On Tuesday, Barack Obama will become the first African-American president of the United States. He inherits a country that's seen its prestige, wealth and influence shredded by war and recession, yet he must try to heal the nation's deep divisions. Greg Torode reports. The hope and expectation surrounding Barack Obama was electrifying in November, when the American president-elect made his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park. Even for the politically neutral the unseasonably warm night had a magic about it, as millions witnessed something they had once thought to be wildly fanciful. Late the next night I retraced my steps through darkened Chicago streets that had become strangely quiet. It was hard to believe what had taken place just 24 hours earlier; then, strangers hugged and broke into spontaneous dancing; a police patrolman caught himself weeping then laughed through the tears. The ubiquitous Obama campaign chant of 'Yes we can' echoed in my ears. Now, menacing clouds rolled in from Lake Michigan, its dark mass stretching north to Canada. I retreated into a taxi where the driver was humming along to The River by Bruce Springsteen, the veteran rock star who played at many Obama events. 'Is a dream a lie if it don't come true,' sang the Boss, 'or is it something worse?' On Tuesday, President Obama will take office and try to rekindle the dream that seemed so bold and fresh back in Chicago. Since his victory, the grubby nuts and bolts of transition politics have consumed him and a worsening economic crisis has threatened to overwhelm his most cherished goals. Obama's appeals for an inclusive American patriotism generated some of his most striking rhetoric. In virtually every speech he delivered, he would work a variation of the theme, reaching out to people of all shades and persuasions, political and otherwise. It is clear Obama knows that putting his hands 'on the arc of history' to 'bend it once more in the hope of a better day', as he often said he would do in his campaign speeches, may be more difficult than he anticipated. His victory hasn't closed the divisions in American society, it has simply given him the chance to bridge the abyss over four or eight years, depending on whether he can sustain his support amid some of the gloomiest circumstances ever to confront a new United States president. In six weeks travelling across the US to cover the campaign for the South China Morning Post, I witnessed the nation's divisions and felt the sting of the fear and rage underpinning them. On a cool Saturday morning in the almost impossibly pretty suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, I found myself struck by the depth of feeling against all that Obama represented. A crowd of small-business owners had gathered in a warehouse to hear former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani implore them to boost the Republican vote. Giuliani was too classy an operator to throw the mud himself; instead, smiling and winking, he deployed code words to do the business for him. His warnings against Obama's 'socialist principles' were eagerly interpreted as Marxism by many in the crowd. Rumours of dodgy voting practices meant Obama was about to 'steal' the election. Chatting in small groups afterwards, the crowd had convinced itself that the US was at risk of electing history's first Muslim communist with ties to terrorists. '[Obama] might be a very nice man,' said real estate agent Linda Werz. 'But we know nothing about him ... nothing at all. There is just too much mystery there and it makes me very nervous.' Her husband, Tom, a Vietnam war veteran, nodded beside her. 'Obama's a socialist, he may well be a Muslim and he's unknown and inexperienced.' If it sounds extreme to outsiders, it is worth remembering that there was nothing radical about the Richmond group. They are well-educated and relatively prosperous. But for news, they live on a diet of emotive right-wing television and radio - conservative passions and fears readily tapped into by the likes of Giuliani. Obama's campaign - a wildly successful enterprise that has rewritten the political-science textbooks - seemed built around the fact that he could not expect to heal the divisions at a stroke. Instead, he sought to make gains at the edges. The Christian right, for example, was a grouping successfully massaged and mobilised by President George W. Bush to deliver him two election victories - a reflection of one of the most striking shifts in US politics in recent decades. Obama's rival, John McCain, needed the right, too, of course, but he needed much more than that to beat an insurgent, inclusive candidate. Obama snared only a quarter of the evangelical vote, a reflection of his tolerance of homosexuality and abortion. John Kerry, his defeated predecessor in 2004, did little better. Yet Obama was able to sweep through the margins, turning the heads of younger evangelicals with his worldview and environmental policies. Randy Wolfinger, a seminarian at the Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, was walking through the streets of Chicago shortly after midnight on election night, elated after hearing Obama's victory speech. 'It is not just his poise and his grace ... he is like a young person in that he is not afraid of the truths in our basic ideals,' the 35-year-old said. 'I saw him up close in his early days in the [Illinois] state senate ... and from the start I knew he had it, it was something special. I guess it's integrity. I noticed that when he was talking about the environment, or inequality or the fact that we should not use torture, he wasn't talking like a modern politician. 'He's not afraid to make us see the best in ourselves ... and I think people have reacted to that.' Obama also lured military families, a group ordinarily seen as being staunchly Republican. His vice-presidential rival, Sarah Palin, cloaked herself in the unquestioning patriotism of 'real American' values but it was Obama who sucked up the votes. His early and loud opposition to the war in Iraq and the need to retool the battle against al-Qaeda resonated in small, conservative military towns with families split by long and repeated deployments. As the race progressed, he targeted military voters in places such as the shipbuilding yards of Newport News, Virginia and Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the special forces at Fort Bragg. It was all part of an ultimately successful push into southern Republican strongholds. These fringes were exposed in the most unlikely of places. At a Palin rally at a Virginia speedway filled with bussed-in crowds of redneck miners and deeply conservative wealthy rural voters, I met a Christian minister who had yet to be swayed. 