Parents watching President-elect Barack Obama's acceptance speech probably noticed the hands first, Sasha's right hand holding her father's left hand, firmly and trustingly. The daughter looked up at her father, who returned the glance, and both smiled.
For historians, it was Obama's reference to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of all American presidents, who embarked on a civil war for the unity of the country and the freedom of black slaves. For those with a love of language, it was his masterful speech on the responsibilities of today's citizens, and on solidarity and honesty. The victor's acceptance speech became an appeal against megalomania and triumphalism, and for humility and respect for what is to come. It was a mature speech.
It has been a long time since the world has had such a figure like Obama. Standing on that Chicago stage with his family, he was the manifestation of myriad expectations from across the globe -- and he belonged to everyone. Each person on the planet saw exactly what he or she wanted to see on that stage -- there was something for everyone.
Patriots saw a semi-circle of 25 flags and a man with considerable gravitas telling them that it would be difficult, but that the country would achieve its aims.
Romantics admired the couple -- their looks, their pride and their grace. They seem to make a good couple, these two, one that is achieving what modern couples everywhere strive for and rarely manage: a distribution of roles that does justice to both members, as well as providing both with freedom and, most of all, humor.
Blacks saw their skin color, saw one of their own standing on that stage, and when they realized that the most powerful man in the world was going to be a black man, they felt gratification, even redemption, emotions that prompted many in the crowd standing in Chicago's Grant Park to repeat the same sentence, over and over again: "I never thought I would see this day coming."
For 106-year-old Atlanta resident Ann Nixon Cooper, this night meant that her life had come full circle. She had received the call that afternoon. Would it be okay for Obama to use her name in his speech, his advisors asked? Of course, she said, and she wept when she heard her name mentioned later that evening, mentioned as the name of a hero who had experienced so many things: the days when she was prevented from voting, followed by the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hardships of daily discrimination.
But whites were also hearing a man who understands them, whose way of speaking is not significantly different from their own, even if he doesn't look like them. There were many whites in the crowd in Grant Park.
For Chicago's college students it was a festival, finally a chance to celebrate an idol once again. They wore shirts emblazoned with Obama's face, T-shirts with his symbol of the sun and the horizon in the colors of the United States. They chanted his slogan: "Yes, we can." And then they chanted: "Yes, we did!"
Finally, the strategist was, as always, already looking ahead, preventing the fireworks display that had been prepared. He saw this man on the stage, against a backdrop of Chicago's skyscrapers, trees and floodlights, and he saw 150,000 people and not a single one of them who was not moved, not a single person who was not aware that this was a special night. Who needed fireworks?
The strategist's name is David Axelrod. After 21 months of permanent skepticism and wariness, Axelrod was finally all smiles, because he knew the same thing that everyone standing there in Chicago knew. That Tuesday evening, that Nov. 4, 2008, was indeed historic.
On that day, 65 million Americans voted for Barack Obama, 47, to be the 44th president of the United States of America. Obama is the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. He was born in Hawaii, and he lived in Indonesia, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He is black. And after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, he and his wife Michelle, their daughters Sasha and Malia, and the puppy the girls were promised for their patience during the campaign, will live in Washington, D.C., at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House, which was built by slaves 216 years ago.
America has voted, and the world has voted along with it. Germany, Europe, every continent on earth has finally discovered America once again. They have discovered the America that is an idea and not just a superpower. In only three countries -- Israel, Georgia and the Philippines -- did a majority prefer John McCain, the known entity. The rest of the world was Obama country.
They celebrated on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, and so did the black kids in the city's suburbs. There were parties in cities on all continents, and they even celebrated in the Gaza Strip where, normally, the only good Americans are considered to be dead Americans. Obama is the world's president, at least for a few days, weeks, months of euphoria and idealism and belief in decency that President George W. Bush had almost beaten out of the world. Tristram Hunt, a British historian, said that Obama "brings the narrative that everyone wants to return to -- that America is the land of extraordinary opportunity and possibility, where miracles happen." And miracles are what people of all skin colors are wishing for, especially people from those parts of the earth where miracles are not as reliable an occurrence.
The way Obama was greeted by the global public was an eye-opener. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's reaction was as pleased as that of her counterparts in London and Paris, who greeted the results of the election with enthusiasm, interest and hope. Only in Rome did Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, true to form, describe the new US president-elect as "young, handsome and ... tanned."
