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Would Obama’s Mother be Amazed?

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Ann Soetoro with her son Barack Obama. Photo from Democracy NOW!
Ann Soetoro with her son Barack Obama.

Would Barack Obama's mother be amazed that her son is president of the United States? I knew his mother, and oddly enough, I don't think she would be.

As we honor mothers all over the world on Mother's Day, I got to thinking about Ann Soetoro, Obama's mother. Ann died of cancer in 1995, just when Barack was entering Illinois state politics. So we can only guess what her reaction might be to her son's improbably successful political career and to his ambitious agenda for the country.

I knew Ann in the mid-80s when we both worked for the Ford Foundation in Jakarta, Indonesia. One of Ann's remarkable characteristics was her willingness to believe in the improbable.

Her work focused on poor women at a time when few aid agencies were interested. Poor women in Indonesia had a lot of strikes against them. They lived in a male-dominated culture; they had little education; and they had few resources to draw on in a very crowded country. Yet Ann believed these women had the power to make their lives better and developed programs in entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and women's rights that did just that. Improbable, yes; impossible, no.

When Barack was 10 years old, Ann made a decision that would be wrenching for any mother. She sent her son off to live with his grandparents in Hawaii, while she stayed in Indonesia. Why? Because she felt this bright, biracial, multicultural kid would have a good chance to make something of himself in America. She carried a deep belief both in the capabilities of her son and in the opportunities America could provide a man like him.

If someone had challenged her faith in the country by asking her "So—do you think your son could become the president of the United States?" I can't be sure of her answer, but I can make an educated guess. Ann had an unflappably calm manner—much like what we see in her son as he faces one crisis after another. While she was often sardonic, she was never flippant. So I can imagine her pausing to reflect and then answering in a serious tone, "Yes, I think that would be possible. I think he could be elected president of the United States, and he might even get his act together enough to run." Improbable, yes; impossible, no.

Her son now demonstrates that same readiness to take on the improbable. Can we actually buck the insurance industry and provide a public option for health insurance? Can we turn Iran from an enemy into an ally? Can we shift the U.S. economy over to clean energy? Can we close the corporate tax loopholes that drive U.S. jobs overseas and undercut our tax base? Obama is willing to place his bets on all these improbable happenings, plus a whole lot more.

So when I think about the source of Obama's calm in the face of crisis and his audacity in taking on the improbable, I'm reminded of his mother's unflagging belief that the improbable is possible and worth trying. It's a belief that lives on in her son and-with the help of a whole lot of us-just may transform this country.


Fran Korten is the publisher of YES! Magazine. She previously worked as a grantmaker for the Ford Foundation in the Manila, Jakarta, and New York offices.

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Fran Korten is available for interviews. Please contact our Media and Outreach Manager Susan Gleason at (206) 931 2613.
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