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Obama has won: now for the challenges of tomorrow

This is a time of reckoning. For too long we have been encouraged to live carelessly and we are now living with the consequences: a world economic system on life support and a planet that is warming rapidly because of the increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases arising from human activity. If the earth continues to heat up at its present rate, we know what our fate will be; and yet we still seem set on our own destruction.

In Britain we may be entering a deep and protracted recession (some would say a necessary correction after the excesses of recent years), with unemployment rising and house prices falling. But this is also a time of extraordinary opportunity. There is a widespread realisation that we have reached a terminus: we cannot go on as we have been. The Anglo-Saxon model of unrestrained free-market capitalism, to which both major British political parties have adhered for so long, is fatally flawed. It extravagantly enriches the few, while impoverishing the many, by encouraging them to live beyond their means. It replaces high wages with high debt, as Paul Mason writes in his essay beginning on page 22.

Even Alan Greenspan, the high priest of deregulation, has, like Ivan Ilyich in the famous Tolstoy story, had a moment of startling self-revelation that has left him confused about the purposes of his life's work. He did not know what he thought he knew. What he thought was so is not the case. "I have found a flaw," he said in October, following the bank bailouts, "I have been very distressed by that fact . . . Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself especially, are in a state of shocked disbelief."

The yearning for change in Britain and far beyond runs deep. The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States, in spite of his lack of executive experience, is testament to this larger worldwide yearning. Obama may have been the "roll of the dice" candidate, as Bill Clinton called him, but his election was one gamble worth taking. For a start, his victory has tremendous symbolism. By their very presence in the White House, he and his family will be a daily reminder of America's thrilling possibilities. African Americans, for so long discriminated against, will look to them and believe that the so-called land of the free has finally begun to atone for the original sin of slavery; they will look to the Obamas and dare to dream of a new, more hopeful world in which they can play a part. More prosaically, Obama's victory and the significant Democrat majority in the Senate confirm that the Bush years - the years of Abu Ghraib prison, state-sanctioned torture, unilateral declarations of war, Guantanamo Bay - will be remembered (most people will want to forget them) as a time of shame and failure.

Obama and his advisers fought a brilliant campaign. They understood from the beginning how to use the internet to reach the young and disenfranchised. To the very last, they were using Facebook to encourage people to register to vote and then, once they had registered, to vote early; they were continuously uploading campaign videos on YouTube; they never ceased using digital technology to solicit and receive donations, so that Obama's campaign for president had the momentum and force not of one man's improbable quest, but of a larger movement for change, encompassing people of all ages and different demographics.

Obama knew that if he could take on and destroy the Clinton machine during the long and gruelling primaries, he would be president. So discredited were the Republicans that George W Bush, as incumbent, was present in the campaign only in his ghostly absence: John McCain wanted nothing to do with him, and Obama used him as a point of opposition and self-definition.

President Obama will be inheriting from Bush the inbox from hell. For now, he remains a figure of remarkable promise and of hope. Pragmatism and thoughtfulness have taken him a very long way, but soon he will have to act, to take positions, to declare his hand. Is he really a multilateralist? How exactly will he go about restoring the standing of America in the world? What is his position on a Palestinian state? What of his promised tax cuts to the poor? What alternative can he offer to the failed ideology of neoliberalism?

Martin Luther King dared to dream of a nation in which all men and women were equal before the law and no man would experience prejudice because of the colour of his skin. Dr King was assassinated because he dared to dream of a better, more equal American future. Barack Obama presents himself as a latter-day dreamer, a believer in the audacity of hope. But he is also a hard-headed pragmatist, a career politician and as skilled and fluent an operator as Bill Clinton - one of the highlights of the campaign was when the two men finally came together on the same platform in Florida. It was like watching two great prizefighters sizing each other up; there was mutual admiration but also wariness and unease, and just a touch of awe from the younger man.

Barack Obama has been elected on the promise of what he represents and might do, rather than what he has done

One of George Bush's last acts has been to help instigate a summit of world leaders to take place in Washington on 15 November. It is a summit precipitated by a crisis: the collapse of the banking system. But the delegates will have time to do little more than determine priorities for future summits. None the less, there are targets they should set. They should agree in general terms strategies for introducing stricter rules to prevent banks and fund managers from taking excessive risks; they should work towards the IMF or some other body taking a stronger role in supervising financial markets. They must make a commitment to increasing aid and ensuring that the citizens of the poorest countries are not asked to suffer further for the follies of the rich.

But a commitment to deal with the causes of the crisis will require greater courage. Global leaders have to ask why the richest countries in the world became so addicted to debt. How did we sanction such overconsumption in one half of the world while the other half lived in abject poverty? Do we need to abandon our addiction to a high-growth economy? As Paul Mason writes: "If it can't be driven by wages, debt or public spending, then it can't exist."

Such questions challenge our fundamental tenets about the free market, and they challenge our beliefs about the role of governments in this changed world.

"So long as the conference deals with symptoms and not with causes, the shadow of futility will lie across its path . . . Its first task therefore should be to distinguish one from the other."

These were John Maynard Keynes's words, in advance of the international summit called in 1933 in response to the deepening Depression of the Thirties. They remain as relevant today.

Barack Obama has been elected as president on the promise of what he represents and might do, rather than what he has done. He remains, until his inauguration on 20 January, the candidate of change and of hope. He has spoken about the need for a new kind of politics, as Tony Blair once did before he became embroiled in his imperial wars, and of a new more moral style of government. Today, in this issue, we celebrate his election as president. The road to the White House was long and arduous; he is there, victorious, but now for the challenges of tomorrow and for decisive and clear-headed action if the shadow of futility is not to fall across his path in the way of Mr Blair.

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This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come