This was not the first American election I watched on foreign soil. Last time around (also when I was in London, as a matter of fact), Senator John Kerry sank beneath the undertow of a swift boat smear campaign and his own weighty rhetoric as America re-elected George W Bush by a slim margin.
So I had a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as I watched the results come in last night, wary to the last. It took McCain’s gracious and humble concession speech for the reality to sink in that America had just elected Barack Hussein Obama as the next president.
Obama carries on his shoulders a heavy burden and sky-high expectations. He inherits a global financial crisis, two faltering wars, global climate change, a trillion dollar national debt, a possible recession and America’s tarnished international reputation.
Republican pundits snidely remarked that he walked on water and parted the Red Sea, but with the situation as it stands in America and around the world, President-elect Obama may indeed have to perform such feats.
In his acceptance speech, delivered to an expectant crowd of thousands, he was careful to mention the possible setbacks and sacrifices ahead, preparing the nation for the hard road ahead.
His election, no doubt, represents the making of history and the breaking of barriers, but the true test for president-elect Obama will come when he takes office in January, replacing a deeply unpopular and unsuccessful president. People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad, after the devastation of Katrina, after the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the humiliation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. People are looking to him to epitomise the ephemeral American Dream, where a global citizen with a Kenyan father, brought up in Kansas and Indonesia, educated in Harvard and refined on Chicago’s streets is able to step into the spotlight on the Washington D.C. stage.
Ironically, if Senator John McCain had run this campaign like the candidate he was in 2000, he might have had a much greater chance at defeating Obama. That bipartisan, dignified and “straight talking” McCain made a brief appearance when he conceded the election to Obama last night, silencing a booing crowd. The last desperate months of the Republican campaign saw some ugly crowds shouting everything from “socialist” to “terrorist,” but pragmatism prevailed over partisan politics as scores of voters chose Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship rather than the Republican party’s politics of fear.
President-elect Obama humbly acknowledged his triumph, saying, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” He indirectly addressed those booing in the McCain crowd, saying, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”
Having run a successful campaign on the effervescent messages of hope and change, Obama will require people to maintain those emotions through his tenure in office. Americans will need to store away the hope left over after his victory and bring it out to savour when the already difficult road gets tougher, when the current dream melts away to the reality of next year. President-elect Obama has charisma, intellect and an undisputable eloquence, but only next year will show whether his ideals and eloquence translate to decisive action in the highest office.