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by Jennie S. Bev, Jakarta 

I attended the US election vote-counting at the Kempinski Hotel Grand Ballroom on the morning of Nov. 7 in Jakarta at the invitation of the US Embassy. It was both a party and an affirmation of the US’ position as superpower in the world. It gave me a sense of pride knowing that the Americans in the room were not divided by political parties, but united under the image of “The Road to the White House”. 

The White House has been a symbol of power for over 200 years. And it still is. 

Students of the Jakarta Public University (Universitas Negeri Jakarta) and Borobudur University were among the invitees and they seemed mesmerized by the information presented and, of course, a model White House erected on the stage. Introducing young people to the building where the US president works and his family resides creates a mental image that lingers and, hopefully, will inspire them to visit this historical landmark someday. Thus, the seeds of future democratic leaders were planted. 

The embassy staffers were successful in presenting an image of the US as a “kind, smart and important” country. The fiesta looked like a Hollywood film set or a Bond movie. As an American residing in a vibrant city in California’s Silicon Valley, I did not feel a sense of “normalcy” with so many secret agents in batik and formal suits walking around the room and eyeing people. Back in my hometown, I would be lucky to find one or two men walking around in suits, as California is renowned for its laid-back and “collar-less” working class. 

Soon, I realized that the event was not intended for Americans. It was to impress people in Jakarta: Invited Indonesians and Indonesians who read the news from the invited press. It was a showcase of American “soft power”, a term popularized by Joseph Nye, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. For an American taxpayer, perhaps it was a bit too extravagant and costly, but the image of the White House must be preserved nonetheless. And on this, I agree.

The most interesting booth at the event was the one with a mock voting booth, which looked like the ones I had seen in Indonesia many years ago. It was a white-wooden booth with a navy curtain. Interestingly, I have never seen one like that in the US, as voting generally occurs in auditoriums, basketball playgrounds, and other public places. In certain states, electronic voting machines are also provided. 

Those who are visiting or residing in other countries can mail in or fax their absentee ballots. In Santa Clara County in California, for instance, there were 40 items on the ballot to vote for, including issues of school board director, water treatment, local sales tax, and other propositions. So the mailed in or faxed ballot came in several pages. Compared with a voting ballot in Indonesia, it looked way too complicated. The guidelines themselves covered more than 10 pages with descriptions of the propositions and each proposition’s pros and cons and “yes” and “no” impacts.

Obama’s victory was expected. He won both the electoral and popular votes. The world can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the US is unlikely to start a new war under this revitalized administration. Americans can also be at peace knowing that various “welfare state” elements will stay in place, such as the controversial Obamacare bill. Despite Obama’s less-than-perfect score in economics, I am quite optimistic that he will be focusing on this “weakness”. 

I have never met Obama in person; thus, the only things I can write about him and his policies are based upon educated guesstimates. He and his administration will continue to be confronted by a Republican-majority House of Representatives, with which he has become familiar during the last four years. His liberal and populous policies will, therefore, continue to be compromised. 

The defense budget will continue to remain the highest in the world. Last year, it stood at US$700 billion. War in Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program might be wound down with sanctions instead of combat. Also, Europe may still be confused by Obama’s aloofness, which contradicts his 2009 visit to Berlin. He simply was not that interested in the eurozone crisis.

It might be too early to predict Barack Obama’s performance in handling the US economic crisis as his second term gets under way. High hopes for his success, of course, have not diminished, despite the downward spiral of his popularity worldwide because when this mammoth called “the US” awakes, the whole world will experience the ripple effects.

The questions now are: How can Obama play the “smart power” card while maintaining “soft power” as the core of his overall strategy? (“Smart power” is a term referring to a good mix between hard power and soft power). How can Obama and his administration be assertive enough in foreign policy without tipping the balance of domestic policies? []

The Jakarta Post, November 9, 2012

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