I am writing this from Washington DC. Four years ago, I arrived in Washington DC seeking to learn from the Obama campaign.
It was a historic moment, for here was a relatively young man, with very strong chances of being America’s first black president. And though he was — and is — as American as apple pie, he had his roots in Kenya, his father having been on the Tom Mboya airlifts.
It was electric then. It was impossible to have a conversation without it veering to the elections, and the improbability of the scenario. Barack Obama was not only black, but he was also relatively inexperienced in US national politics, having only been elected to the US Senate in 2004.
And there was anxiety galore as doubts surfaced whether the majority white Americans would actually, in the secrecy of the polling booth, vote for a black man as their president. But Obama was inspirational, using his own life as a metaphor for what could be in America; making people feel good about themselves, and their country.
For, as it was said, only in America could someone with such a background be a significant political player, motivate and move so many with his words and life.
And for me it was personal, too. For some 20 years ago, I had shared talks and ideas with Barack Obama in the cold winter days of Boston at the Harvard Law School’s basement smoking room.
Following his campaign was uplifting and therapeutic. I had had five years as chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, looking in at corruption, viciousness, and arrogance from politicians that I had thought had a vision for Kenya as a better place.
Those five years were a lesson that I carry to this day, about the capriciousness of our politics and politicians, and the greed that makes them totally unique in the world.
And I had seen, from the front row, how that greed for power could so easily plunge us into conflict and violence, with barely a shrug of their shoulders, believing then, as now, that power must be retained, or attained, at any price.
The lessons from Obama 2008 campaign were fundamental: The necessity of generating hope; the need to get directly to the people sidestepping the gatekeepers in the media; the dogged determination and self belief; the ability to self-correct and be frank; and most importantly the need for an organisational model that valued volunteerism over “eating” and selfish interests. And though they lived, breathed and dreamt of winning, they were prepared to lose, if necessary.
Four years hence, it is a different story. I have been to Florida, California and DC on this trip. In the perverse nature of US presidential elections, where delegates matter more than votes, California and DC are stitched up for Obama, and Mitt Romney has no chance there.
John McCain faced the same situation in 2008 but at that time there were posters, bumper stickers on cars, and all sorts of Obama materials around. You could hardly walk a block without seeing an expression of support for Obama!
But today there is scarcely any sign that there is an ongoing campaign. I have seen exactly five bumper stickers for Obama in California and DC and I have done a lot of walking and driving!
Conversations, too, are seldom about the election unless prodded. And even then, the discussions are brief and quickly turn to the three or four states that will essentially make the decision: Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and possibly Iowa. But there is no real energy. Even in Florida, a key swing state, there are few signs of enthusiasm, except for adverts on TV.
There are many reasons why there is so little energy now, but the inability to lift the economy out of recession is one. America is going through as much mental depression as it is economic recession, and there is no magic wand to change this quickly. Also, the uniqueness of the moment in 2008 is gone, and Obama has been crafting and trying out different strategies to ensure his re-election.
Conversely, Mitt Romney’s opaqueness and vagueness on his agenda, and his life history — he has refused to publish his taxes from before 2010, or talk about his Mormon faith — has tampered enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, whichever way Americans vote in November 2012, the historic election of 2008 will always be a metaphor for what can be achieved in life.