Friday, 7 November 2008

A new beginning

With Barack Obama's stunning electoral victory, the painful presidency of George W Bush is finally drawing to a close. The Democrat won 53 percent of the national vote to Republican John McCain's 46 percent, outperforming Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to enter the White House; but he also won an electoral landslide of 349 votes to McCain's 163.

Fears of a last-minute overseas misadventure (Bush senior sent US troops to Somalia in the last two months of his presidency) ought to be put to rest. Bush's domestic approval ratings are in the basement (they have been in the 20 percent and low 30 percent range in every major poll this year), and he has promised Obama a smooth transition.

It is doubtful whether the world has ever reacted with such jubilation at the election of a US president. Part of the enthusiasm is, of course, due to the unpopularity of George W Bush (a June poll of Europeans by the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, gave him a 19 percent approval rating); so many people are simply relieved to see him go.

Of course Obama has a lot more going for him than mere defenestration of an unpopular predecessor. Global surveys have consistently favoured him over McCain (69 percent of Europeans supported Obama, versus just 26 percent for McCain, in the GMF poll). America's contract with Europe can now be renewed, free of the divisions the Bush administration engineered over the war in Iraq, epitomised in Donald Rumsfeld's slight about "Old Europe". That much is demonstrated both in the statements of European leaders and in popular enthusiasm.

Surely, though, much of the enthusiasm has to do with Obama's message of hope amid the daunting state of the world after Bush's two terms. US entaglements in Iraq and Afghanistan have diluted America's image as a benign force in the world, raised interfaith tensions and weakened US power.

Bush's War on Terror is widely seen as a a failure. A BBC poll surveying 23 countries across the world last September found that nowhere did a majority feel the US was winning against Al Qa'ida. The largest overall majority, 47 percent, thought no-one was winning. Even US opinion is negative: Only 31 percent of Americans surveyed think the war a success, with 34 percent believing it has made Al Qa'ida stronger.

Obama has promised a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq and a strengthening of the effort in Afghanistan. Both will be difficult to achieve, but the goal is essentially correct. Obama also has to find host countries for inmates at Guantanamo and choose a moment to definitively denounce torture - two of the biggest sources of moral deficit during the Bush years.

The developed world looks forward to a US administration that recognises climate change and the human role in it. The coordination of central banks to respond to the credit crisis is a living demonstration that America and Europe can join forces to take the lead in dealing with global warming. Only then can developing economies like India, China and Brazil be persuaded to sign onto a global action plan.

Obama has signalled his willingness to throw gargantuan amounts of federal money into developing renewable energy. That is a laudable policy, but he will have a tougher time persuading Congress to pass a cap-and-trade carbon scheme to succeed Kyoto, or the dying US car industry to raise fuel efficiency standards.

Apart from mending broken friendships, Obama also has to strike a new tenor with adversaries like Russia and China, and threats like Iran. He will be dealing from a position of economic weakness and culpability, and his opponents will use that against him. There is plenty of popular sentiment for them to bank on. An annual report on global attitudes published in the summer by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research group, found that most countries blame the United States for the impact of the credit crisis on their economies; and since then the situation has worsened.

Perhaps the most daunting long-term challenge of all, though, will be the cultural division in America itself. The very election of the first African American president signals that voters were ready for a departure from tradition. Unsurprisingly, Obama rode to victory on the back of the young vote, taking 66 percent of the 18-29 age group, 52 percent of the 30-44 age group and 50 percent of the 45-64 age group. Only in the 65-and-over age group did McCain prevail. Hence Obama's wins in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, which broke the crucial conservative edge.

But that analysis leaves out social conservatives, a key ingredient of both George W Bush victories. The South and Midwest voted en bloc for McCain, as did much of the West, sometimes with impressive margins (Oklahoma and Wyoming, for instance, put a 32-point difference between the candidates).

No president can, in the course of two terms, bridge the divide between those who would teach their children Darwinian evolution and those who would teach creation theory, suavely repackaged as Intelligent Design; or between those who would ban abortion (two red states floated motions to do so on this presidential ballot) and those who would rather leave it a personal decision.

What a promising president can do, though, is oppose dogma and reinforce reason, something Bush pointedly refused to do, opting for faith and instinct instead.

The material divisions in the world's foremost capitalist society are another major divide. Real wages have fallen during the Bush years, while poverty has risen. Three hundred and fifty thousand families joined the ranks of America's poor between 2002 and 2006, according to a recently released survey by the Working Poor Families Project. (Poverty was defined as a family of four living on less than $42,400 a year). The number of jobs paying below the federal poverty level also rose to over a fifth, the same survey found. At the same time, US GDP has risen.

These figures stand in stark contrast to George W Bush's tax cuts for the well-off, and more than half a billion dollars spent on the war in Iraq. They also stand in stark contrast to a report released last August from the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional investigative arm, revealing that more than half of US corporations pay no tax, because they appear to earn no profit. This means that working Americans are paying an ever-higher proportion of the tax burden, while their hopes of social mobility are being dampened.

Barack Obama cannot overnight bring back prosperity and social justice; end two wars successfully and restore America's moral standing; set the foundation to reversing climate change and end the bizarre power of religious bigots who tipped Bush into power in the first place. Yet these are the minimum challenges. The next administration must be prepared to wait a while for gratification.

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