The inauguration of a new president may be the most exciting event in any democracy. For those who believe the newly elected official will change their nation for the better, it’s often a time for celebration. But citizens’ expectations can be unrealistic and frequently go unfulfilled. On May 9, South Africans were ecstatic at the inauguration of their new president, Jacob Zuma. The enthusiasm surrounding the elections of both Barack Obama and Zuma has largely been a result of factors like the unpopularity of their predecessors and effective campaign advertising. South Africa and the United States expect monumental changes from their new presidents, but these expectations may very well yield disappointing results.
While Obama’s inauguration was certainly a historic event, it was not nearly as festive as Zuma’s, which was more like a national festival. The ceremony was preceded by performances from various South African dance groups, and clusters of Zuma supporters sporadically broke into song on multiple occasions. The joy of the crowd was unbelievable. As I walked through it, I was greeted with handshakes and offered swigs of beer. As in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the South African people voted for change, and they certainly showed their excitement about it.
Much of the excitement surrounding both new presidents stems from the unpopularity of their predecessors, George W. Bush and Thabo Mbeki. At the recent inaugurations, each crowd booed upon the arrival of its respective former leader. Both countries showed a seemingly unanimous hope for a better administration to come. Bush’s unpopularity was the foundation of the Obama campaign: Obama made frequent comparisons between Bush and McCain as he promised to bring change to the nation.
In South Africa, the change from the old Mbeki administration is also expected to be drastic. While Mbeki’s centrist economic policies stimulated growth in South Africa, they largely neglected poor citizens in a country where economic disparity between races still looms after the 1994 end of apartheid. Zuma is expected to enact redistributive policies to help the nation’s poor and unemployed, as well as focus on racial reconciliation.
Enthusiasm surrounding both presidencies can also be attributed to effective campaign advertising and imagery. Obama taglines like “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” were so prevalent that it seemed like many Obama supporters couldn’t give a more specific reason to vote for him. McCain supporters scoffed at Obama’s celebrity image. Similarly, Zuma’s image was that of a charismatic man of the people, known for leading his supporters in song. Of course, as we all know, singing is a quality that every presidential candidate needs.
The Obama hype has certainly died down since the inauguration. The first few months of his presidency have already shown that creating change is more difficult than it seems to be during a campaign. Obama already diverged from his campaign rhetoric on human rights issues by announcing the continued use of military commissions to try the detainees held by the United States. In addition, the closing of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, a promise made by Obama during his campaign, seemed like an easy change at the time. But that change is now facing severe opposition in Congress. As a country, we are no longer celebrating Obama’s arrival, but are instead watching anxiously for his next changes in economic and foreign policy.
Likewise, Zuma’s election hasn’t brought about the hope many anticipated. He campaigned promising more jobs and less poverty, but is already facing strikes and protests three weeks into his presidency.
Regardless of how well or poorly the new presidents govern in their upcoming terms, neither may live up to the public’s overzealous expectations. There is no telling what will occur in the upcoming presidencies of Obama and Zuma. According to the Wall Street Journal, only one of the 11 U.S. presidents since 1945 have had a higher approval rating leaving office than entering. But we simply can’t help glorifying our incoming leaders. Voters can celebrate all they want if their candidate is elected, but they’re probably celebrating too soon.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.