What's in a name, Mr Barack Hussein Obama?

Barack Hussein Obama is going the whole name hog in his inauguration and in so doing he may well define a new political generation. Names it seems are critical in top US politics – think Clinton, or Kennedy or Bush…

So what’s in a name? Plenty when there’s politics involved and probably never more so than with the man who will soon move in to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC.

Barack Hussein Obama has decided that he will indeed be sworn in by his full name when he takes over from George Walker Bush on January 20. A big deal it should not be, but a big deal it is.

During the election campaign the uglier side of some fairly ugly Republican politics made much of the Hussein word. Some of those who had turned up to Republican rallies for John Sidney McCain and his Tina Fey look-alike sidekick determined that Hussein was prima facie evidence of Obama being a Muslim.

As Colin Powell so brilliantly pointed out, while Obama is a Christian, so what if he was a Muslim? Constituting 1.2 billion of the world’s population, Muslims are hardly a hidden phenomenon. Powell, like any reasonable person, knew the real point behind the ‘Muslim’ epithet but he was not going to let it go. He has pointed out to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that his response was not one of defending Obama. It was correcting a mistaken view – Muslim vs Christian. But possibly more importantly Powell said he included the follow-up statement because it was the right thing to do. So what if Obama was a Muslim? Period.

In a fabulous twist on names, when Barack Hussein Obama is sworn in, he will be presiding over a White House with a chief of staff named Rahm Israel Emmanuel. Hussein and Israel. It is reminiscent of the delight Bill Clinton took when presented with the New Zealand AA sign which pointed to the town of Clinton in one direction and Gore in the other. Obama’s and Emmanuel’s serendipitous match/clash will hopefully be a portent of good things to come for the troubled Middle East, which will be one of the new administration’s biggest headaches on assuming office.

Obama will be looking to do some serious reparation work with the Arab street in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Having that middle name can’t hurt that. Nor should it be anything but a bonus when dealing with the Iranians, who continue to work away at achieving nuclear capability. A new and more open approach to counter years of failed diplomatic abuse ("axis of evil" etc.) and failed sanctions, will not go unnoticed. It won’t all hinge on Hussein, but every little helps.

To relieve the domestic tensions around his name Obama has been pretty self deprecating. Through university he opted for the moniker Barry, with many of his peers never actually knowing his real name. During the Presidential race he joked about his middle name being given to him by someone who obviously never thought he would run for President.

Now he’s been forced to justify why he’s going to include it in the swearing in. He says he’s doing so because it is tradition. William Jefferson Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush etc…. However that’s not good enough for some Republican pundits who have criticized his decision. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan didn’t do middles, they point out. If his critics are seriously trying to suggest that he hide the Hussein they really ought to find some new hobbies. Think of the message omitting it would send.

Perhaps the biggest name of all in US politics is Kennedy, and it's back on the front page thanks to the obsessive debate over whether Caroline Kennedy, yet another from the great US power dynasty, will get the nod for Hilary’s old Senate seat. The US fantasizes of reviving Camelot in some form or another.

Or consider the frenzy of speculation surrounding the possibility of Jeb Bush getting the Senate nod, thereby putting him firmly into contention for a run at the Republican Presidential nominations in 2012 or beyond.

Canada tends to be a little more like New Zealand in that few if any family dynasties pass on the political batons – except most recently with the cult of  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. His son Justin won a Liberal seat in Montreal in the last election. Poor boy – in Parliament all of two seconds and he was being hounded about his aspirations during the recent mess that was the Liberal leadership vacuum. A bit early, but you can see the Liberal party dreaming of another Trudeau to lead it out of the current wilderness.

Barack Hussein Obama presents America with a combination of names that signify a new direction in its politics. The old white guy’s club is no longer. Sure there will be white guys – some possibly old – who will again lead the US. However, a generational change can be seen, not only in the country's attitude and the turnout of the youth vote, but in the very name of the man who will lead.

A truly wonderful piece of graffiti by Mr Brainwash (aka Thierry Guetta) that was shown at the SCOPE Art Fair in Miami recently sums it all up. Alongside a Warhol-like image of Obama in a Superman outfit his mural reads:

“Rosa Parks sat, so that Martin
Luther King could walk.
Martin Luther King walked,
so that Barack Obama could run.
Obama ran, so we could fly”

While the ‘Hussein’ is (disappointingly) missing, it’s a pretty powerful generational message to take into a new year.

Happy Christmas.