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October 7, 2013

Jokowi’s Obama Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON–In 1949, a young press attaché was dispatched from Jakarta to New York, with the difficult task of convincing the American public to support young Indonesians in their fight against Dutch forces, which had ruled Indonesia for more than a century. Realizing that Indonesia, like America before it, was seeking to create a sovereign nation by breaking the colonial ties that bound it to a single European power, he produced an eloquent paper that harkened back to the year America declared independence from Great Britain. Its provocative title? ” It’s 1776 in Indonesia .”

It would be half a century– through five decades of dictatorship –before the Indonesian people would experience true independence. But as this Muslim-majority democracy of 250 million approaches the third consecutive direct election of its president by its people in 2014, the apt analogy to America isn’t 1776, but 2008. That was the year that a 47 year-old former community organizer, state senator and first-term United States Senator with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice was elected President of the United States.

But now, some Indonesians believe they have a Barack Obama of their own in the form of a 52 year-old former furniture dealer, small-town mayor and first-term governor with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice who is hailed as a hero during his frequent visits to Jakarta’s streets. Just as Obama was lauded for being a “fresh and exciting voice in American politics,” Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is praised as an “open and approachable” public official who “represents a clear break” from “the traditional power centers of Indonesian politics.” While he is not yet a declared candidate, many Indonesians hope that Jokowi can do for Indonesia what Obama is perceived to have done for America.

But if you were to ask millions of Obama supporters today who are disillusioned with his leadership, they would say: proceed with caution. As the New York Times recently put it, “deep in his fifth year in office, Mr. Obama finds himself frustrated by members of his own party weary of his leadership and increasingly willing to defy him.”

It’s not that Obama hasn’t realized some significant achievements since becoming president. But there is a gnawing sense that if had waited a while longer to run for president, he might have truly been a great president. But as it stands, his immense promise is going largely unrealized, in part because the deep concerns over his inexperience in confronting entrenched bureaucracies have proven to be well-founded. While he understood Chicago politics, he never gave himself the chance to learn how Washington works.

This is an old question in democracies: how much experience does a president need? In truth, the only way to really gain the experience necessary to be president is to actually be president. And if millions were clamoring for their candidacy, not many public officials would turn away from running for president. In 2006, Obama himself understood that inexperience can work in a candidate’s favor, writing, “I am new enough on the political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” To a disenchanted Indonesian electorate, so little is known about Jokowi that he–unlike more-established candidates–can be all things to all people.

The problem is that the primary challenge facing each country–whether it is deep political partisanship in the U.S. or endemic corruption in Indonesia–are cultural challenges that require a president to understand how the entrenched system works well enough to change it. A President can propose a law to overhaul health care or improve education, but there is no law that can simply overcome partisanship or corruption. There is no political candidate in recent memory that thrilled audiences more than Obama with his appeals to bipartisanship. But once his rhetoric confronted the reality of a system that didn’t want to play along, he didn’t have any answers–just more speeches. As a result, America’s entrenched partisanship is as bad as it’s ever been–as the current government shutdown in Washington proves.

Would the same happen to Joko Widodo and corruption? Nobody really knows, but there is little to suggest that he would have the street-smarts or experience to outmaneuver those who wish to continue benefitting from corruption.

There is much to commend about the eight years he spent as the popular mayor of tiny Surakarta, known as Solo–although the nation’s other primary problem, growing Islamic radicalism, worsened under his rule to the point that Solo has become a national epicenter of religious intolerance.

While his twelve months as Governor of Jakarta are off to a promising start, flooding and traffic are as bad as they’ve always been, in part because he hasn’t had time to see his ideas through. And that’s really the point: maybe Jokowi should wait until he can prove that he’s able to solve the problems of a city of 10 million before he claims he can solve the problems of a country of 250 million.

It is fitting that the symbol of Jakarta, known as the “Big Durian”, is the durian fruit, which has inspired a long-running debate about when it is ready to eat. To his supporters, the governor of the Big Durian is mature enough now, and no arguments to the contrary will convince them otherwise. But for the rest of Indonesia, America’s experience with Barack Obama the past five years should be enough to give pause that sometimes, it’s better to wait a little longer for the best fruit to ripen.