Now America's new dawn must bear fruit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2008, 12:00am

Barack Obama is the breath of fresh air Americans and the rest of the world so sorely need. His election as the first African-American - and non-white - US president goes a long way towards shaking off the last shards of a national past scarred by slavery and, until recent generations, rife with racism. This is in itself a seismic shift, but it is only one part of the new era that has dawned with his being chosen to be the leader of the world's only superpower. In him rest aspirations and hopes to spearhead the policies that will wrest his nation and the globe from economic downturn, while restoring co-operation, peace and security.

The task, as Senator Obama acknowledged in his victory speech yesterday, will not be easy. Outgoing President George W. Bush's administration has created circumstances that will require great effort and time to resolve. The president-elect has little experience in the ways of high office and faces a steep learning curve. But his historic win gives cause for optimism. In his inspiring speech yesterday, Senator Obama spoke passionately in favour of reconciliation and did so in a manner that conveyed sincerity and determination.

America is deeply divided politically. Economic recession has arrived and unemployment is rising. It will take a deft hand to steer the world's largest economy clear of troubled waters. There is already opposition from big business and the wealthy to Senator Obama's fiscal reform proposals. Success lies in people of all stripes working together rather than against one another.

On foreign policy, Mr Bush will leave wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for his successor to resolve. The terrorism and religious extremism that the incumbent set out to quash are still a threat and, in some parts of the world, are spreading. The damage caused by a unilateral approach to foreign policy will have to be patched up. North Korea remains a nuclear proliferation threat, despite deal-saving efforts by the administration; Iran has adamantly pursued its programme in the face of US antagonism.

Despite the challenges, there is reason to believe the change Senator Obama so successfully campaigned on can be attained. The Democratic Party has strengthened its grip on both houses of Congress, improving chances that policies can be enacted. It does not have the 60 seats in the Senate necessary for unimpeded passage of laws, but it is to be hoped that the unity the president-elect has so eloquently called for is embraced by his Republican Party opponents. His challenger, John McCain, in a dignified concession speech, said this had to be the case for the good of the nation; his party must heed his advice.

This should be possible under Senator Obama's leadership. The US was founded on the principle that all people are born equal. It took a long time for non-whites to get equal political rights. Just over four decades ago, blacks were still denied the vote, let alone the right to stand in elections. Senator Obama's victory says a lot about how America has changed in a relatively short time; only 13.5 per cent of the population counts itself as African-American and little more than one-third non-white - yet, the senator won comfortably. It is an extraordinary achievement.

Double standards

At home and abroad, his win shows that American democracy is not a sham. It should help restore the US' damaged moral authority. The nation has, under Mr Bush's presidency in particular, been pushing democracy as a panacea for a number of conflicts in other parts of the world. There have, however, been accusations that in practice, the US adopts double standards.

The win also provides food for thought for those who still cling to the traditional notion of nationhood as being founded on a distinct ethnic group with a common language. America comprises diverse ethnic groups and each year admits more immigrants than any other nation. That has barely been reflected in the top echelons of its political system. The melting pot has come of age with Senator Obama's election.

Many domestic problems confront the leader-elect. He outlined his strategy during 21 months of campaigning, but now has to give concerted attention to turning rhetoric into policy. Foremost is turmoil in financial markets, but close behind are social security deficits. Such matters are eroding the capacity of the US as an international power. The world is suffering because of the US' inability to regulate its financial sector. Senator Obama will need to take the lead in putting that house in order and rebuilding the global financial infrastructure.

The US is the world's most powerful broker of peace, but Mr Bush threw his nation's weight around with little thought for the consequences. Repairing the damage will take a marked departure, one that Senator Obama has shown willingness to apply. His administration will also need to abandon unilateralism and accept that global challenges require solutions that may run counter to US interests. Climate change and non-proliferation are among issues that urgently require such an approach.

Senator Obama is among the youngest Americans to be elected president. His being chosen is only the beginning of a task that he well knows will be arduous. He has so far shown the humility that circumstances require; now he has to find the people to make his vision become reality. Unity, as he rightly said yesterday, is essential. A new dawn for American leadership is at hand - and for all our sakes, has to bud and blossom.