Exactly two years ago, I stood transfixed and overwhelmed, looking down from the crowded media perch in Chicago's Grant Park at history unfolding before my eyes. This wasn't my country or my polity and yet in some Oprah moment of irrational emotionalism, the electrifying current of hope that had lit up the evening, I am embarrassed to admit, I even managed to contagiously make me cry, just a bit. Oprah Winfrey herself wasn't just a metaphor for melodrama that night; she was actually there, dancing in the grounds, weeping copiously on the shoulder of a perfect stranger, as she joined the world in celebrating the election victory of Barack Obama.
In that moment, Obama seemed near-magical and not just because he had replaced the "with us or against us" simple mindedness of a vastly unpopular George Bush. The fact that he was Black, of mixed ethnicity, young and had been Senator for a mere two years when he ran for presidentship made him a symbol of multiple messages. Most powerfully, it made him a man who could break barriers and transcend them. It made him the voice of those on the margins who previously may have thought that in this world they didn't have a chance in hell. It's the reason that Obama's victory had a universally appealing narrative. It's the reason that as an Indian hack in Chicago that wintry night in November I was deeply moved and inspired.
But over the last two years, I have wondered, with a growing disquiet whether the American people have created a fantastic myth that the real man is finding it impossible to live up to. As the defining slogan of "Yes we can" morphs into "Maybe we can if, but, perhaps…" the charisma is beginning to wear thin and Obama seems increasingly tentative and uncomfortable in his own skin. With the mid-term elections upon him and the Tea-Party conservatives shoring up right-wing discontent, the American president and his minders appear even more ideologically ambivalent. In his effort to be all things to all people, he runs the real danger of being nothing to nobody.
Maureen Dowd, the acerbic commentator, presciently charged her country's first black president with not being black enough, writing that the president had started acting like "the election was enough; he shouldn't have to deal with race further". The nervousness that Obama's campaign managers showed over his rarely used middle name ‘Hussein' captures the anxiety they feel over Islam being associated too closely with their president. During his election campaign, Obama famously apologised to two Muslim women in Detroit who were not allowed to sit behind him at a rally because they were wearing headscarves. The defensiveness has persisted and perhaps only deepened as a vitriolic Right gets stronger and aggressive.
The president's refusal to visit Amritsar's Golden Temple is now being explained by the rather fatuous theory that his schedule did not permit for time. But the damage has already been done. Most of us believe that his aides advised him to stay away because the head-kerchief that non-Sikhs must don before they step inside the gurdwara made them fearful. Apparently, a handkerchief on the head can make a man look Muslim and that's a terrible thing for an American president.
The US media analysed the controversy as a panic response to a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre that found one in every five Americans falsely believes that Obama is a Muslim. And in the worst sort of toxic politics, pollsters found that one-third of all Republicans believed the same. So the president, who is in fact Christian but did not mind wearing the yarmulke (a traditional skullcap worn by orthodox Jews) when he visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, is not ready to take the political risk of having a cloth cover his head at the Golden Temple.
The question he must ask himself is that in succumbing to this sort of pathetic Islamophobia, is he not letting the lunatic fringe set the agenda of his government? Could this be the same man, we wonder who mesmerised us with his candour and charisma at Cairo University? Promising a new beginning between the American and the Muslim world, this is what Obama had said then: "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors." In a bitter irony, he has now allowed the prejudice that is only expressed behind closed doors to define his choices. In the decision to opt out of a visit to the Golden Temple, his minders have projected a president who can't distinguish between Sikhism and Islam and has ended up offending believers of both.
History will judge Obama on intractable foreign policy issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan and within his country on the economy and development concerns such as healthcare. But the emotional connection between any politician and the people is based on something much more intangible. We were inspired by Barack Obama because he seemed such a potent symbol of the messy multiculturalism that defines our life and times. He appeared to move with ease and charm between religions, regions and races. He was, in that sense, a Modern Man. And a modern man does not let a handkerchief or a turban break him into a cold sweat.
Whatever happened, we wonder, to the audacity of hope?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.