantage for as long as the trend lasts…

View the audio slideshow here.

Originally published on WHYY’s Y-Decide blog:

Barack Obama held the second of two major press conferences in the last two days to announce members of his economic team, but a little further from the limelight, his health policy team is also coming into focus today…

Read the rest here.