Over the past few weeks we’ve all been able to enjoy the quadrennial spectacle of America preparing for the polls. Though deliberations in Tampa and Charlotte may seem distant to us, both conventions (Democrat and Republican) have major implications for Southeast Asia.
The contrast between the Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his party, and the challenger, businessman-turned-politician Mitt Romney and the Republicans couldn’t be more stark.
The Republican Party (also known as the “Grand Old Party”) has been hijacked by “Tea Party” extremists: men and women, predominantly white, whose rage and frustration is increasingly out of sync with America’s changing society.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is riding the wave of the future: ethnically diverse and plural, it’s packed with Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.
Research by the Washington Post in late August indicates 92 percent of the GOP is white compared to just 58 percent in the Democratic Party. The Economist in November 2011 predicted that by 2050, the Latino share of the population will grow from 15 percent to 30 percent, whilst African and Asian-Americans will rise from 19 percent to 24 percent.
It also showed in the speeches: Obama and his predecessor Bill Clinton dazzled the attendees, if not the entire nation as they laid out the case for Obama’s second term in office.
The two men are like latter-day wizards, charming millions even though the reality — an economy mired in recession along with unemployment at historic highs — should be enough to guarantee Romney’s victory. However, both Obama and Clinton, communicators par excellence, created a remarkably vigorous and expansive case for the Democratic Party, proof if ever we needed one, of the power of rhetoric.
Contrast Obama’s soaring, church pulpit-style performance with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s dull, pedantic delivery and we can see the fundamental challenge facing the Republicans. Obama connects and inspires where Romney merely informs and plods, his unimpressive delivery further reinforcing doubts about his business interests and his shady tax returns — all this despite entirely justifiable criticisms of the current administration’s stewardship of the economy.
For us in Southeast Asia, Obama is doubly important: first off, born and partially raised in Hawaii, he is the first president of the Pacific Era. Added to that is his personal connection through his mother and stepfather with Indonesia, imbuing him with a deep emotional connection to our part of the world.
On a side note, am I the only person who’s noticed the resemblance between Solo mayor Pak Jokowi and Barack Obama: both are tall, slim with long-ish, intelligent faces.
Under Obama, the United States has made a substantial tilt to Asia. This is not a passing fad, driven by a president’s naive memories of his past. Realpolitik is at work as Washington recalibrates its foreign policy to match the economic realities of a fast-growing Asia-Pacific.
As US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue: “In this century … the United States recognizes that our prosperity and our security depends even more on the Asia-Pacific region. Our goal is to work closely with all of the nations of this region to confront common challenges and promote peace, prosperity and security.”
Whatever happens in November, America’s heightened engagement with Asia isn’t a short-term Democratic initiative. Romney may posture about confronting China but even he speaks about deepening alliances with regional powers in the Pacific.
America is not likely to close itself off from the region anytime soon and we in Southeast Asia had better get used to the added attention because we are no longer a global backwater.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.