Simon Schama: The great hope - Barack Obama

44th president - 2009-

Saturday 24 January 2009 02:00 GMT

This essay was published in January 2009, four days after President Obama’s inauguration.”

"They said this day would never come," he began as he faced the ecstatic throng in the downtown Convention Center in Des Moines on 3 January 2008. This was the night Barack Obama became a force to be reckoned with. It was a party without food or drink, but no one needed either. They were juiced with jubilation, the din of it bouncing off the precast concrete. The packed crowd, hooting and hollering, was mostly (this was Iowa) white: all shapes, ages and classes. But amid them were plenty of African-Americans, schoolkids in buttercup yellow T-shirts, silver-haired matrons, tall college boys, who, before the appearance of the candidate, had been rocking and rapping and singing and swaying. They were the gospel choir of The One and the crowd rode the elation as if this was a revival meeting, which in its way it was, the body revived being that of the United States of America.

Obama can play heart and he can play head. He's the classical orator as well as the preacher of call-and-response. That evening he was pitch-perfect; letting the emotional electricity surge before cooling the voltage. He spoke in calculated measures, light on his feet, the basketballing candidate with the nifty jump shot, head turned slightly aside as if tuning in to history's promptings: "I hear you Abe, I hear you Martin; message coming in loud and clear". Then square on again to the crowd, the gaunt gravity broken by a flashing collusive grin; everybody a brother and sister. Right now he owns American rhetoric. And until he came along the standard response of the hacks was to say he's welcome to it, who cares?

In the age of the television spot and the web, formal speeches seemed a redundant luxury; so much embellishment; nothing to do with the engineering of power. But lo and behold it turned out that words were the fuel that turned the pistons after all. George W Bush's inadequacies with language had stopped being a sign of stirling inner strength, or even an endearing comedy. In the age of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, words failed him and so he failed America. The country, it turned out, hungered for logos, but not the pabulum of standard operating procedure for election campaigns, much less talk radio rant. What it wanted were words to bind up America's wounds; words such as Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt managed; words which, in the midst of calamity, could remind the nation of the resilience of its history; the possibilities of a decent future.

So Obama is both blog and blarney; the melder of old and new in American democracy. His footsoldiers leave no e-mail address undisturbed but they also knock on doors to get voters registered; veterans to the polls. They can spin a sharp slogan with the best, but their man knows how to be Cicero when the occasion begs for it. That evening in Des Moines, the rhythm of the sentences was scrupulously scored. The last word of that opening sentence, counter-intuitively falling in a downbeat, the irony allowed to register, throwing the crowd its hit of underdog glee.

"They" who thought the "day would never come" were the thunderstruck operatives of what, until this very evening, had been assumed to be the unstoppable Hillary machine. But it was also the media hacks who had long awarded her the nomination and had written off Obama as too professorial, too liberal, too black and yet not black enough. (The Clintons still had the allegiance of most of the black democratic leadership.) Obama's campaign, the conventional wisdom had it, would be the candidacy of doomed wholesomeness: losers' granola; the Bill Bradley of 2008. Obama was Campus Man, catnip for the sophomores, all finesse and no killer instinct, who would fold as soon as he realised politics was a contact sport. "They" were even some of the Obama campaign people themselves, who, not quite predicting the magnitude of the result in Iowa, had failed to organise any security for the celebration. No metal detectors, no watchful men in metallically bulked suits. He was, after all, still a "Hopeful". Best not to get deluded. Give it a shot, end up with the second spot on the ticket? Not so bad.

"They" were the Republican opinion-makers who had been salivating at the opportunity of a Clinton nomination. Dirt-diggers primed and raring to go, who resented this inexplicable, irritating disruption to their plans. But this was the greatest wrong-footing in post-war electoral history. Beneath all the prime time bloviation that night, the dismissals of the Iowa result as nothing more than a web-geek wonder, you could pick up a faint but unmistakable tremor of unease. Could it be that something stupendously unsettling in the political order was actually taking place? What was that sudden subsidence beneath the feet? Just an untoward event or a political sinkhole about to swallow the entire Roveian Republican ascendancy, along with the doomed Bush presidency? Were things really that weird? Was it all up with the Age of Reagan? As the campaign rolled on through Hillary's fighting comeback, Obama's capacity to brush off everything thrown at him and his unmistakable growth into presidential suit-size drew reluctant admiration from his foes. This was serious. This was real.