'I'm still waiting to be convinced so I've turned up today to see if I'll be able to make my mind up,' said Jay Wagner, who works in a parish in Petersburg, south of Richmond. 'I am firmly against abortion, so that would normally count a guy like Obama out for me ... but this year is a little different,' he explained. 'In my work I see a lot of military families. The pain of war is a terrible thing for my community. Deaths and injuries and families split ... the real cost of this war is still being paid. This year I've really got to think.' Wagner's views were hardly common among the all-white crowd, which was urging Palin to take the fight to Obama in the harshest terms. One popular T-shirt read, 'The only difference between Osama and Obama is a little 'bs'.' 'Keep the communists out of Virginia,' was another common cry. Palin stuck to the platitudes and was in no mood to debate Obama's description of Iraq as a failed experiment that needed to be terminated. 'That's not what our boys want to hear right now,' she said. Religion, patriotism and politics were intertwined. The rally began with the Pledge of Allegiance - 'one Nation under God, indivisible'. Then came a prayer for guidance 'so that people may find it in their hearts' to support Palin's Republican ticket. And yet for a man such as Wagner, an unmarried minister who has devoted his life to his faith, the decision was far from easy. An overnight train from Washington to North Carolina exposed the edge of another frontier conquered by Obama. It was 3am and the dining car was the only point of light across a darkened train. It was filled with light sleepers kept awake by the train's lurches and bangs, all part of a creaking national infrastructure that Obama has vowed to fix. At every table silent people were immersed in books. Closer inspection revealed most were reading Bibles. 'I guess people think because I'm black that I will vote for Obama,' said Jasper Turner, a retired postal worker on his way to visit his daughter. 'I'm a Christian man and a, I guess, conservative,' he said as he carefully inserted a ribbon between the thin leaves of his large, weathered Bible. 'I'm interested in honesty and righteousness ... and, man, we don't see much of that at election time. I was very slow to get on the Obama train. He talked my language - have you heard those beautiful phrases? - but I wasn't interested in any old hustler. When I realised he was clean and a good man, then I thought 'that's it', this is his moment and I want to be part of it.' Talking to African-Americans nationwide, it was a common sentiment. They wouldn't vote for any black candidate, it had to be the right black candidate - and one worthy of emotional investment. No one was in any mood to be disappointed. As he eyes more persistent divisions, Obama seems determined to take no chances. His aversion to political risk is one of his most marked characteristics. It was visible in the measured assurance he displayed during 20 months of campaigning, first toppling the Democratic machine of Hillary Rodham Clinton and then his Republican rivals. As a young outsider, the need to convince people to think of him as 'presidential', that most intangible of qualities, was one of his biggest challenges. He never lost his cool despite considerable provocation and, mostly, was not afraid to sit back and think before acting, despite the pressures of a 24-hour news cycle. Eight years of a failed presidency and a thumping victory in the Electoral College have granted Obama a considerable mandate. Privately, his advisers know, however, that the inevitable end of his honeymoon could be brutal. Firstly, he has inherited the most challenging legacy in 70 years. Then there is the flip side of his now bloated mantra of hope and change. He has sold people on ideas and concepts that they had previously not allowed themselves to believe. In doing so he formed an emotional bond with many of his supporters beyond the usual president-voter dynamic. In short, he must deliver. 'We need change and he's given us the hope that we can change,' said Melvin Miniefield. A night-shift security guard, Miniefield was in the queue at 6am on election day in Phoenix, Arizona, the home state of McCain. 'But doing it is going to be another thing ... that's where our man will earn his money. Putting those wonderful words into action. They'll be trying to stop him but he's smart enough for them up there in Washington.' Obama's caution is apparent in his ongoing campaign e-mails. His camp used its unprecedented US$640 million war chest to exploit internet and mobile phone technology beyond anything attempted before. And instead of rolling it all up and saving it for later, voters are still receiving messages, some from first lady-elect Michelle Obama and others from the man himself. They are short, polite and eloquent and wrapped in the lush blues of his campaign colours. Some still solicit donations, not for the campaign but for inauguration celebrations or the Democratic National Committee. Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst whose savviness tends to rise above the white noise of most election punditry, outlined the lessons of organisation - and division - for both parties. 'This election reminded us that organisation matters. Where the huge Obama machine was at work, Democrats tended to do very well. Where Obama was an asset, he really was, and where he was a liability, he was that, too.' Cook outlined a changing countryside, particularly in the south. The New South includes Virginia and North Carolina, both turned Democrat for the first time in decades by Obama. It is a place of expanding suburbs, new industries and migrants, including younger college graduates. In poorer, more traditional areas Obama did even worse than Kerry four years ago. 'Those who write off the 2008 election by saying that Republican candidates weren't conservative enough are in denial. They are political ostriches, refusing to acknowledge that the country and the electorate are changing and that recipes don't work anymore,' he said in his self-published Cook Report. On the eve of the election there was hot talk from some commentators that Grant Park would come to represent the start of decades of Democratic dominance, just as the past four decades have seen the Republican star ascendant. David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, told me that he 'couldn't even begin to entertain such a grandiose notion'. 'Just winning this one and getting through the next four years is more than enough to worry about,' he said, his weary eyes and slumped shoulders showing the strain of the toughest of campaigns.