Not unexpectedly, euphoria was the prevailing emotion in Africa, where Ghanaians, Nigerians and South Africans saw the election as an affirmation of themselves. For a short time, Kenyans celebrated Obama, their "son of Africa," in a national state of ecstasy, fully expecting a future of US visas for all Kenyans, new financial assistance and the American superstar to pay a state visit to his Kenyan step-grandmother, "Grandma Sarah," in Kogelo, a village in the hills near Lake Victoria. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki promptly declared a public holiday on Thursday in honor of Obama.
All of this has to do with the yearning for leadership in times when no nation can solve its problems alone. The challenges facing the global economy and climate demand a cooperative world community, a global culture and direction. In fact, what they demand most of all is a global government.
Wanted: Modesty, Patience and a Dose of Humility
Barack Obama -- at least that appears to be the hope of all those who felt inspired on that Tuesday evening in Chicago -- has the stuff to become the first global president. He is someone who has roots, not only in his own country, but on several continents. And he is someone whose middle name, Hussein, invokes the vague prospect of reconciliation for Muslims, and someone who finally puts a face on world society.
A number of dark years came to an end on that Tuesday. Bit by bit, the administration of George W. Bush had ruined the country and its reputation around the world.
Obama, smiling naturally on that evening in Chicago, remained stoic, at times seeming as cool and aloof as he was throughout his campaign. He was also focused, as he delivered his carefully conceived speech. But instead of celebrating, Obama chose to deliver a warning, taking advantage of the moment to get a few things off his chest: That he will achieve nothing by going it alone. That he needs the Republicans as much as he needs the Democrats and the entire country. That America needs a new sense of civic duty and solidarity. That the United States must find allies if it hopes to remain safe from terrorism and find ways to combat climate change. That there will be difficult years ahead. "But we as a people will get there," he told his supporters in Chicago.
And they looked up at him and nodded, shouting "yeah," as if they were committing themselves to do service for America. This is the core of Obama's message: Do something for your country and your country will thank you for it. Stand by America and America will stand by you. Then America will no longer be hated and ridiculed, but admired and respected around the world.
Is this naïve? A childlike belief in a world that Obama invoked in Berlin, speaking to 200,000 "citizens of the world?" It seems more likely that Obama takes a far more pragmatic approach to things. He wants to build a network and a new community with anyone who wishes to join him. His eloquent words are intended to entice and motivate, and to arouse curiosity. This is not naïve, but merely smarter than the policies of his predecessor. Obama will emphasize diplomacy and multilateralism, says David Axelrod, and everyone associated with Obama agrees. It is obvious where Bush's policy of making unilateral decisions has taken the country.
And yet, isn't all of this too much for such an inexperienced man, for someone who has only been a US Senator for a little less than four years? Are the expectations too great and is the burden far too heavy? Difficult times often present opportunities. They pave the way for great decisions, and great leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who fought the Depression in the 1930s and later the Nazis, is one of America's favorite role models. But not everyone who comes to power in hard times is up to the challenge.
One can only imagine what was going on in the heads of the seasoned, pragmatic major players in world politics as they watched the moving spectacle of the election unfolding in America. China, a budding world power, has experienced the devious Richard Nixon, the hapless Jimmy Carter, the eternally optimistic Ronald Reagan -- and now a basketball player, a pop star, a moralist motivated by American history and a man with little experience in the world. Is he truly as cool and conciliatory as we are led to believe? How tough is this man really?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative and dangerous president of Iran, who alternates between issuing threats and sending patronizing letters to the leaders of the West, will now have to reassess the situation. He has said publicly that he doubts that those in power in the United States would even permit an Obama election victory. Will his country have to worry even more now about an American attack should it continue on its present course? Or is it better off with Obama?
Recently Joseph Biden, the future vice-president, speculated publicly over what some of America's enemies would have in store for the new man in the White House. Presumably, he told an audience at a fundraiser, Obama could face a challenge not unlike the one that former President John F. Kennedy confronted in the Cuban missile crisis. Initially, it seems that Biden wasn't far off the mark. Just a few hours after Obama's victory, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that his country plans to deploy short-range missiles in Kaliningrad -- the bit of Russian territory that sits on the border of Poland and Lithuania -- in response to the planned US missile defense shield with its bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obama, in short, will have precious little time to get used to his new role when it comes to the conflicts facing the world. Just how he chooses to face those problems, though, is one of the most interesting questions facing his administration. The notion that it falls to the United States to shape the world in its democratic and capitalist image is one of the constants of its foreign policy -- but it is this very same notion that has led to the aggravation of world crises in recent years instead of contributing to solutions. After years of immoderation, more modesty, patience and a dose of humility would certainly be appropriate for America.
