The election of Barack Obama to the US presidency is an historic moment and one that will no doubt change the world — or at least the way the United States interacts with it.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Obama’s election is a symbolic victory as well as a real one.
But let’s not get carried away. Even with the best will in the world, the job ahead is bigger than we know. Just undoing the mess that the current administration is creating in its final few weeks could take years, let alone all of the other damage it has done over the last eight years.
As recently as this week Bush has been pushing through changes that will have a lasting effect on the new administration. The New York Times writes that in his last months in office, "President Bush’s aides have been scrambling to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and abortion rights, among others.
"We fear it could take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all of the damage."
Almost a year ago, Australians were also full of hope for a new era of governance that would be marked with compassion, tolerance and consultation (as well, admittedly, as its downside: inquiry fatigue). We also had welcomed the end to a long and dark period of government by a man who had lost touch with his electorate and his mandate.
As public sentiment — and politics — moves on, it’s easy to forget how bad things had become on Howard’s watch. It’s strange to think that in 12 months time the years of George W Bush selling his special brand of misguided patriotism will be a distant memory.
But we also know from recent experience that it takes a long time to turn around the great hulking ship of a national government — especially one so covered in rust and barnacles.
When we elected Kevin Rudd to power, we had high hopes about what could and would change. Twelve months on there is little doubt that the bitter overtones of the Howard years are gone from public discourse, but also that the shine has begun to rub off as election promises get buried in administrative detail, as revolutions become more like evolutions, and as symbolic gestures such as the apology to the Stolen Generations become overshadowed by contemporary policy which contradicts them.
After Bush, Obama has even bigger messes to clean up, and they are not of exclusively national concern: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, the shameful reality of being the second biggest greenhouse polluter in the world, and a looming energy crisis, among others.
The States are in a state, and it will take decisive and often unpopular action to affect such a comprehensive overhaul.
But it is change that Obama has promised: so how will he bring it? There will be plenty of pressure from every point on the political spectrum to interpret this result for him. And there will be a lot of people looking up the definition of "mandate" over the course of the next four years, confused by the arguments that will shortly emerge over just what kind of mandate Obama has been given. How he and his advisors navigate their way through that question will be the big issue in his administration.
Meanwhile, a lot of people are talking about the end of neo-liberal domination of social and political discourse. While we’d welcome that, it’s hard to be so sure about this.
In the wake of the US system’s failures around the Iraq war, the financial crisis and now this election result, people are using the term "discredited" to describe much of the thinking that underpinned these events. However, as far as we can tell, neo-conservatism was discredited long ago — but that didn’t prevent it from exercising enormous power.
The many people in the US and across the world who still believe in the neo-con world-view — and those who find it convenient to believe in it — are not going to stop thinking that way just because Barack Obama had been elected president. Nor is the road going to be smooth as he tries to roll back the administrative excesses of the Bush era (and before). Besides that, a great deal more is needed beyond merely rewinding the mistakes. The world has changed, throwing up new problems that will need new answers.
In this context, let’s stop for just a minute to imagine the alternative again — let’s imagine that McCain had won.
Okay. Now let’s move on.
This election marks a huge step forward for a country and a globe that had been stalled for too long by a dangerous old regime.
But it’s also just the beginning of a challenging and critical time.
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