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Analysis & Opinion
06.11.08 Liberal America Rejoices
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts/ Cars honked at passers-by, students sang and greeted strangers with jubilant gestures. In the Harvard Yard – a lawn in the center of the campus – a crowd of over a hundred students was chanting Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can!” One student climbed the John Harvard statue, a local landmark, and put an Obama poster around the bronze man’s neck as the crowd cheered him on.

“It was the greatest day in the whole history of America,” said Ernie Suggs, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard this year. From early on, he said, America was troubled by a contradiction between its belief in freedom and its history of slavery. This contradiction has now been resolved. “I am glad to have witnessed it,” Suggs added.

To be fair, the epic campaign struggle between two of the arguably most outstanding presidential candidates in modern U.S. history – Vietnam War hero Sen. John McCain and the eloquent son of a Kenyan Muslim, Sen. Barack Obama—could only be observed via the media on this left-leaning campus in the middle of a traditionally Democratic state. One could hardly find a single McCain sign in the area, and a mildly positive observation regarding some step in the Republican campaign, even without an endorsement of the candidates, was likely to draw a suspicious look. On election day, despite reports in the media of long lines at some polling stations, here in Cambridge the polling stations remained calm, with no more than a few voters lining up at a time.

But the lively celebration of victory, colored by the sense of Obama’s belonging to this venerable institution, was in stark contrast to the serenity of the polling stations. “Harvard Law School Alumnus Will Be the Country’s First Black President” read a headline in Wednesday’s edition of The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student-run newspaper. “I couldn’t be more excited – for him, for the country, and for the world,” the newspaper quoted Obama’s Law School Professor Laurence Tribe as saying. “I think this is a great moment in American history, and a new chapter is about to begin.” Harvard academics contributed over $200,000 in direct donations to the Obama campaign, the Crimson reported.

For many locals, Obama’s victory marked the end of a republican rule that they perceived as alien, while memories of the Al Gore--George Bush race in 2000, when what was first seen as a victory turned out to be a defeat, kept up suspense till the very end. “I am so glad to have these small-minded, mean-spirited people out of office,” said Lois Fiore, a long-time Harvard employee who had originally backed Sen. Hillary Clinton for president. “It’s like being a hostage and being released.”

Many non-Americans who are affiliated with Harvard shared the joy of this democratic victory. Nathalie Villard, a senior reporter from France’s Capital magazine who is also a Nieman fellow here said that she was thinking about her own country where an Algiers-born politician could not become president. “America is the only country where this kind of miracle happens,” Villard said. “We Europeans have an ambiguous attitude toward America – we hate it and we love it. I am happy to be able to admire America again.”

While U.S.-European relations are likely to improve under president Obama, the elections are unlikely to have the same impact on U.S.-Russia relations, currently at their lowest point since the Cold War. During an informal discussion at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies Wednesday, evaluations of these relations’ prospects under the next administration ranged from mild improvement to further aggravation. “It may differ little in policy, but the tone is going to change,” said Carol Saivets, a lecturer at the Department of Government. She anticipated that Obama’s administration would produce new initiatives – such as arms control negotiations – which will generate a new focus in the troubled relationship.

The veteran Russia expert Marshall Goldman, who is a senior scholar at the Davis Center, said that Russia will be way down on Obama’s priority list. “The main issues are going to be the economy, Iraq and Iran,” he noted.
It will be important for Obama to prove his strength and patriotism, which may well result in a tougher stance on Russia, scholars opine. As a vice president, the well-established interventionist Joe Biden, known for his critical statements regarding Russia, doesn’t bode well for Russia either. He may well assume an important role in defining U.S. foreign policy as a part of his deal with Obama, said Hugh Truslow, the Davis Center’s librarian.

Goldman noted that the personal relationship that bound former Russian President Vladimir Putin with George W. Bush will likely be absent from the relations between Obama and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Much will depend on whether Russia will be willing to ameliorate its relations with Washington. “Having Medvedev come up today and say [in his state of the nation address] that he’d put missiles in Kaliningrad was totally provocative,” Saivets said.
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