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Friday, 7 November 2008

7 November 2008

WASHINGTON DC -- I always enjoy it when pundits are proved wrong, even if the pundit is me.

For example: remember how they said Spanish-speaking voters wouldn’t vote for a black candidate in the presidential election? They did, by more than 2-1.

How blue-collar working class voters wouldn’t support a smart Chicago lawyer? Yes, they did, in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

How voters lie to pollsters about supporting a black candidate, because they don’t want to look racist? If anything, it was the opposite … it seems that slightly more people voted for Barack Obama than the polls suggested.

Oh, and how I went to Missouri in September, because Missouri always gets it right? Er, not this time, it seems, because the unofficial indications are that by the slimmest of margins, it went for John McClain, even while Barack Obama was basking in victory.

And here are a couple more little nuggets for you. Obama won the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976. He won 43 percent of white voters and 96 percent of black voters. But despite a massive drive to register new black voters, national turn-out among blacks was just two per cent higher than last time.

A columnist in the New York Times yesterday called this week’s election “the first real 21st century election … As a nation, we rejoin the world community. As a sustaining narrative, we found our story again.”

I think that may be over-stating it. America is still split down the middle – there are nearly as many people who weren’t persuaded by the Obama oratory as those who were … and for all the jubilation out on the streets of the major urban centres, there are still many millions of Americans who view the prospect of an Obama presidency with forboding.

And yet. Can you think of any other country which has elected as its head of state someone from a minority community? The only one I can think of is Peru, which in 1990 elected Alberto Fujimori as president. (Not a happy precedent, in fact: he’s currently serving a six-year prison sentence for abuse of power.)

The symbolism of a black president in the White House is over-powering, and if you doubt its significance to African Americans, just listen to my interview with the writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, which was broadcast on The World Tonight and Newshour on Wednesday evening and is still available online.

The scenes of enthusiasm which greeted Obama’s victory were stunning – Washington on Tuesday night felt a bit like I remember London feeling on that night in May 1997 when Tony Blair was first elected. A new beginning, a fresh start, a young leader with a young family, brimming with ideas and energy.

This is no time to dampen his supporters’ enthusiasm. But as their euphoria begins to fade, they will have to acknowledge that excitement will soon give way to the gruelling reality of governing an America that’s in the grip of a deep economic downturn and embroiled in two messy wars.

It has been a fascinating week to be in the US – and the Obama presidency will be well worth watching.

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