A Campaign that Sent Signals in 'all Directions'
What America expects from its first black president is obvious: to lead the country out of the deepest crisis of capitalism since 1929. This, Obama said on Friday at his first press conference since the election, is "the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime." He is also expected to regain the political and moral authority the country has lost since the war in Iraq. He is being asked to put a stop to the decline of a superpower and help America become a beacon for the free world once again. At the same time, Americans want Obama to ensure that the country preserves its position as the only superpower on earth, that it retain its vast military superiority and remain unattainable for China and India for a long time to come.
In recent weeks, many on Obama's staff have read books about Roosevelt's first 100 days in office. Even after their candidate's victory, the members of Team Obama were served mineral water, not champagne. Instead of some cocky fraternity raucously celebrating a triumph, Obama's team of Harvard-trained lawyers seemed to be perfectly aware that the real challenge was not the election.
They will have to avoid old mistakes, especially now, at the beginning. They will have to avoid lazy compromises, especially when it comes to staffing issues. Former President Bill Clinton set a high bar for himself when he said that his cabinet would "look like America." It marked the beginning of lobbyism, intrigues and proportional thinking. How many of Clinton's cabinet members were from the left, critics asked, how many blacks, and weren't there too many men? Clinton's "transition" -- the 77 days between the election and the inauguration -- are now seen as one of the most mismanaged periods in recent American history.
Obama got an early start on the process during the last few weeks of the campaign. He appointed John Podesta to manage the transition, along with Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, all three of them close confidants for years. Podesta, a tough, cool-headed Washington pro, assembled a team of 50 people who have now spent the last few weeks examining resumes, restructuring departments and assigning tasks. As a result, blueprints have already been assembled for each department, including to-do lists broken down by immediate, 100-day and first-year goals.
Nevertheless, writes New York magazine, the Obama administration is still difficult to assess because Obama, as a candidate, sent out signals " in all directions." His voting record in the Senate was conventionally liberal, his essence is that of the pragmatic technocrat, and his rhetoric is somewhere in between.
Of course, conclusions can be drawn from Obama's behavior in the last 21 months, when he was under constant scrutiny in the brightly illuminated world of the election campaign. There were four people he trusted explicitly during that difficult time: Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic star in Congress (who will be the next White House chief of staff), David Plouffe, his campaign manager and a math enthusiast and, finally, David Axelrod, his campaign strategist. Plouffe and Axelrod will likely follow Obama to Washington. Axelrod, at any rate, has already agreed to serve as a senior advisor.
And then, of course, there is Michelle. Michelle Obama is a mother and an attorney with degrees from Harvard and Princeton. She was already working at a Chicago law firm when Barack worked there as a summer associate. He asked her out, which she found inappropriate, but he eventually won her over.
She is from Chicago, America's "Second City," which prompted Obama to stay there. She had the sense of home that he, after growing up with his white grandparents in Hawaii, longed for. The South Shore neighborhood, neither affluent nor excessively poor, was her home, but then her father fell ill with multiple sclerosis. Marian Robinson, Michelle's mother, cared for her sick husband, and today she watches over her grandchildren for their busy political parents. Robinson will likely move to the White House with the Obamas, where she will probably be unrolling the sleeping bags when Sasha's and Malia's friends arrive for sleepovers.
The Obamas seem to enjoy each other's company. He talks about how she brought him back down to earth during his euphoric first few weeks in the Senate. He wanted to tell her about his successes, but her response was to tell him to pick up some ant traps for their home. She made jokes about him, which she doesn't do today, and she made mistakes at the beginning of his campaign. Michelle Obama would have been better off not saying that his candidacy made her feel proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. But then she became more relaxed and began to enjoy the campaign, regaining her composure and self-confidence. She traveled with a small team that included a spokesperson, a few bodyguards and no press.
It was a smart distribution of roles. He moved in the political center, because he needed whites from America's heartland, while she traveled through and became an icon in the country's black communities. In a speech to black religious leaders in Fayetteville, North Carolina, she said: "I can't tell you how many times Barack and I meet folks who are 70, 80 years old, people who come up to us and grab us by the arm and with tears streaming down their faces tell us, 'I never thought I'd live to see the day.'" Then, after the applause had died down, she asked her husband's supporters for their votes and donations, and to help get out the vote among friends and family members. "I don't want to look back and think what might have been," she said. "We've done that way too much in our lifetime."
