When writing about an election before the results are known, it’s tempting to follow Karl Marx’s example from his days as a journalist. “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself,” he wrote to Engels. “But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” But what the hell — let’s throw caution to the wind and assume the polls are correct.

When assessing what to expect from Obama, it’s useful to look back at the Bush era, now dribbling to its ignominious finish. With the global financial crisis rounds off eight years of calamity and disaster, there’s a natural tendency to pretend that the W years were simply the work of that “cowboy retard fellow”, as Russell Brand winsomely put it. But of course they weren’t.

It takes a village to raise an idiot, and every one of George Bush’s catastrophes was facilitated by some of the smartest political operators in Washington. The invasion of Iraq wasn’t just some whim of Dubya’s; it was something for which a considerable portion of the US political class had been pushing since the mid-nineties.

Despite the fantasies of some of the people in those McCain crowds, Barack Obama is neither a Kenyan Saul Alinsky nor a Muslim Bill Ayers but a mainstream American Democrat, who shares many of the assumptions as the mainstream Republicans. His economic advisers are for instance, orthodox Chicago Boys, and on foreign policy he’s much more hawkish than is generally acknowledged — promising, for instance, more troops for Afghanistan and further cross border strikes in Pakistan. The loathsome Christopher Hitchens, now an Obama supporter, asks: “Does Sen. Obama appreciate, or do his peacenik fans and fundraisers realize, just how much war he is promising them if he is elected?”

But the other lesson from Bush’s two terms is the extent to which a presidency is shaped by external events. It’s easy to forget, with W breaking all records in the unpopularity stakes, that, in the wake of 9/11, he enjoyed something like 90 per cent approval. Well, if 9/11 and its aftermath gave Bush political capital to expend on his various misadventures, President Obama takes office in an utterly different context. He’s assuming responsibility for two wars, an environmental crisis (remember that?) for which no-one has any easy solution, and the worst economic conjuncture since the nineteen thirties. Which all means that, for the foreseeable future, the American presidency will be about administering pain, both locally and abroad — and that would be the case whoever held the post.

Nonetheless, there’s two outcomes from today that are definitely worth celebrating.

Firstly, the win for Obama will throw American conservatism into chaos, in much the way as the defeat of Howard derailed the Australian Right. Already, you can see signs of how the political tectonic plates might move, with various conservative intellectuals distancing themselves from the moose-shooting brand social conservatism represented by Sarah Palin. There will be more of that in the weeks to come — a prolonged circular firing squad — as the great right-wing noise machine turns its viciousness inwards.

Secondly, the election of Barack Obama is of tremendous symbolic importance for people of colour in the US and around the world.

“Black skin is not a badge of shame,” Marcus Garvey once wrote, “but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.”

Those words take on a lot more weight now there’s a black man in the most powerful office in the world. And that, at least, is something.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey