What is a strong way of saying "ecstatic enthusiasm"? No President has ever had such a hyperbolic welcome. The Second Coming would have been greeted in more measured terms. Then again, much of the reportage assumed that this was a secular Second Coming: a rebirth of America. Thus far, it has been impossible to fault Mr Obama. He has certainly displayed magnanimity in victory. John McCain was equally gracious in defeat. The billing and cooing phase of the new dispensation has some way to run.
Everywhere except in the Republican Party. Despite the defeated candidate's good manners, the Republicans are now tasting to the full the bitterness of defeat. Political power is centripetal. Especially in the United States, the loss of power is centrifugal. Under the American system, there is no equivalent of the Leader of the Opposition. Today, there must be at least 10 Republicans dreaming about a run for the presidency in 2012. There is little prospect of party unity. In the short run, there is only chaos. While everyone else seems entranced by Mr Obama's sunlit uplands, the Republicans are squabbling about Sarah Palin's dress bill. Some male McCain aides are even demanding its return. I know we are in an age of diversity, but this is ridiculous.
The wardrobe wars mask a deeper dispute. A lot of conservative Republicans think that Mrs Palin is a feisty girl who ought to be encouraged. Others, who do not share the culture warriors' fervour, want her stifled. Comparisons with the JFK era are now popular. Governor Palin's Republican detractors see her as the reincarnation of Barry Goldwater, who led the party to a crushing defeat in 1964. But many Republicans revere Goldwater's memory. Those arguments will continue.
The Obama-ites will enjoy that, but some stage, the hard work will have to begin, the hard decisions will force their way on to the agenda. The Russians have already made it plain that they do not share in the global euphoria. While everyone else expresses hope, they exploit weakness. Nor is it likely that Iran, North Korea, al-Qa'ida and the Taliban will be asking for tickets to the inauguration. Then there is the little matter of the economy. No president since Abraham Lincoln has taken office in such troubled circumstances – and even Lincoln only had one enormous problem. Barack Obama could have several. He is also setting a problem for those commentators who are still this side idolatry.
His victory has at least two fascinating aspects. First, he will be much the least experienced occupier of the White House in the era of the imperial presidency. Second, no one knows what he believes. In every previous presidential campaign, there were moments of political nakedness, when the voters were able to see the candidate as he really was. Mr Obama kept his clothes on.
We know that he had one of the most left-wing voting records in the Senate. Then again, Tony Blair arrived in Parliament as a member of CND who had done nothing to distance himself from Labour's ultra-leftist 1983 Manifesto. Mr Blair did what any ambitious Labour MP had to do in those days. Mr Obama got himself noticed while endearing himself to the Democratic Party's activists. Moreover, domestic harmony is a desirable goal; both men have left-wing wives. Early on, the Obama camp had a nightmare that Michelle might unleash herself. A debate between Mrs Obama and Mrs Palin: that would have been worth watching. But will Barack Obama have a Blair-like evolution from left to centre? It is impossible to tell.
His speeches are absolutely no guide. Mr Obama is an orator, but thus far, he has used that gift to create a cloud of exaltation. There are hardly any arguments. The Americans have a term for that type of speechifying: bomfog – the brotherhood of man and the fellowship of God. Barack Obama may well be the greatest bomfogger in history, but at some point, he will have to come down from the clouds.
As well as the obvious challenges, he has one historic opportunity. America has been much the greatest land of opportunity in history, for all its voluntary immigrants. The difficulties arise from the involuntary ones. In the past, the heritage of slavery was reinforced by discrimination and oppression. It is easy for whites to forget just how recently the Civil Rights Movement took place. It is also easy for blacks to forget just how total its victories were.
There is now a large and growing black middle and upper-middle class in the States. Most parents take it for granted that their children will enjoy the same prospects as every other American. But a lot of them have an anxiety; not that their children will fall victims to white racialism, but that they will somehow be drawn back to the ghetto. There are still two mighty obstacles to black advancement, but the whites are not to blame for either of them. They are the very high rates of illegitimacy and self-pity.
Some black politicians make an extremely good living out of playing on the self-pity: Jesse Jackson is a prime example. Their nightmare is that blacks will reach out and grasp the equality of opportunity which is on offer to them. That would put most of the so-called black leaders out of business. So there is reason for cautious hope. Early on, Jesse Jackson made it clear that he did not like Barack Obama, because the candidate was not prepared to suck up to him. Long may that continue.
Some years ago, I remember a conversation with Colin Powell in which he was urged to run for the presidency for a number of reasons, including the blacks. "The blacks need more than symbolism," said the general. "Sure they do," came the reply. "They need lots of things, sometimes including a kick in the ass. Who better to administer it?" Where legitimate grievances exist, they ought to be addressed. But grievance-mongering is not an aid to black well-being. It is a threat to black well-being. A lot of blacks need to be told to get off thy bed and work. At present, alas, no white politician would dare deliver such a message. Mr Obama could.
It is not only black ghetto-dwellers who are feeling a lack of opportunity. The most alarming aspect of the current economic crisis is that none of the experts seem to understand it. So how can anyone tell when it is going to end? We know what is required: a restoration of confidence. But there is an analogy between that process and going to sleep. In order to work, both must be imperceptible. If you worry about getting to sleep, it will elude you. As long as people are anxiously inquiring when confidence will return, it will not.
Mr Obama was right to insist that Wall Street cannot prosper if Main Street is suffering. But a healthy financial sector is vital. The President-elect is taking advice from Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan's predecessor at the Federal Reserve. Although Greenspan stock is now virtually unsellable, Mr Volcker's prestige is as high as ever. But there is a difficulty. Many Congressional Democrats are economic ignoramuses with all the wrong instincts. If they had their way, there would be a forest of new regulations, which would make Sarbanes-Oxley seem sensible (that piece of legislation did far more damage to Wall Street than Bin Laden managed).
That would, of course, help the City of London, just like Sarbanes-Oxley. But the world needs a strong Wall St. It is to be hoped that President Obama understands this. A president who tells blacks that the Civil Rights era belongs to history while reassuring American bankers: that is not how most of Mr Obama's followers expect him to behave. But greatness is not to be found by pandering to followers' illusions. The same is true of re-election. If by next summer, a lot of the cheers have turned to curses, Barack Obama might be on course for a second term and an important Presidency. Nothing is impossible. Thus far – the cliché is inescapable – the Obama story has been stranger than fiction. Yet the real drama has still to begin.Reuse content