Her husband, the president-elect, is seen as a modern manager who knows how to delegate, is in command of modern communication and is an exceptionally good listener. There are few people who emerge from conversations with Obama complaining that he did not take them seriously. Team Obama is considered highly efficient and as discreet as few other political organizations. The fact that Obama is at his best when under pressure is not exactly a poor qualification for the years to come.
The creases in his face have become deeper and his hair grayer in the last two years. Obama gets up every morning at 6 a.m. and spends 45 minutes in the gym. When he has time, he plays basketball with old friends. In the final days of the campaign, he read two newspapers a day and the book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden." Obama is a Blackberry junkie, working his way through e-mails, memos and messages up to 30 times a day.
Once he has taken a specific course, he sticks to it tenaciously. Even during the campaign, he remained constant from beginning to end, a consistency Hillary Clinton and especially John McCain never managed to achieve. Obama even managed to keep his cool when he was under attack, controlling his ego with an iron will. No matter how sharp McCain's attacks were, Axelrod and Obama knew that they could only win if Obama was seen as a gentle black man, as a good black man, as the Tiger Woods of politics.
Does this mean that he avoids risks? Is he too mild, too nice? These questions provoke smiles from his staff. One of them talks about how everyone on the team had advised the candidate against addressing the debate over his former and quite radical pastor, Jeremiah Wright, but Obama wanted to give a "big speech about race." He gave his speech in Philadelphia, and it became a milestone of his campaign. "He was the kind of speaker you see once in a lifetime. A good debater. He had a message and he was ice-cold and disciplined when it came to delivering that message," says Steve Schmidt, the head of the McCain campaign and the Republican candidate's toughest attack dog.
All of this may speak volumes about the next president's leadership style and his relationship with his staff, but it says less about Obama as a world president, about his attempts to solve the most urgent problems he will face. Although Obama brings little experience to the table, he can rely on his judgment, which is considerable. That he will succeed is not a given, but a possibility. And if his success in the coming four years is sufficient to achieve a few key turning points in a handful of world conflicts, much will have been gained.
Guantanamo Is a Wound American Inflicted Upon Itself
With his sense of symbolism, the 44th president is likely to sign an order soon that will close the Guantanamo detention center for terrorists, both real and presumed. In the United States, it has long become part of the prevailing opinion outside the White House that the establishment of totalitarian islands within democracy was a mistake that harmed the country and damaged its aura worldwide. The luminaries of al-Qaida, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the mastermind of Sept. 11, 2001) and Ramzi Binalshibh (who prepared the attacks with Mohammed Atta) will presumably be tried in civilian courts in the United States, as will a few of the less prominent among Guantanamo's roughly 250 detainees.
Guantanamo is a wound that America inflicted upon itself. Obama will raise a cheer worldwide, and deservedly so, when he transforms the enormous high-security tract back into a dull, anachronistic US military base on the fringe of Castro's Cuba.
Obama's foreign policy advisors include seasoned veterans like Zbigniew Brzezinski (national security advisor under Jimmy Carter), Anthony Lake (national security advisor under Bill Clinton) and Colin Powell, the hapless secretary of state during Bush's first term. These are moderate, pragmatic professionals who have already protected him against reaching careless conclusions in a few major conflicts.
Obama's assessment of the situation in Iraq became more flexible after he visited Baghdad in the summer, a shift in position from which he now benefits. General David Petraeus, who managed to bring relative stability to Iraq, helped him in the process. Since then, Obama has stopped mechanically repeating his mantra of bringing home one brigade a month without taking conditions in Iraq into account. His turn to the pragmatic will displease war-weary Democrats at home, but it will expand his latitude, and that is what matters.
Iraq is the second bleeding wound for America as a superpower, even though more US soldiers are now dying in Afghanistan. For at least the past five years, since the invasion in March 2003, all conflicts in the region have been heightened tremendously, almost to the point of spinning out of control. The balance of power has shifted to the disadvantage of the United States. The lesson from the Bush era is that the country cannot achieve productive results by going it alone. But it is also true, in this nervous, hysterical part of the world, that nothing can be changed if America is no longer a part of the picture.
