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Sabtu, 13 Agustus 2011

Obama comes home to passionate welcome

Welcome Obama

The speech was remarkably consistent or unremarkably original, depending on which way you look at it. Obama the president is a two-year battered version of Obama the harbinger of hope.

You have heard the speech before but never to such a passionate audience, 6,500 strong in the University of Indonesia Auditorium. It is both relevant to the promise of international cooperation as well as renewed faith in political leadership. More than the content of the speech, the delivery managed to release the underlying good feelings between the United States and Indonesia that have connected certain parts of the population. This was because Obama was successful to present himself as the “kid from Menteng” who made good.

Obama talked about the time he first came to school in Jakarta and how he gained acceptance immediately. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was the major influence in his young life. She had come from Hawaii with her second husband Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian, after Barack Obama’s father from Kenya had died a few years before.

Obama talked about his mother who gave 20 years of her life as an activist to the Indonesia she loved until cancer compelled her to leave for home. The president took the occasion to thank the Indonesian government who had given her a national award to his mother for her devotion to public causes 
in Indonesia.

Long before he became president, his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, touched many lives in Indonesia, where she worked as an anthropologist, becoming a pioneer in microfinance and creating services like credit and savings for the poor. So it was that Ms. Dunham, who died in 1995, was honored the evening before with a gold medal, accepted by her son on her behalf in a gesture that the president said left him “deeply moved”.
This kind of sincere expression drove the audience to a passionate state. The hall thundered with applause whenever Obama put his speech in the context of his Jakarta days, describing how Jakarta had changed over 40 years, with the nation becoming “an extraordinary democratic nation with a highly connected and wired people”.

Indonesia adalah bagian dari saya, Obama emphasized to screams of delight from the audience. When he shook hands with the people in the front rows after the speech, he was like a rock star.

And the audience responded with enthusiasm. “We all rely on each other together, like bamboo and the river bank,” Obama said upon receipt of an award for his mother’s work in the country.

“We are all stronger and safer when we see our common humanity in each other.”
So what was the content of the speech in hard terms? Development and democracy. Like Hilary Clinton before him, Obama gave high marks to Indonesia for religious tolerance and democratic reform. In the context of development he saw these qualities are essential human capital. And the president of the United States reaffirmed his commitment to continue the shared values. As he praised Indonesia’s fight against violent extremists, he tied it to his own escalating war in Afghanistan, which antagonizes many Muslim Indonesians.

He brought out the Indonesian national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, translating to unity in diversity, as an example to the world. Comparing it with the United States’ E Pluribus Unum, he cited his country’s pluralism and made it clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.

As he goes on beyond emotional expression of common bonds into the areas of his future agenda, the huge challenges loom high. Both the US and Indonesia are not in the best positions to deal with the common challenges that face both nations and governments.

Coming fresh from a resounding defeat in the mid-term elections, Obama is now a president facing a hostile House of Representatives and a weaker majority in the Senate. The US electorate has ignored the historic benefits of the health care bill with some associating it with socialist tendencies. Reforms in the financial sector leave the public unmoved as they give way to impatience over the sluggish wave in employment.

As in the mid-term elections in the first years of the Reagan and Clinton, the winning presidents lose congressional support. But they bounced back and the rest is history. Will Obama repeat this performance? In any case, this is the closest challenge facing Obama before he picks up the threads of America’s global agenda.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in a similar position albeit in a different 
scenario. The hugely popular SBY who won his second-term presidency by a landslide now suffers from sunken popularity if you believe the polls. He has weak political support if you believe that the parliament represents the national polity. He has no media support if you believe that the media are not dictated by ambitious businessmen cum politicians.

In any case, his inherent cautious style is now seen by many as indecision. Not an ideal platform to step up reforms. After good speeches in Pittsburgh and Harvard, the words that shook the world no longer have impact as the Indonesian government drifts in a sea of political attacks from people more interested in vested interests than national reform or international initiatives.

Both governments have to do much homework before they can recover the strong support needed for significant reforms. Homework on political consolidation in the US. In Indonesia, the homework is on living up to plaudits of democracy and religious tolerance as democracy is often abused and religion is used by deviants as an excuse for intolerance. We must continue because “Yes, we can” meet the challenge.

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