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Marcia DeSanctis

Marcia DeSanctis

Posted: November 10, 2008 10:03 PM

Professor Obama


Barack Obama is now the face of the United States -- the photograph we will see when we go through customs at JFK airport, or when we go to any U.S. Embassy on earth. The impact of this image, particularly at first, will be subtle, but immeasurable and its iconographic significance is multi-layered. He might refer to himself self-deprecatingly as a "mutt," but he is in effect, Globalized Man. With parts coming from all around the earth, including Africa and Ireland, passing through Asia on the way back to America, our new President now seems inevitable -- this is the way the world is in 2008. But perhaps of even larger importance is that the leader of the world's greatest democracy was a professor of constitutional law and above all, a teacher. The Constitution -- as in, the foundation of any functioning democracy -- is his area of expertise. As such, he embodies the best possible advertisement for democracy at a time when the world needs it most and our country could benefit from, as Bill Clinton put it, the "power of example" rather than the "example of power."

Even though there are differing standards of classification for what makes a democracy, it always means rule of the people -- free and fair elections, elected representatives and freedom of all expression. But it is rule of law as provided by the Constitution which is democracy's sine qua non, and which depending on your interpretation, is either a precondition for, or is strengthened by, democracy. In the U.S., it is the Constitution that provides our basic civil liberties and political rights, allowing us, among many other things, religious freedom, due process, a guarantee that the power of the federal government is not absolute, and the clear delineation of three branches of government.

So when Obama talks about democracy, he knows down to the nitty gritty what he's talking about. As a professor of constitutional law, he knows the Constitution like a farmer knows his soil, perhaps more than any president in American history. This is of course good news and a fortuitous aside domestically, where strict interpretation of the Constitution and of law might give us faith again in ideology-free jurisprudence, legislation and leadership. The country needs it badly after the wholesale undermining of the separation of powers under rule of law by the Bush administration. The President's frequent use of signing statements, particularly on national security legislation (and most egregiously on the anti-torture bill), gave him the power to exclude parts of laws enacted by Congress that he himself signed, allowing him, in the words of Arlen Specter, to "cherry pick" the provisions he liked and disregard those he did not.

It is also good news to the world, because democracy is no longer on the march, as Ronald Reagan put it over two decades ago, but instead the number of illiberal democracies, as Fareed Zakaria calls them, is increasing. According to the Economist, as of 2008, only 30 out of 167 countries are full democracies -- that's only 14.4 per cent of the world's population. The constitutional scholar as American President turns on its ear the idea that we aim to export democracy. The institution of democracy is in his bones, for one more reason than it is in all of ours. That, to me, was the meaning of his much maligned Periclean backdrop at the Democratic Convention. The symbolism might have been drowned out by the rock and roll lighting, but the idea was: time for a new golden age of democracy, led by someone who understands it.

As for Obama as a teacher, this too has meaning beyond the obvious. With his election, we reinforced the natural didactic talents of our brand of democracy. At a time when America had deplorably low esteem in the worlds' eyes, our democracy was able to turn around and show itself at its most profound and powerful. A good professor is a good learner, and this in turn causes every move he has made to teach us something. It is therefore Obama's experience as a teacher that completes the picture, and may actually frame it entirely. Like the lecturer he was, ideas happen when he is moving. Here in America, we revere and respect our teachers. We listen to them because generally, they know more than we do.

Back to Obama's image. In 2005, the Bush administration appointed fellow Texan Karen Hughes to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. At the time, this meant that Ms. Hughes had to accentuate America's many good works, while having to defend the two wars we were waging. It was a bad time and a tough sell and audiences seemed immune to the positive spin. She could not sway global opinion, no matter how many well-meaning projects we initiated. Polls overwhelmingly showed that the Muslim world preferred freedom and democracy to theocracy. They just did not want it served up by George Bush's PR representative.

Rather than preach, build or spread democracy, we proved that our system works. By winning, Obama did more to teach the Iraqis about democracy than four years of nation building has done. What a fine coincidence, if that's what it was, that the new President's professional past dovetails so neatly with the needs of the world and symbolically highlights rule of law as the bedrock of constitutional democracy. It will give the U.S. a competitive advantage in putting forth our policies. So now, it's time to take Bush's portrait down and put it into cold storage. It's Obama's turn to smile at us from behind the Embassy gates, because through and through, his face represents a lesson in democracy. The constitution is back.