Now everyone in the region is waiting to see which course Obama will take: the mullahs in Tehran, who seek hegemony in the region, possibly with the help of the bomb; the young dictator in Damascus and the old cynic in Cairo; Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Beirut. To make matters even more complicated, Israel is about to enter an election that could lead to the return of conservative nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu, who would have been a better fit with Bush.
Some time ago, Obama said that he would also talk to America's enemies. There are some in the Middle East who, paradoxically, would like nothing better than to talk to the US president. Syria has made no secret of it. The country, isolated and in economic difficulties, is seeking, and needs, a relationship with the West.
Iran is also among the enemies that would like to talk to the American president. Western diplomats have assumed for some time that Iran is, in fact, interested in resuming diplomatic relations with the United States. But the question is whether the Iranian leaders will be as uncompromising toward Obama as they have been toward Bush.
Tehran's uncompromising stance has paid off. Since the fall of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iran has been the dominant power in the region, much to the displeasure of its neighbors. President Ahmadinejad launches vile threats against Israel and questions the existence of the Holocaust. Does an American president talk to such people, and what would be the point of the exercise?
It is a question that is feverishly tossed back and forth in Washington's liberal think tanks. Talking is always a good thing, because someone who is talking is unlikely to be shooting. But talking is also a gamble if it leads to nothing. The alternative to bilateral negotiations would be a Middle East conference with the participation of Syria and Iran, although this could easily degenerate into aimless palaver without any consequences. And the revival of the old Iran negotiating group -- Germany, Great Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia -- which tried but failed to dissuade the country from pursuing its nuclear program, is also not a very promising option.
Obama has said, with some degree of sharpness, that Iran must be prevented from building the bomb. He probably meant what he said, because no American president can passively accept the existence of a nuclear, Islamic theocracy that questions Israel's right to exist. Obama has set this benchmark. What will he do now? Under the current circumstances, Obama has several options: the old approach of imposing tougher sanctions in an effort to indirectly discourage Iran from pursuing the bomb; the clever approach of extracting Syria from the anti-American front led by Iran; or a new approach Obama may have to take, presumably with the help of an intermediary.
America's third bleeding wound is Afghanistan, where the "war on terror" that Bush proclaimed began after Sept. 11, 2001. The future president believes that this campaign of revenge against the Taliban, which gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden, is justified. But it is also a major conflict in which the conventional approach is increasingly proving to be a failure.
Iraq and Afghanistan behave like communicating conduits. When the United States captured Baghdad, al-Qaida declared Iraq the main battleground against the expansive superpower, and Afghanistan became secondary. It was the time when the decisions on guidelines for political and economic reconstruction reached at the Petersberg conference near Bonn were effective in the country. Since then, President Hamid Karzai has been in charge in Kabul, and since then NATO's International Security Assistance Force has been stationed there.
The conditions changed in Iraq, and now Afghanistan is the focal point once again for al-Qaida terrorists who, like the Taliban, are regaining strength. Pakistan continues to serve, as it always has, as a safe haven, and the clans in the border region continue to play their old game. The men in Kabul are their natural enemies, while the enemies of the men in Kabul are their useful friends.
Obama has pledged to transfer 7,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. This would be a significant addition to the 32,500 US troops currently in Afghanistan. It seems clear that Obama will soon begin asking allies which of them could send more soldiers.
As the commander of the US Central Command, General Petraeus is now in charge of US operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He seems determined to apply his old method: more soldiers, greater fighting power and the attempt to divide the enemy. Perhaps he will even manage to create a rift between the Taliban and al-Qaida. It has been rumored for some time that Karzai is half-heartedly seeking talks with the Taliban.
And then there are the recent US air strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions, where Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding. With each attack, hatred for the United States grows in Pakistan, forcing the government in Islamabad to lodge loud protests against each new attack.
It is interesting to note that Obama did not criticize the air attacks during the election campaign. He too feels that such attacks are legitimate. Presumably, there is even a tacit understanding between the Pakistani and American governments, with the Pakistanis making it clear that the Americans can continue to launch their attacks without their official knowledge, and that they will, of course, protest the attacks sharply. It is a cynical game, and one which Obama, as a world president and idealistic advocate of the principle of openness in politics, will have trouble continuing. Still, British historian Niall Ferguson, for his part, believes that Obama's foreign policy will not differ markedly from that of his predecessor.
Some Europeans are already lobbying in Washington for a departure from a purely military view of the world. They argue that Afghanistan is a conflict for the entire region and, as such, cannot be resolved in Kabul and Kandahar alone, but only with the involvement of neighboring countries. For this reason, the Europeans propose a regional conference of all neighboring countries. The United States has questioned the purpose of such a conference.
