I moved to the United States in the fall of 2007 for university. In the first few days, upon arriving on campus, there were volunteers asking students if we had registered to vote. My response, “Sorry. I can’t. I’m foreign.” In the last eight and a half years, that has been my response to many political and official questions, and for many reasons.
Prior to coming to the United States, I had always taken an interest in American history and political systems. In secondary (high) school, part of my concentration in history class was 20th-century America. In university, I would secondarily study politics (political theory) which largely focused on American political systems. America, in my foreign eyes, has always been an enigma. Eight and a half years later, this is still true.
But when I arrived, something exciting was in the air. Or rather someone: Barack Hussein Obama.
It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn’t apprehensive. Even as a late teen (as is true in adulthood), I disagreed with Obama on some fundamental issues. Before I continue, a preface is needed: I am a third culture kid – born in Nigeria, raised away from it; with family spread mostly in three continents: Africa, Europe, North America; my parents are highly educated people; my father was a political journalist insisting on democracy during Abacha’s Nigeria – a dictatorship. We left Nigeria largely for this reason. My home was political, as it was religious, although the former is something that might have escaped the ordinary observer.
Sill, Obama was interesting. The thought of being here – in the United States – during the time of the first black president was exciting. The idea of a black president in America was something even as children we thought of as unrealistic. I recall times in childhood when amongst my classmates, we would say something was as unlikely to happen as, “America having a black president.” But there I was, somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, and it was happening. It can be difficult to remember, but things really do change.
I had grown up with a certain view of the world, and with it came disagreement on being either left or right in America’s political system. Add to that a suspicion, if not an entire distrust of politicians and government. I have lived in better governments than the one I was born into, but I maintain my apprehension of people who wish to rule over others. Certainly, it is a difficult job, and a thankless one, to be a leader of a country. But one cannot desire the good that comes with it, without also noting the potential evil that comes with it, and power, and the corruption of power, are the greatest of these potential evils.
For what my foreign words are worth, if anything, I believe that President Obama, for all my fundamental disagreements, both in views that he holds, and in those held as a consequence of the policies of the office he occupies, has been a good president. History, I think, will be more than kind, and he may even one day be perceived as a great president.
However, I have mostly lived in the United States only under Obama, and so perhaps for that and other reasons, I may be biased. But when I regard the potential candidates that may replace Obama, I notice too that there is something in the air. But it’s not the excitement or apprehension which I witnessed the year before Obama was elected. Instead, I think, it is a closely related but distinctive feeling: anxiety.
Realistically, one of the following people might be president: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Save for Sanders, when I consider the list of potential presidents, I am thoroughly uninspired. And while I find Sanders a breath of fresh air in many respects, his lack of experience in foreign policy does not inspire confidence. One could make an argument that with the structure of Congress and its current unproductive state, as well as the oligarchy that has overtaken the American political system, and for that matter our economic institutions, a president’s real power is manifested mainly in foreign policy decisions and judgments. Again, one could argue.
In Donald Trump, aside from his racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc., we have an utterly politically incompetent and largely overrated businessman who plays to the emotions of those who wish to “make America great again,” and who draw on a fictional memory of the nation, as if there were a time in history or the present when the country wasn’t particularly great for straight, white men. In Ted Cruz, we have an overzealous and very likely trigger-happy politician who lacks common sense in rhetoric, and charisma in presentation – both of which are greatly needed presidential attributes. In Hillary Clinton, we have an established politician, whose experience is both her blessing and her curse, as she is viewed even by those who deem her competent, as ultimately untrustworthy. And in Sanders, we have an idealist, who unlike JFK, may be one with some illusions as to the political and economic forces that stand in the way of his potential revolution. (President Kennedy is once quoted as having said, “I am an idealist without illusions.”)
When I arrived in 2007, I did not know that 2008 would be a historic year. But hope and change were the words that would come to define it. No words or phrases have come to define this year for Americans. At least, not yet. But as a foreigner, I have already found my own word: weary. I am weary of this year’s elections.
If the voting process is one that is about choosing the lesser of several evils, then I can without any direct political consequence (I’m foreign, I can’t vote remember?), claim that Sanders is for many reasons, from where I stand, the candidate that would do the most good, and the least evil. Even though admittedly, he’s the long shot of the four. But crazier things have happened – like the election of a black man to the American presidency, with the name Barack Hussein Obama.
In the final analysis, and notwithstanding Sanders, when I look at the short list in all its entirety of potential candidates to replace Obama, like The New York Times columnist David Brooks (of all people) has already expressed, I know I’m going to miss the current president. But mostly, I look at this list and can’t help but think, “Is this the best we can do?”
Though a plain “yes” or “no” might suffice in answering that question, instead I am reminded of an old George Carlin skit in which he says he doesn’t complain about politicians because they are simply the product and the reflection of the American public. Ouch. But if old Carlin was right, we have two options: To accept, like Carlin, that this is the best we can do, and to render all complaints about politicians a waste of time and energy. Or we, even those of us who are not citizens, act upon the realization that as a public, we have much work to do before November 2016, and beyond it.