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Manfred B. Steger Headshot

Barack Obama and the Global Imaginary

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When the Democratic Party's National Convention is held next week in Denver, one of its main goals will be to tell the 'American story' of its presidential candidate. "I am absolutely baffled that anybody would say that Barack doesn't meet every single test of genuine Americanism when you consider his life story," Tom Daschle told reporters recently. The former Senate Democratic leader was reacting to doubts about Obama's "Americanism" which his opponents have been trying to imprint on the public consciousness. Indeed, it wasn't just McCain's attack dogs that growled at the Illinois senator's lack of "patriotism." Thanks to the impressive research efforts of an Atlantic Monthly reporter, we now know that Hillary Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn opined in a 2007 internal memo that he could not imagine America electing a president "who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values."

Questioning a candidate's patriotism is not new in American elections, but what strikes me as unusual is the vehemence with which Obama's global appeal and consciousness is derided by those who sneer at an African-American brought up in Hawai'i, Kansas, and Indonesia. His names, race, and multicultural background certainly play a role in these aggressive attempts to relegate Obama to the margins of the national imaginary. But there is more. For many Americans, the Illinois senator is the problematic personification of a dynamic generally known by the buzzword "globalization." One of the consequences of the dramatic compression of the world since the 1990s has been the destabilization of the national. The mental and geographical maps that help us navigate our political universe no longer correspond neatly to the familiar order built over the last century on the foundation of the sovereign and self-contained nation-state. Faced with genuinely global problems like climate change, transnational terrorism, energy and food crises, and growing inequality, young and bright politicians like Obama who have seen beyond the cornfields of the American Midwest grasp that the national has become inextricably linked to the global. Thus, they have begun to translate into concrete political agendas what I call the "global imaginary"--a sense of a thickening world community, bound together by economic and cultural processes that are daily shrinking our planet.

This is not to deny the staying power of the national over crucial aspects of social life. To pronounce the nation-state dead would be both inaccurate and foolish. But it would be equally myopic to close one's eyes to the rising global imaginary. Most likely, the 21st century will be an interregnum in which the national and the global will co-exist uncomfortably. But as the eruptions of the global continue to sear the national, they not only change the world's economic infrastructure, but also transform our sense of self, identity, and belonging. And this is where the quarrel over Obama's "Americanness" comes in. Like no other U.S. politician before him, he reminds people that we're already up to our knees in these difficult transitional times laced with multiple and extended affiliations, references, and identities. Clinging to the safety of traditional "Americanness," many voters are afraid of the senator's globalism while at the same time recognizing him as the harbinger of an even more interdependent world. Conversely, the rising global imaginary makes it easier for "foreigners" like French youths or German professionals to imagine Obama as one of their "own." Indeed, the Democratic presidential candidate seems to possess a keen awareness of his unique role as a mediator between the national and the global. Addressing tens of thousands of Berliners during his recent visit to the German capital, he called himself in the same sentence "a proud citizen of the United States" and "a fellow citizen of the world."

Manfred B. Steger is Professor of Global Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the author of The Rise of the Global Imaginary (Oxford UP, 2008).