Interestingly, Obama faces the same decision in Afghanistan that Bush faced in Iraq: Should he try the Petraeus method, that combination of military toughness and political flexibility? Unlike Bush, however, Obama has a lot to lose if the number of civilian casualties does not diminish, and if the air strikes in Pakistan lead to attacks on US interests or jeopardize the already weakened government in Islamabad -- in other words, if this war becomes his war.
Europe is no world power, especially not in times of recession, and yet European countries are involved almost everywhere. The branches of German and French companies, for example, have recently been welcomed back to Iraq. In Iran, Europe's big three -- Great Britain, Germany and France -- were part of the Group of Six that sharply criticized the mullahs for their nuclear program. They failed, because the United States did not lend sufficient support to the effort.
Ultimately, however, the Europeans' relationship with the United States could hinge on a development over which they have little control: the new US administration's treatment of Russia. It is customary for the government of a country to congratulate the newly elected president of the United States, to leave differences unmentioned and, in the interest of both countries, hope for better times. But even before the night of Obama's victory had ended, the news had arrived from Moscow that Russia plans to deploy Iskander short-range missiles to the Kaliningrad region near the Polish border.
It was an astounding affront. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still the de facto most powerful man in Russia, seems to be walking in Bush's steps, taking on his with-me-or-against-me rhetoric, his unilateral politics and his disdain for what the rest of the world thinks.
International Crises and Domestic Woes
Russia is furious over the missile shield the United States plans to build, with bases in the Czech Republic and Poland, to protect against attacks from Iran. Obama has not yet said whether he supports the plan. If it were his intention not to pursue the project, the Kremlin, by pressing ahead with its own missile deployment plans, is making it difficult for Obama to distance himself from Bush's missile shield program.
However, the Russian leadership is hardly wrong when it argues that Democrat Obama's stance on the other two conflicts Putin considers existential, Georgia and Ukraine, hardly differs from that of his predecessor. Obama has consistently said that both countries, products of the collapse of the Soviet empire, should be allowed to join NATO if they wish. Although there is no consensus within the political elite in the United States over Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, there is widespread agreement over the right of Georgia and Ukraine to be accepted into the West's military alliance. A minority within the think tanks is gradually gaining traction as it raises the question of whether the further eastward expansion of NATO makes sense.
Does it? When Russia accepted Georgia's invitation to wage a war that it could easily win, superpower America had no alternative but to demonstrate its solidarity while doing nothing. The Europeans joined in the protest, but some of them, especially the Germans, found reason for skepticism. There is nothing wrong, they argue, with Georgia and Ukraine seeking the protection of NATO. But because the two countries do not belong in the alliance at this point, so went the argument, NATO should give them nothing but non-binding promises.
But the outgoing American administration and many foreign policy experts in the incoming administration are serious about paving the way for NATO membership for both countries. NATO foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in December, and Georgia and Ukraine will be on the agenda once again. President-elect Obama will likely comment on the meeting, thereby indicating whether he has since changed his views on Georgia and Ukraine.
He will not be able to refrain from commenting for much longer than that. He is currently the world president, a title that falls to him because America has a greater ability to change things in the world -- for better and for worse -- than other powers. The world president can decide where or how he wishes to throw his weight onto the scale. After eight years of closed-mindedness, Obama has a great surplus of trust, which he can use to his advantage.
Even America's allies do not expect him to come up with a grand design or a one-size-fits-all concept. But they do expect prudence and gravity. Obama will face many serious crises, and he is well advised to remain what he became in the campaign: a quick learner.
In addition to international crises, he will be confronted with America's own worries and the domestic problems of a country that is a strange mixture of cutting-edge progress in the first world and the bizarre backwardness of a Third World country. The United States is in the most severe crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, as the superpower sees its economic foundation beginning to crumble.
The people who voted for Obama on Nov. 4 included the beleaguered middle class, which has great expectations of him as the next president. White-collar workers have seen their salaries shrink, prices are rising and America, once an engine for jobs, has practically cancelled all production. About 2.5 million people have lost their jobs since January. More recently, the unemployment rate has risen dramatically to 6.5 percent, the highest level since 1994, and it seems likely to continue to rise.
