Obama and Me

A conservative Kenyan relates his personal odyssey through the 2008 election. In the process of selecting a leader, he makes surprising discoveries that transcend politics.

On the surface, it appears that I voted for Obama because I am black, or because I am Kenyan, or both. But nothing could be farther from the truth. More than any other singular event, this election forced me to confront my identity in unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways. Would I hold allegiance to a candidate based on national affinity, or would my personal and political beliefs triumph? If I could be honest, I had wanted to vote for Obama all along but my intellectual underpinnings held me back until layer after layer of bias, doubt and skepticism were peeled away paving, leading to clarity of choice of whom I should select.

I trace the seeds of my political awareness to college at a dinner I attended with my then-girlfriend and her parents who hailed from the southern Indiana. Her father asked me what my parents did for living. “Fairly innocuous question,” I thought as I responded that my mother was a nurse and my father a professor. He promptly responded, “So you’re a democrat.” I have no idea why those particular professions should connote political party, but something within me cringed instinctively. I had been labeled solely on the basis of my parents’ professions (and possibly, the color of my skin). From that day, I grew determined never to be typecast along demographic, religious or socio-economic factors.

While many college students may never be confronted as bluntly as I was about their political stances, in general, college is a place where we come of age, so to speak, and decide what we will believe about the world and how to make it a better place. We cast our votes based on who we think will do a better job and who is best aligned with our issues and ideals. At least that’s the theory. In practice, most people are probably driven by one or two central issues. For me, the top issue going into the election was abortion. As a social conservative, the choice of who to elect was therefore resoundingly clear: Senator John McCain.

My identity as a social conservative and as an individual has stemmed largely from my own spiritual convictions. Faced with two compelling candidates who shared similar faith backgrounds to my own, I was forced to confront my own bias that Republicans held a monopoly on moral authority. Intellectually, I knew this not to be true but it was much easier to affiliate with a party that took a definite moral stance on the abortion issue. As I listened more and more to Obama, I came to appreciate his insightful perspective on the fundamental issues undergirding the contentious abortion debate: preventing unwanted pregnancies. I respected that he had carefully thought through the issue and understood that the bigger priority was helping solve the problem before we got to the point where we needed to make a decision on life. When Obama issued a clarion call for men to take up their responsibilities as fathers, he once and for all resonated with my own belief that restoring fatherhood to its proper place in society would yield the largest dividends. While my spiritual convictions have not changed, Obama helped to contextualize this issue in a way that most other candidates did not, allowing me to overcome my bias towards the Republican side.

As an ardent supporter of John McCain, it would take more than the numerous spirited debates I had with my family and close HBS friends to create reasonable doubt on his fit for the presidency. My support was not based solely on socially conservative issues but also on his fiscal positions and his outstanding bi-partisanship track record. Senator McCain lost me with two key actions: his vice presidential pick and his handling of the economy. If Senator McCain was running on a platform of experience and a willingness to put country first, he showed a troubling lack of judgment by picking an inexperienced vice presidential running mate. Additionally, his somewhat rash conclusion that he would fire SEC chairman Christopher Cox was even more disconcerting. It betrayed a complete lack of understanding of the financial system, and more importantly, provided a valuable glimpse into how his famously billed “maverick” asset would actually be a liability to the country. To be sure, Obama has his own list of shortcomings, many of which have been well publicized and do not bear repeating here. Suffice it to say that in the final analysis, his shortcomings were outweighed by Senator McCain’s.

At this point, the only thing standing between me and an Obama vote was his proclivity to promise the world because I was skeptical about how was he going to deliver on the picture of utopia he had painted with such broad strokes. Universal healthcare, quality education for all, an efficient military all combined with tax cuts for 95% of Americans seemed to fly in the face of everything we learned in BGIE especially given our enormous deficit and a $700B bailout package. Despite how much I wanted to believe in these great ideas, just how was he going to pull it off?

Obama’s secret solution to his ambitious agenda was also his crowning achievement during this race, and ultimately, the reason he garnered my vote. Obama asked Americans to once again embrace the ideals that founded this country. Beyond race, beyond partisanship lay a world where unity and the will to work together constructively would revitalize the country, giving us the audacious hope that we stand the chance of seeing his promises realized. These last few years have brought America to new lows domestically and around the world. With a faltering economy, rampant greed and myriad social issues, the promise of America seemed buried in old parchment and long forgotten. Obama did not make promises about what he would do while in office. Instead, he painted a vision of what could be and invited us to walk the journey with him in making this vision a reality.

This summer, I spent four weeks in Kenya where my fellow countrymen implored me to vote for Obama. “The world needs Obama,” a colleague flatly stated. The reality is that Obama needs us. Not in the political sense although that was certainly true, but without people on the ground, doing the hard day to day work, his vision will become a dream deferred. My parents came to this country because they believed a better life was possible for them and their children. Almost 20 years later, I have been afforded the best opportunities this country has to offer and not because of any one president, but because over 250 years ago, a band of men united to create a nation where anything was possible and people were encouraged to reach for the stars. Last week, Obama invited us to rewrite the American story and redefine the 21st century not as the age of America’s decline but the beginning of a new American moment.

Beyond the question of my spiritual beliefs, my social conservatism and even my skeptical approach to his promises, this election brought to life a kinship with Obama I had never felt before. On a personal level, seeing Obama, a man who shares a similar background, make it to the highest office of the land was deeply inspirational. On election night, I took lots of pictures but paused once to silently reflect once during the night as he gave his acceptance speech. In a rare and unexpected moment, tears began to form in my eyes. While my classmates, many African American, were going through a profound moment, at that time, I was having a distinctly different and private experience for a distinctly different reason.

It was then that I understood why I wanted to vote for Obama so badly and why it had taken so long to finally admit it to myself. For all intents and purposes, Obama’s journey was my journey. His success was my success. It was the journey of every little boy and girl who sees injustice and yearns to fight it, who battles insurmountable odds, who makes tremendous personal sacrifice and dares to believe that the most lofty goals are not only possible, but that they form the backbone of their destiny.

As he arrived at his moment of destiny, I was finally freed of the shackles of fear, doubt, and excuses that had stopped me from daring to take the steps toward my own destiny. I was free to hope that I too would one day have the opportunity to significantly impact the world. In re-writing the American story Obama did not just create an American moment; he gave the world freedom to believe that a new era was at hand, where a genuine global community could really form to collectively solve problems much bigger than any one country could ever solve alone. And perhaps nowhere did that ring truer than in Kenya and for the Kenyan Diaspora.