As US President Barack Obama’s four-day maiden trip to India draws to a close, it’s time to relive and savour my “Obama moment” that dazzled me more now than it did six years ago when it actually occurred. Obama was not in the hallowed Oval Office then. From the stream of media images of India’s Who’s Who jostling to rub shoulders with the world’s most powerful man, one can imagine how heady an experience it must be to have a photo-op and a handshake with the charismatic Chicagoan.
My breezy encounter with Obama on a balmy autumn of October 2004 has stayed embedded in my memory chip. Even as a senator, Obama was reckoned as a new Democratic star on the firmament of American politics, born overnight after his election to the US Senate from Illinois in March 2004. We, a group of international journalists on a four-month fellowship on American politics and the presidential elections of 2004, caught up with Obama at one of his election rallies in a Baptist church of the Black neighbourhood in Chicago.
The hall was packed much before Obama arrived amidst a thunderous applause from the mostly-Black audience. In his 15-minute speech, part of the campaign for Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry, Obama packed unusual energy marked by oratorical brilliance. The audience listened, in rapt attention, breaking out only in standing ovation at the end.
Soon after, Obama met us with a heart-warming handshake, looking radiant but relaxed. “You folks are in the midst of exciting times,” he said with his trademark ear-to-ear grin. “When would the US have its first Black President?” a pesky scribe among us ventured. Unfazed, Obama answered with a straight face: “Well, anything is possible in America”.
The question of a Black president would pop up at nearly every meeting with politicians of all hues and even conservations in editorial boardrooms of top media houses during our travels across the US. “Not in the next 50 years” was the stock answer almost everywhere — from analysts at the Chicago Tribune to white farmers in Minnesota and Black workers of Atlanta.
Four years later, I recalled the trip with excitement as Obama was nominated Democratic candidate for president. But it was only upon his historic win in October 2008 that the full import of my encounter with Obama dawned on me. Obama had made history.
Cut to 2010. As I watch Obama charming India, he looks pretty much the same energetic man of hope I met six years ago — the charisma and warmth intact, except the notches of grey on his temples that only seem to underscore his youthfulness and wisdom.