Throughout America, the cradle of capitalism, aging industry is now fighting for survival. For an ordinary factory worker, America is now the land of limited opportunity. The country's Big Three automakers -- Ford, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler -- are now forced to accept government subsidies and new bank loans to be able to survive their billions in recurring losses.
GM alone lost $39 billion (€30 billion) last quarter. That's a greater figure than the profits German automaker Daimler earned in the last eight years. An ugly phrase has already begun appearing in newspapers: liquidity problem, a term indicating that banks have largely lost their faith in GM. Just a few decades ago, GM and America were synonymous with each other.
The Limits of the 'American Way of Life'
The "American Way of Life," that special blend of deliberate recklessness, wanton waste and a touch of megalomania, is reaching its limits. In recent years, the superpower has gone from one careless mistake to the next. The government was too arrogant, the banking industry was too greedy and the economy, after allowing itself to indulge in obscene scandals, was no longer innovative enough to be able to maintain the country's status as an economic superpower. This has left the United States with massive problems of historic proportions.
In no other country in the Western world is so much costly energy wasted. The United States is home to only five percent of the world's population, but it consumes a quarter of its oil production. The United States sends $90 billion to the Middle East in the space of only one year.
In recent years, the engines of US economic growth have not been high levels of exports and exceptional inventions, but primarily the massive debt consumers have racked up. The savings rate in Germany is 11 percent. In the United States it is barely one percent. Everyone, from the government to ordinary credit card customers, lives on credit.
The Bush administration has aggravated all of these problems instead of alleviating them. It has allowed industry to continue to believe that cheap oil would be available forever. It urged the population to keep on borrowing and consuming, so that now -- at the beginning of a deep recession -- it has nothing left to spend. A system has come crashing down. The crisis of capitalism brings to a full circle the loss of moral and political authority after the Iraq war.
The mood in the ancestral homeland of optimism is appropriately pessimistic. It is the insidious simultaneity of the crisis of confidence, the real estate disaster, the drama in the financial markets and the most recent oil price shock that has put American citizens in such a foul mood. In an article titled " Unhappy America," the Economist writes: "Nations, like people, occasionally get the blues."
President-elect Obama cannot wait until his inauguration on Jan. 20. Instead, he must lay out his plans for dealing with the crisis. And he must also announce whom he intends to entrust with the most important post in his cabinet, that of treasury secretary. Rahm Emanuel, his friend and confidant from Chicago, who, in his position as White House chief of staff, will serve as a general manager of sorts, has already said that the president will have no other choice, and that "we must be the government of reform."
For the assertive Emanuel, there are four key programs for the Obama administration: Tightening regulation of the financial markets, tax relief for the middle class, healthcare reform and the nation's energy needs. Market regulation, says Emanuel, will be on the agenda at the upcoming summit in Washington, and it will likely be approved soon. But tax reform, he says, will take longer -- partly because Bush's tax cuts remain in effect until 2010. When it comes to energy policy, says Emanuel, many things are possible today, such as promoting alternative energy projects -- and the same applies to healthcare policy, where the first step will be to provide immediate coverage for the uninsured children of the unemployed.
But where does Obama intend to get the money he will need for these programs? This year's budget deficit will be at least $800 billion. The new president will have to tighten the nation's belt. Indeed, he has already characterized the budget as the biggest of all problems. "We need clear priorities," says Obama.
The examination of accounts that every new administration undertakes won't happen until January. Obama's transition team is currently considering another tax rebate. In America, tax rebates traditionally come in the form of checks sent directly to households, usually the occasion for a small celebration. There are indications that Bush's 2008 economic stimulus package, worth $170 billion (€133 billion), will be followed by an even bigger check from the Obama administration.
As popular as these tax rebates are, though, they wreak havoc on the government's cash position, and their economic impact is debatable. In the new global economy, such stimulus programs are no longer as effective in jump-starting national economies as they used to be. In fact, much of the additional cash now ends up in the hands of importers in Asia.
Obama has also announced a number of social policy plans. The initially hesitant support for his candidacy among white working-class voters in swing states prompted him to make generous campaign promises. The strategy paid off in votes, but now the time is coming when he will be expected to make good on those pledges. One of his key campaign promises was "affordable health insurance for all." Forty-seven million Americans are currently uninsured -- nothing less than a scandal for such a wealthy country.
Another of Obama's campaign promises, sometimes voiced several times a day, was a $150 billion (€117 billion) infrastructure program. Its goal is to repair the country's ailing infrastructure, create new jobs and advance protection of the environment. Obama plans to implement this program, even if its scope has to be reduced and the planned 10-year time frame prolonged.