There is no point asking whether Obama would have made it were the times not so out of whack. History made him and he made history. It's the test of a formidable politician that he or she can smell opportunity in unfolding disaster and has the resolution to brush aside those who live by more conventional timetables. It has already been said that it's Obama's misfortune to be the first African-American president at a time of acute national crisis. But you can bet he doesn't see it that way; rather as the gift of challenge. Sometimes – as in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln and 1932 with Franklin D Roosevelt – the man and the moment do meet. This is one of those occasions, all the more miraculous for occurring at a juncture when the United States must urgently accomplish two goals usually supposed to be in mutual contradiction. On the one hand, America has to rediscover common national purpose; on the other, it must re-engage with the world. Matters have moved so far and so fast from the sovereign assumption of George W Bush's presidency – that America needed to shrug off the diplomatic niceties of the rest of the world if it was to assert its national interest and protect its security – that the active reintegration of the United States into the global community is now held to be a condition of American recovery.

The woeful side of interdependence has been exposed by financial débacle; but it's now Obama's task to turn it into a strength. Obama's mantra has been that, historically, mutual regard has been as much the American way as rugged individualism. Acknowledgement that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, he often says, is what we owe to those who want to stand on their own two feet, but who have been disabled by circumstances not of their doing, whether that is a missing father, a neglected school, or a catastrophic spike in unemployment. That same truism could be applied from the developed to the developing world; and to the need for concerted international action to arrest climate change. After a long period when attending to others' concerns has been stigmatised as a soft aversion to the exercise of power, Obama wants to reassert mutuality not just as a bona fide American ideal in the tradition of Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt and George Marshall, but one that serves American interests more reliably and more morally than military heft.

It is burden enough that he has to carry the desperate expectations of a damaged United States on his shoulders, but Obama can scarcely avoid a sense around the world that he is the answer to its prayers as well. That somehow he can manage to be a miracle worker in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and in Latin America. The impossible assignment comes along with what he has wryly called his "funny name". For better or worse he is supposed to be president of the planet. Through Barack Hussein Obama runs culture lines that connect Kenya with Kansas; ethnically complicated Polynesian-Asian Hawaii with black south Chicago; Scots-Irish bloodlines with a touch of Cherokee on his maternal grandmother's side. His and Michelle's daughters, Malia and Sasha, bring together west and east Africa; the atrocity of the slave ships with his Luo father's voluntary immigration. It's safe to say that he was not elected president because of this cosmopolitan richness. But it's equally true – and remarkable evidence of the American capacity for national redefinition – that it did Obama no harm either. Once they had recovered from their shock at not getting Hillary Clinton as their long-desired Democratic nominee, the movers and shakers of the Republican party must have gleefully assumed that Obama's name – along with the rich possibilities for its branding him as un-American, not to mention his skin colour, his association with radical preachers and an unrepentant anti-Vietnam war underground militant – precluded any possibilties of his actually winning the presidential election. Americans, ran the received wisdom, might flirt with his exoticism (the usual code word for race) and his intellectual elitism, but they would never actually put him in the White House. Whatever they now said about George W Bush, they had wanted to have a beer with him, had valued and voted the affability factor, the reassuring sense that somehow he was "one of them". Would regular white folks in the heartlands of Indiana, Colorado and North Carolina, really think Obama was one of them?

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about the election of 2008 was that by an emphatic majority, if not a landslide, American voters judged someone called Barrack Hussein Obama, whose complexion in no way resembled the preceding 43 presidents of the United States, to be the patriot to whom they wished to entrust the fate of the country at a time of grave peril. Instead of the decorated Vietnam prisoner of war with the hero's story, the public voted into power a lanky African-American intellectual. On the eve of his inauguration, close to three quarters of the population – a number far greater than those who voted for him – expressed confidence in the prospects of his leadership and administration. Obama's goal of transcending bitter partisanship, of leaving behind the triviality of mutual abuse for a politics of substance – the stance that in every campaign has been discounted as naïve – turned out to voice a national craving that, with the avalanche of disasters falling on America, became simply irresistible. The idealistic visionary turned out to be the smart politician.

