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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, May 19, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesPresident Obama and the V.I.'s Future

President Obama and the V.I.'s Future

Nov. 6, 2008 — In politics, there are shifts, landslides and earthquakes. Barack Obama’s election is an earthquake. The headline in The New York Times read: “Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” The celebrations all over the United States and throughout the world reflected this affirmation of inclusion and of African-American accomplishment. But, in a certain sense, the racial message missed a larger point. Senator Obama’s election represents a punctuation mark, the final exclamation point on a forty-year era of destructive reactionary politics in the United States. This period culminated in the Bush Administration, dark years whose disastrous legacy President Obama will inherit on January 20.
Events like this election are infrequent. They are “hooks” upon which real change can be hung. But change is not inevitable, and the opportunity is often fleeting, especially in bad times when events can quickly overcome our hopes and optimism. As proof, we have the seemingly eternal model of French politics. The French are constantly seeking and demanding fundamental change, with only two conditions: that everything remain the same and that I can keep doing what I am doing. The result is that nothing really changes. Virgin Islanders will find something familiar in these French requirements.
So what do a President Obama and an Obama Administration mean to the Virgin Islands? Symbolism and pride are important, but in they end, they must be used as tools for change rather than being seen as ends in themselves. They tend to have a short shelf-life.
Part one of the equation is that talk and grandiosity are light work. How can Virgin Islanders translate this enormous symbolic victory into the reality of better communities and better lives for everyone? Part two of the equation is to ask: what will this new Administration bring to Virgin Islanders? Given the magnitude of the challenges facing it, domestically and in foreign affairs, and the fact that the country is essentially broke, the logical answer is: not much.
If these two points – the need to move beyond symbolism and the unlikelihood of a lot of material support – are correct, how can the Virgin Islands take advantage of what has just happened? To answer that question, it is worth trying to understand Barack Obama beyond his ability to have everyone project what they want to see onto him. If there is such a thing as Obamaism, here are its core qualities and the ways in which Virgin Islanders can use these qualities as hooks to build a better future:
Excellence: If we examine President-Elect Obama’s personal history, his campaign, and the people who surround him, the common thread is excellence and high standards. While Bush, Cheney and their followers have put to rest any final illusions of white supremacy, Barack Obama and his team have done the same for doubts about black capacity for excellence. Rather than thinking in terms of symbolism, President Obama can serve Virgin Islanders as a concrete model for excellence, high quality, and thoughtfulness in planning and organization for the future.
The inevitable doubts about the ability to deliver excellence and high standards in all aspects of Virgin Islands life can now be met with a simple refrain: Yes, we can!
Action not words: Senator McCain and Governor Palin regularly attacked Senator Obama for being eloquent and giving great speeches. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton had done the same. Leaving aside the absurdity of criticizing someone for speaking well, these attacks were just wrong. While the Obama campaign’s theme of “change” sounded soft at times, it was not. And we are now going to see the shift from the campaign word (“change”) to the governing word (“action”).
A campaign is an enormous project. The Obama campaign was probably the most successful electoral project of its kind in American history. In retrospect, it will be seen to have been built on an extraordinary candidate, a clear and ambitious strategy, the best and right people in the right jobs, and a relentless focus on solid execution of the strategy, even when things seemed to be going wrong. The campaign was a model of thoughtful planning and execution.
Along with a lot of other places, the Virgin Islands is better at talking than executing. What the Obama campaign accomplished can serve as a model for how to do the most important things in the Territory, whether it is strengthening the economy, protecting the environment or improving the quality of life for poor Virgin Islanders. In one respect, the Territory already has a head-start by having in place its most effective Governor in many years. The challenge now is to confront norms and behaviors that have long given short shrift to effective action.
Not “post-racial” but beyond race: Barack Obama won for many reasons, but one of them was a clear desire on the part of many Americans to be one people. His election does not –as some people want to believe – wipe clean the slate of our country’s tortured racial history. It doesn’t work that way. We live with that legacy and have a long way to go. But the message that we are all in this together, and that constantly looking back at grievances cripples us as a nation, was a powerful one in this election.
We know that many people in the Republican Party and many of those who voted for McCain and Palin do not feel this way. They still believe in a white America that no longer exists. Their day has passed or is passing. So has that of a generation of Black leaders obsessed with the past and grievance. The most hopeful sign in this election was the attitudes of many young people. While they may not know much history, they have a sense of fairness, an indifference to color, a respect for intelligence and a hope for the future that was one of the foundation stones of the Obama tidal wave.
There is a huge lesson here for the Territory. Many Virgin Islanders do not believe that we are all in this together, especially across racial lines. Virgin Islands politics are driven by representation of small groups rather than the indivisible good of all. Getting at this problem is difficult, but given the universal “all in this together” theme of the Obama campaign, it will be increasingly difficult to defend what has just become the politics of the past.
Hope for the future: President-Elect Obama has given millions of people renewed hope for the future of our country. That hope should not be confused with false optimism. We face hard times and lots of very hard work, but we have turned a corner. The “hook” has been provided by this extraordinary election. In the words of Johnny Nash:
"I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright
Sun-Shiny day.
I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin for
It’s gonna be a bright, bright
Sun-Shiny day.
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies"
Well, maybe not quite, but I think you get the idea.

Editor’s note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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