Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Do we Want a "Global Candidate?"

To say that the news has been flooded with reports, analyses, and transcripts of Barack Obama's speech in St. Paul last night might be called a classic case of British understatement, were it not for the fact that the one-hour news broadcast on BBC America last night was there with live coverage. Thus, it may be that the wisest place for stepping back and taking a deep breath will be the Web site for Al Jazeera English, whose coverage of St. Paul (including a transcript and a profile dwelling more on issues than on personality traits) was certainly as good as any of the "usual" sources. However, in their bid to challenge the BBC as the leading global news service, Al Jazeera commissioned a report of global opinion of the Presidential candidates; and, coincidentally, the results were published yesterday (which could well mean around the time that the polls for the final round of primaries were just opening). Here are the "bottom line" results:

In a survey of 22 countries, published on Tuesday, 80 per cent of people polled who said they were aware of the three main candidates - Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain - said they were following the election "closely".

Clinton, the former first lady and early favourite for the Democratic nomination who is under increasing pressure to concede defeat, emerged as the most recognisable candidate with 92 per cent of respondents indicating they were "aware" of her.

But it was Obama who was the preferred of all three candidates, with more than half of those who said they were aware of the candidates saying they would most like to see him as the next president

McCain, the all but certain Republican nominee, was both the least recognisable and least popular candidate.

Sixty-two per cent of respondents said they were aware of him, while only 15 per cent of people who recognised the three candidates said they would like to see him in the White House.

Now, to be fair, these results were not based on person-in-the-street inquiries:

Nearly 23,000 "broad elites" and "opinion leaders" were interviewed by Ipsos for the survey on behalf of Al Jazeera.

Thus, it would be a stretch to call the results representative of global opinion; but then there is so much diversity of worldviews that the very concept of "global opinion" is all but meaningless. Of greater significance is the problem, which I recently discussed, of the extent of the damage done by the Bush Administration to the reputation of the United States in the world community. This damage will only be repaired when the United States begins to improve the communicative actions through which it engages with the rest of the world, dispensing with faith-based "commandments" in favor of the recognition that opinions will always differ and differences may not always be settled but can always be negotiated. There is thus a good chance that those who will so engage with the next Administration were either part of that sample of 23,000 or were fairly represented by it. Thus, while the results may not be representative of the "world at large," they may still provide a valid representation of the sorts of people the next President is likely to encounter in the global arena (particularly those bent out of shape by the current President).

From this point of view, I feel at least a little bit encouraged by the course of events over the last couple of days. Obama has made it a point to differentiate his position when it comes to trying to open dialogs with those who have been intransigently shunned by the Bush Administration. The Al Jazeera report shows signs that Obama's position has been recognized by, at the very least, the Ipsos sample space and taken as a positive sign. However, now that Obama seems to have progressed from would-be nominee to presumptive nominee, he is also going to have to worry about communicative actions within the Democratic Party. Platform Committees are not always as big on differentiation as candidates are. Whatever powers of appeal Obama has exercised on both the electorate and the superdelegates will now have to be exercised on the general machinery of the Democratic Party to make sure that their "political perspective" does not undermine the strongest assets he may bring to meeting the challenges of the many crises that now face the United States, both domestically and globally. If those assets are undermined, then it will not take much for the election of 2008 to devolve into the fiasco of 2004; and both Americans and the world will see that, in the face of so many crises, our political system can do little more than dither.

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