Whether this delicate flower of national solidarity will survive the deepening recession or a war gone bad in Afghanistan remains to be seen. But even before a word of what must be the most anticipated inaugural speech since John F Kennedy in 1961 has been uttered, Obama has accomplished something indispensable for the immediate condition of the country: he has restored public trust in the integrity and competence of American government. Against the self-accelerating disintegration of confidence in institutions assumed, as a matter of course, to be more or less dependable – banks, insurance, the stock market, the property market – the mere fact of the Obama administration offers a fixed point around which belief in American reinvention can make a credible stand. Given the ignominy into which the Bush-Cheney administration has fallen, its almost complete loss of legitimacy and credibility, would this have been the case with any incoming administration? Almost certainly not, for the manifold crises that have befallen the United States have had at their core a resistance to the notion that there could be any virtue in acts of the federal government other than those undertaken to secure American power. George W Bush's fatal alternation between contempt for government and panic-stricken plunges into its arms are the logical consummation of the philosophy of Jeffersonian individualism paramount since Reagan. The undisguised masterplan was to use deficits to starve reprehensible (and, as the conservatives saw them, self-perpetuating) public institutions – such as Public Broadcasting, the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency – of funds and so doom them to such impotence that they could be liquidated to nary a bleat of protest. Thus the bureaucratic behemoth would be shrunk to its irreducible minimum – and lo, in the burial ground of the New Deal, a thousand flowers of enterprise would bloom unimpeded by the thorns and tares of regulation.

So ran the true religion of the right. So it was hardly a surprise that the Iraq invasion followed the same game plan. As this view insists that the default mode for every culture worldwide is democracy and capitalism, once the Baath party and Saddam Hussein were removed, the allegedly Western-leaning, enterprise-oriented Iraqi culture would vault to dynamic liberation and its stability and prosperity would become self-sustaining. The feedback loop was unarguable. Freedom would ensure integrity; infrastructure – and temporary security needs – would be funded by oil revenues; and a nucleus of Western entrepreneurial culture would take hold in the benighted autocratic, theocratic Middle East. The stagnant pond in which the insects of al-Qa'ida bred would be drained and life would be grand in Mesopotamia.

It's hard to think of a moment in American history when ideological blinkers got more fatally in the way of an administration's capacity to see the true direction of national history. Iraq desperately needed more and better government, not less. What it got, for many years following the invasion, was an exploded infrastructure in which masters of outsourcing roamed at will. As the United States has learnt to its bitter cost, financial institutions needed more careful regulation, not less. A cyclone of economic imperatives has swept away the bad odour hanging over government since Ronald Reagan declared it to be the problem, not the solution. Ask Detroit's automobile makers and you will find that Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over" turns out to be premature. Government has been recalled, presided over by a chief executive who is unapologetic about its obligations to the socially vulnerable while being under no illusion that its long-term job is to manufacture automobiles or run the banks.

Republican attempts to demonise Obama as a stealth socialist about to impose a radically alien welfare state on the land of the free failed to strike a chord with a majority of American voters. The reason was that, unlike John Kerry, Obama avoided being boxed into the stereotype of the remote patrician intellectual aloof from the mundane hurts of the average Joe and Jane. Paradoxically, Obama escaped this snare (also eluded by the authentically down-home, chicken-fried Bill Clinton) by not pretending he was something he wasn't. No one was going to buy a version of Obama that was NASCAR and Bud six-pack. But the tried and true conservative tactic of unleashing the mistrust of cleverness, of tarring it as suspiciously metropolitan, failed them. Not only because the results of its most glaring counter-example in the 43rd President were all too fresh, but also because Obama embodied a politics that reflected "the way people actually live their lives", as he put it in The Audacity of Hope. Palin kept yelling that Obama hadn't actually done anything, other than strutting his Harvard Law School stuff into the Senate, and in the debate with Joe Biden she turned his record of "community service" into a joke, as if it were no more than a liberal cookie-bake sale. Obama (though not the street-tough Biden from Scranton, Pennsylvania) was oddly passive in response, but nonetheless the message got across that in south Chicago he had organised tenants to demand basic decencies of life from the Housing Authority.