Nevertheless, Obama can't possibly please everyone, despite the long list of pledges he made during the lengthy campaign. He will have to decide whom to disappoint first.
The Obama team knows only too well that the worst enemy of an Obama presidency will be within the Democratic Party ranks. In two other similarly overwhelming victories for Democrats -- in 1964 and 1992 -- the party pushed through its wish list. But the tax increases and new social programs for the poor that they implemented horrified swing voters. It took only two years for the Democrats to lose their majority in Congress, as well as the nation's good will.
Obama, on the other hand, has promised to overcome the culture wars between the parties and divisions within the electorate. In his acceptance speech on the night of the election, he said: "We rise or fall as one nation, as one people." And in the end, the 44th president will rise or fall with the success of the reforms he has promised his country, which both wants and needs reforms.
"This president is going into office with more expectations than any president I have ever seen," says Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives and Obama's most important contact for all the laws he hopes to enact in order to bring change to the country. Because of the enormity of the challenge, Obama will likely attempt to advance his reforms one step at a time, not all at once. He will "govern the country from the center," says Democratic Party strategist Tad Devine.
This would be the most reasonable approach, too, because America is still primarily a conservative nation. In surveys, Americans are much more likely to call themselves conservative than liberal. Obama cannot change this, but he needs advocates who are willing to make compromises, and he will seek some of them from among the so-called Obamacons -- Republicans who supported him during the election -- including such high-profile politicians as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On Jan. 20, the four Obamas will move into the White House in Washington, accompanied by parties and balls and perhaps the kind of pageantry that would suit the historical significance of the day. The new president will change Washington, and Washington will change him.
The American capital likes to adore its new president and allow itself to be shaped by his character. Bill Clinton's Washington was a jazz mecca, while Bush's Washington is a sleepy place. The current president usually retires to his bedroom by 9 p.m. He never went to parties, and the New York Times described a wild night for Bush as a dinner at the home of his former strategist Karl Rove in the city's Kent neighborhood.
The Obamas, on the other hand, are seen as cool, modern and fun-loving, and it will matter very little whether Barack and Michelle prefer to spend their evenings helping the girls with their homework or playing cards -- life, or so Washingtonians hope, will return to Washington with the Obamas and their generation. The fashion magazines have already declared Michelle a style icon, the first since former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Barack Obama will soon be president, and no matter how his presidency ends, Nov. 4, 2008 will have changed the country. He said as much in his speech to fellow Americans and the entire world on that Tuesday evening in Chicago. In Grant Park, near Lake Michigan, his listeners already felt that nothing was the way it once was. "The city changed in that one night," says Joan Harrell, "people had smiles on their faces."
Joan Harrell is 51, black, sports a haircut as short as Obama's, and lives in his Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the city's downtown. It is a world Obama invokes in his speeches, home to welfare recipients, college students and millionaires, blacks and whites. There are more interracial couples in Hyde Park than in most other neighborhoods in the country.
Joan Harrell lives in a third-floor rented apartment on the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and South Drexel Boulevard, two blocks from the Obama's house. She can see the street in front of his house from her window, can see the concrete barriers and, of course, the police officers who have been posted at the house around the clock for the past two years.
The level of activity has only increased there since Tuesday evening. The eight to 10 police officers Harrell used to count have turned into 16, more people are being asked for identification on the streets, and the bus stop in front of her building has suddenly disappeared.
The day was already crazy enough. Things were looking good for Obama. He was ahead in the polls, and on that Tuesday, Democrats believed in victory for the first time. Harrell went to the Walgreens drug store around the corner, where Obama also shops, and bought Obama T-shirts and Obama sweatshirts for her relatives in Georgia.
When she returned to her apartment, Harrell called her mother in Georgia. The women prayed together, and Harrell watched CNN. When the network declared Obama the winner, she began to cry, and her mother in Georgia cried along with her. Harrell spent the entire evening on the phone with friends and relatives, crying and praying, and when she finally went to bed, at 1 a.m., she still couldn't believe that it had really happened.
But then she heard a helicopter overhead and, looking out of her window, saw the flashing blue lights of police cars. "Obama is coming home," she thought, and then she says: "When I saw the flashing light, I knew that it was really true."
BY KLAUS BRINKBÄUMER, MARC HUJER, CORDULA MEYER, GERHARD SPÖRL AND GABOR STEINGART
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.