THE BLOG

Living In The Possibility-Based Global Community

05/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Barack and Michelle Obama are home after a breathtaking tour which took in the G20 summit, the Nato gathering, a symbolic meeting with the Islamic world in Turkey and an unscheduled popping in to see the troops in Iraq since they were en route.

I'm going to miss them on the front pages of our newspapers, meeting, greeting and hugging the world. Where will I go for my daily fantasies without Barack's regular game-changing speeches - here a new global consensus, there a nuclear free future? And who, other than Michelle, can fulfil the current need for an intelligent, caring, audacious female role model that the press love?

American polls have given them a 66% approval rating on this trip - it seems there is an appetite for this kind of living in the world of possibility. We all know that the Obamas can do no more than make promises at this point, but - if these polls can be believed - the people are loving it.

Understandably, much of the press prefer to focus on the worries of the 34% - "Reality hits the Obama Express" shouts Politico, "Obama's hope is shot down to earth" echoes Tomaski. For them, North Korea's test launch of a long range weapon is proof that nothing can change, rather than evidence that global agreements on nuclear weapons are now more urgent than ever.

But let's not ignore the story hovering between the hopeful and the doubtful, which is about what actually changed in the environment for action, whether in the economy or international relations. In other words, what happened in real time, that makes it more likely that new actions and policies will emerge? What new narratives arose about America and its President that will impact decisions taken by those watching?

Those bemoaning the lack of 'real action' at this stage may be too used to 'hard power' reasoning: they won't believe the economy is rescued until they see the money flow into the pockets of the people. Fair enough - that is one measure we should clearly hold to.

But what that approach misses, is the enormous accumulation of 'soft power' that has been banked over this past week - stories and images that make America a more attractive proposition to current and potential partners. Because of the way that the Obamas have behaved in the spotlight, how they have chosen to deploy the media's attention, America's soft power coffers are much replenished.

There is no ignoring the strategy Obama has chosen in these early days of his administration, beginning with his pre-tour broadcast to the Iranian people. Rather than work in the shadowy, elitist realms so favoured by Bush, with its reliance on covert intelligence and back room deals, Obama is playing straight to the biggest crowd - the people of a newly globalised world who view his every move on the internet. He knows, as every leader at G20 knows, that in democracies, it is the crowd that counts. And what he chose to give those crowds in each country was a spectacle of warmth, openness and glorious possibility - whether the President in loco liked it or not.

Wherever the cameras had access, Barack was the widest smile in the photo. Rather than play the strongest or the gravest man - he left that to Gordon Brown - Obama played the joker, holding the pack together. Here bowing to King Abdullah, there seizing Bush's arch enemy President Lula by the hand and naming him the "coolest, most popular politician on the planet". While Berlusconi and Sarkozy fought for first place in the hard power stakes - stamping their feet if they didn't get their own way - Obama was the friendliest kid on the block, deliberately disingenuous, as if to say: "See, I can play with whoever I want."

But rather than make him a lightweight, that smile - resonant of Nelson Mandela as he travelled the world - gave way to speeches of disarming ambition. Listening to Obama reach for a nuclear free world or a new, benign, global order was to be reminded of Bobby and John Kennedy. But at the same time, I was reminded - in a whole new way - of a debate raised by journalist Ron Suskind about 'reality based communities' versus 'faith based communities'.

In a piece for the New York Times Magazine in October 2004, Suskind quoted an unnamed aide who suggested that President Bush was never fettered by reality; he acted according to his faith in God and made history that way. Obama, on this trip, acted according to what he believed is possible from human collaboration at this moment - with only his commitment to back him up. Just as he got himself elected in the USA with a slogan of Yes We Can, so Obama hopes to address the major global crises of our age by taking a stand and asking us to join him there. Will this be the beginning of a 'possibility-based global community?'

And if most of us are unaware of the deliberate grasping and transforming of reality that Obama is exercising through the world's media, we will be constantly led by the images of Barack and Michelle "being the change". Michelle transcends the traditional dilemmas and life-choices for women, refusing to choose between being a career woman, a wife or a mother by being all of them at once. Not only was every cardigan and shoe scrutinised, but every word of her speech to the young girls in London analysed. Loving, caring, strong women, she demonstrates, are a formidable force in this new age of possibility. How many more women will be ready to step up to public life as a result of her display?

Let's see what happens next. No doubt the world's press will take a holiday from the Obama show for a while. But for those of us living each day in a heavily mediated space - whether through Youtube, CNN or the New York Times on line - it feels like, within a very short time, we are living in a somewhat different world. A world in which America can live in partnership with the Islamic world, in which nuclear weapons can be eliminated altogether and where a new global order can collaborate to address the excesses of the past.
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