Those were not trivial matters: removal of asbestos; provision of dependable sewage; minimal security against the predation of drug gangs; public schools that were invested in learning rather than being teenage holding pens. This was why in Iowa a television crew driver, raised as a farm boy on a small spread in the south of the state, described Obama's appeal to me as "down-to-earth". A way with words, the sharp mind, didn't undercut that impression. They are of a piece with his conviction that intelligence is not necessarily unpatriotic, that education is an American liberation, and that no government need apologise for securing for its least fortunate citizens the education and health care that make the realisation of the American dream something more than an empty piety.

Two places provided Barack Obama with his unfashionable belief in the possibility of a doctrine of public justice and social benevolence that would accord with, rather than betray (as the right had it) American idealism. Those places are Hawaii and the urban black church. They were the making of Barack Obama, though neither of them has been of much interest to commentators on this side of the ocean who, when they pay any attention, dismiss them as two symptoms of American fantasy: the loud shirt and the credulous hallelujah. But fail to understand them and you will never get the 44th President.

Hawaii was as formative for Obama as rural Illinois was for Lincoln. It's the state that regularly appears in the top deck of administrations spending most per capita on education, health care, public transport; a state unembarrassed about government activism. None of which makes Hawaii any sort of social paradise. It's precisely because the ethnic wound opened when the kingdom was annexed in 1898, (largely at the behest of the pineapple mogul Sanford Dole) refuses to heal, because the relationship between natives and haole whites remains that of colonised victims and imperialists – that the challenge for government to close the gap between extremes of wealth and poverty has remained perenially urgent. The brutality of modern Hawaiian history makes for a state with a restless conscience. All the historical ingredients that made mainland Americans allergic to civic government – above all, the frontier that allowed pioneers to indulge their fantasies of Jeffersonian self-sufficiency – were glaringly absent from modern Hawaiian history. If the islands weren't quite Sweden in mid-Pacific, nor were they the wilder West.

They were, in fact, as much eastern as western. Native codes of kapu – what was forbidden and the power of traditional law to enforce punishment and maintain asylum, followed by the Asian devotion to family paternalism and governing omniscience, generated a different kind of attitude to public ethics than in the rest of the United States. And although the colonising presence of industrial farming and ranching companies followed the classic pattern of unregulated capitalism, even Sanford Dole and his heirs affected the Hawaiian manner of paternalist obligation. Two other institutions – the strong presence of both Protestant and Catholic church missions and their schools; and the American Armed Forces – only reinforced this unembarrassed sense of an ethical order containing the excesses of an entrepreneurial culture. If anything, Hawaii's reputation as a pleasure dome only made the public determination to contain its hedonism within the bounds of social regulation stronger. Hawaii's story runs counter to American mythologies in so many ways. Instead of unlimited space and a fiction of permanent abundance it has always been aware of the pressure of population on limited space and finite natural resources. Though there has been ecological havoc wrought by both dense settlement and the destruction of native species by animal colonisation, the Hawaiian way has been to be aware of the costs of the damage and to take steps to arrest it. Tourists get confined to their beach pens on Waikiki, so the last Nene geese can make it on the rainforest hills of western Kauai. Anyone familiar with the wasted terrain of Lana'I and western Moloka'I with its black plastic sheets, torn and blowing in the wind; relics of pineapple plantations long since abandoned, will understand Obama's passion about the stewardship of the global environment. You could scarcely imagine anyone with a background less like the oil drillers of Midland Texas.

