First battle is to vanquish the great American delusion


OPINION:Obama represents a new sobriety after the drunken delusions of the Bush years. The voters, by saying that he speaks for the America they know, rather than the one they are supposed to inhabit, have transformed America's self-image profoundly, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE


IN THE 2004 St Patrick's Day parade in Chicago, the slot at the very back, just ahead of the sanitation crews that were sweeping up the litter and peeling green shamrocks off the lamp-posts, was occupied by a lonely party of 11 people. It was made up of a tall, lean African-American politician who was running in the Democratic primary for a Senate seat, and his entire campaign staff of 10 volunteers. They had no one to wave to except a few bored stragglers.

The very short time between that St Patrick's Day parade in Chicago and the cavalcade that will take Barack Obama up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington for his inauguration as the 44th president of the US next January underlines the almost impossible nature of what has just happened. Even when Obama eventually won that Senate race he was, in his own words, "an outlier, a freak" whose victory had been the result of "almost spooky good fortune".

Now, the freak is the ultimate insider. He has won the support of a majority of American voters in an election that saw the resurrection of one of the world's great democracies. That majority includes Virginia, centre of the old confederacy. It includes a majority of both men and women and of every age group up except the oldest. It has shattered the template for what was supposed to be permanent Republican rule by bringing tens of millions of new voters, drawn from the ranks of the young and from ethnic minorities out of apathy and into active engagement and by taking the fight into every corner of the Republican heartland.

For that to happen to an unknown Chicago politician is remarkable. For it to happen to an unknown who is black and has a Muslim middle name is stunning. In spite of the long-drawn out two years of campaigning, it has all happened so quickly that it will take some time for Americans as a whole to get to grips with what they have just done.

This Hollywood movie nature of Obama's ascent, the very quality that gives it its magic, is also his greatest challenge. It plays to the three-word definition of American exceptionalism that is so much a part of that country's self-image: "Only in America . . . " The idea that there is no other country in which a nobody can rise from nowhere to achieve greatness is beloved of Democrats and Republicans alike. Obama appealed to it and now he embodies it in a dreamlike way.

A man who, because of the colour of his skin has regularly had white couples throw him the keys of their car outside fancy restaurants on the assumption that he must be the valet, has added the ultimate dignity of office to his personal dignity.

Perhaps more importantly, as we saw in so many moving interviews with elderly black voters, he has given a thunderous official vindication to the dignity of generations of slaves and half-free Americans. People who were denied the vote even in his early lifetime because of the colour of their skin have been able to vote for someone with the same distinguishing mark of African heritage.

There is a genuinely wondrous quality to that transformation. It is a scriptwriter's most exaggerated version of the great American trope of re-invention. But it is, ironically, part of a myth that he needs to bring down to earth: the idea that the US is fundamentally different from, and superior to, everywhere else.

The fairytale quality of Obama's rise actually obscures its true nature. His election is ultimately not about wonder or even aspiration. It is about realism. It represents the moment at which the new American majority comes to terms with what the country really is and rejects a pernicious distortion of that truth. For all his high-flown rhetoric, and all his skilful exploitation of American optimism, Obama represents a new sobriety after the drunken delusions of the Bush years.

This is true at many levels. The mixed-race Obama looks, not like an outsider, but like the America of the near future, an America in which huge states like California and Texas are already "majority minority" and the country as whole will be so by 2050. While the idea of Michelle Obama, as the descendant of slaves, occupying the White House, chimes with a notion of historic fulfilment, the Obamas are actually more representative of America's future than of its past.

The realism, though, is as much about what Obama thinks as who he is. In choosing him, the voters have also chosen to say something about how they now see America. The place that is now in their heads is not the one they have been taught to imagine.

It is not the invincible hyper-power of the neo-conservative world-view that has dominated US politics for the last decade. It is not the best goddamn country on earth - at least not if you're poor or sick or a child of the ghettoes.

It is not a land of infinite promise, but one in which a majority of the working and middle classes have been running very hard to stand still while a small elite has grown unimaginably wealthy. In choosing Obama, a majority of Americans chose to recognise these facts.

This is the paradox of Obama's rise. He won because Americans no longer believe the fairytale he embodies. He won because they see him as the exception, not the rule. If most Americans could still realistically aspire to riches and status, there would have been no need to elect a candidate who campaigned for profound change.

The great story of Obama's move from poverty and obscurity to greatness and glory chimes with them because they recognise it as a dream of how things might be, not as a reflection of how they actually are.

It was striking that the most telling attacks on Obama from his opponents clustered around the idea that he was "un-American". This was partly a racial code, but it also contained a kind of truth. They recognised that Obama does not represent the America they have constructed, with its imperial myths and its patriotic optimism that defies all talk of military failure, social injustice and economic weakness. By saying that Obama does in fact speak for the America they know, rather than the one they are supposed to inhabit, the new majority has transformed America's self-image profoundly.

The task for them, and for him, is now to transform its reality.

Now that president-elect Obama has himself been turned from a magical desire to a reality, the man who occupies that role has to somehow embrace both the realism of his voters and the sense of extraordinary possibility of which he remains the incarnation.

In doing so he has to find a new kind of voice. For the other great paradox of Obama is that his strengths so far have lain in two opposite kinds of language - rhetorical eloquence on the one side and silence on the other.

The eloquence has been obvious in the soaring, uplifting classical oratory, whose return to the political mainstream has been one of the many extraordinary things that Obama has made us, over the last two years, take for granted. Less obvious has been the self-restraint, the biting of his tongue.

In a striking revelation of his own attitude, Obama criticised his Republican opponent in the 2004 Senate race, Alan Keyes, for lacking the "instincts for self-censorship that allow most people to navigate the world without getting into constant fistfights". As both a black man in a white world and a left-of-centre politician in a right-of-centre political culture, Obama has been a master of self-censorship.

It has indeed been the key to his victory. It is part of the preternatural coolness, the mesmerising self-control, that made a young and inexperienced outsider seem so much more presidential than his older, well-established rival.

Arguably, Obama's ability to say very little was ultimately more important than his luminous articulacy. It mattered that he kept quiet as the banking crisis unfolded. It mattered, too, that he found a way of not expressing the deep anger that his supporters feel at the systemic injustices of the racial divide and at the hijacking of the US by right-wing zealots.

He will, however, have to find a way as president to talk about the things he has tended to avoid - race, poverty, injustice, militarism and the end of American global hegemony - without losing his ability to transcend them.

He will have to echo back to Americans their own realistic appraisal of their country's weaknesses while at the same time retaining his amazing capacity to tap in to their deepest wellsprings of belief in change, not as a wondrous possibility, but as a viable, practical project.

That will be hard, but no harder than his extraordinary journey from Saint Patrick's Day to inauguration day.

As that journey reaches its end and another begins, Obama has done enough to answer the question of whether he can meet this immense challenge.

Yes, he can.