Discussion on expectations of the Obama presidency

12/04/08 Seán Kinane
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How will President-elect Barack Obama tackle the critical issues facing America? The University of South Florida’s Department of Africana Studies and Institute on Black Life attempted to answer that question today in a roundtable discussion called “A Change Has Come.”

Rhetoric doctoral student Kendra Bryant read her work, “We Be Theorizing,” that catalogs accomplishments of people who paved the way for Obama’s election. Dawood Sultan is an assistant professor in the Departments of Africana Studies and Health Policy and Management. He outlined several of the problems facing the country as Obama gets ready to enter the White House including wars, the economy, and the healthcare crisis. But Sultan cautioned against unreasonable expectations for immediate improvement.

“The quantity of change is what matters to me. Change could be slow, it could be radical. What the president has inherited requires not just simple change, it requires radical change. The question is, is this country ready for that? Or does the American populace [have] the stomach for radical change? Two problems: the U.S. is too big. Its government is just a huge behemoth, which is highly unlikely to move [quickly]. And that is one concern that I have. Two, people are frightened of change.”

Edward Kissi is an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies and also warned that radical changes are not likely. Not because of the timidity of the American people, Kissi said, but rather because of the mainstream philosophy of Obama himself, at least when it comes to relations with other countries.

“In fact, the President-elect’s foreign policy principals are orthodox and not transformative at all. That is to say that the President-elect will be committed to the pursuit of broader American foreign policy principals whose genealogy can actually be traced to Theodore Roosevelt in 1910.”

Kissi said that U.S. foreign policy currently focuses on just a few countries such as Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. This means that Barack Obama would not place much policy emphasis on the continent of Africa, Kissi said.

“For 22 months of campaigning, the word ‘Africa’ never even cropped up. … And in the enunciation of the broader ideas, principles, and assumptions that will guide the President-elect’s international affairs, Africa has been absent.”

The discussion was moderated by WMNF News and Public Affairs Director Rob Lorei. Eric Duke is an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies. He disputed claims by some that the election of a black president means that there is no longer racism in America.

During the roundtable discussion there was also a focus on how Obama would address the nation’s education crisis. Kristan Kowzan, an undergraduate majoring in interdisciplinary social sciences, read a quote from education expert Bill Ayers. Ayers is the former Weather Underground member whose casual acquaintance with Barack Obama was made a campaign issue by the John McCain campaign. Kowzan said that the country needs to reclaim the country’s original idea of public education.

Cynthia Smith is a master’s student in Africana Studies who brought up the example of soldiers re-enlisting in the military because there are few jobs available, and how military benefits might improve under an Obama administration.

Dawood Sultan suggested that there is no way for Obama to carry out the transformation he has talked about without reaching out to a broader social movement that demands change.

“Washington is recalcitrant. It is too strong, it is full of lobbying bodies and it doesn’t change that quickly and it doesn’t change that fast. I believe a threatening social movement is needed to back up the president so that Congress would – people in power would know that if they refuse to do the people’s will. Basically, they would have hell to pay at some point, and through basically being voted out.”

Thursday’s discussion concluded with a spoken word performance by Reginald Eldridge, a master’s student in Africana Studies, who compared the fame of Obama to the invisibility of others. The USF Africana Studies Department and Institute on Black Life plan several events in the spring, including a panel discussion on “The End of Racism?: Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and the Politics of Hope” on Jan. 21.

Department of Africana Studies

Institute on Black Life

University of South Florida

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