Then, too, Hawaii scrambles the ethnic game in ways that would always make Barry Obama as he was then, ultimately impervious to the obligations of race-identity politics. Oahu, the island of Obama's upbringing means "The Gathering Place" but those who were gathered were exceptionally complicated in their cultural identity. Portuguese and Basque whalers fetched up in Hawaii, as did the Russians and British. The islands are imprinted with Asian strains but none of them match, much less meld; even though Filipinos and the first wave of Japanese migrants came in virtual bondage as sugar cane workers. Some of those who toiled under indentures were Chinese, but they gravitated quickly (as they did on the Pacific coast of the mainland) to dry goods stores, launderers, road builders and cooks. Different generations of Japanese wear the distinctions of their history carefully and precisely; the earliest immigrants a cut above now (rather like convict chic in Australia) later cohorts, including those patriotic Americans who suffered the humiliation and privation of internment after Pearl Harbor, often condescending to the hordes of tourists from Tokyo and Osaka who flood the islands at vacation time. One thing, however, the many Asian-Pacific cultures did share and that was the twinned belief in unremitting bootstrap hard work and the pricelessness of learning.

Growing up black in Hawaii was a whole lot more auspicious than in, say Alabama or south-central Los Angeles, but it was certainly no picnic. Nearly all of those Asian cultures rubbing up against each other shared a disdain for Africans, distinct from white American racism, but an affliction all the more rankling in what, day by day, must have seemed the easy-going pace of Oahu society. What came as a particular blessing to Obama then was the simple fact of cherishing parentage, meaning his mother and grandparents. Barack Obama Sr and Ann (real name Stanley) Dunham could fall in love at university in Honolulu and their union be relatively uncontroversial compared with states where black-white marriages were still a criminal offence, because Hawaii's attitude was relaxed in such matters. In his gripping autobiography, Dreams From My Father (a book so beautifully written that it seems inconceivable it came from the hand of a politician, which, at the time he wrote it, he was not) Obama is unsentimentally clear-eyed about all this. His father and mother, in their respective ways, embodied authentic, if ultimately contradictory, beliefs about American redemption. Barack Sr, the son of a goatherding Luo chief, came to the United States as the epitome of upward mobility through the American opportunity. But it was the pursuit of that same goal that took him away from the conjugal nest when he was offered another scholarship, this time to Harvard. What he left was not so much an African-American as American-African son, just four years old. Ann, on the other hand, represented something like the opposite instinct: that of America as a liberal commonwealth of social conscience. (Her mother, Obama's "Toot", characterised Ann as an Adlai Stevenson liberal Democrat, secular and utopian.) In her own passion for America as school project, Ann reached back to the ideals of Emerson, Bronson Alcott and New England instruction, even though she and her parents were from the world of the Great Plains. During her second marriage in Indonesia, she would rouse the small Barack – seven or eight years old – at four in the morning for crash lessons that would supplement the shortcomings of local schooling.

Obama's education was formative in more than a purely pedagogical sense. It made him wonder: was he to be Barry or Barack? What was the relationship of a child of Kansas and Kenya to the history of African-Americans; their slavery, persecution, segregation and liberation? Should he escape that history or embrace it? Could America escape or embrace it? Oahu's elite schools owed something to the British model as much as the American: uniforms; loyalty codes; heavy duty homework and when his mother sent him back to the island to live with Gramps, the moody, unfulfilled furniture salesman and the indomitable, dynamic Toot, Obama went to one of Hawaii's most serious hothouses of talent, Punahou School. Amid the white shirts and dark ties, teenage self-romance was bound to go black and so he did, complete with Afro, basketball, hard music and a smattering of dope. Dreams From My Father is pre-emptively candid about all this. Scoring off the 42nd President's procrastinations on the same subject, Obama writes: "I did inhale. That was the point." The abrupt and very brief reappearance in Hawaii of Barack Sr who threw his weight around in Gramps and Toot's Honolulu apartment like some visiting district collector from the British Empire, must have only made the boy's role confusion worse. Was he supposed to admire the missing patriarch or drive a stake through his heart?

At Occidental College in California (chosen because a girlfriend had gone there), Barack got the uppermost of Barry. Black politics and Malcolm the charismatic martyr were irresistible. But what Obama took from Malcolm X (he must have read the autobiography rather than just invoking it) was the slain leader's resistance to role-assignments for Black Men: by black Islam, by militant radicalism or by Martin Luther King's Christian exhortation. Obama began to see the addiction to victim-rage as a liability. It was unclear, though, what might replace it. Columbia University, where he transferred for his junior and senior year, doesn't seem to have given him the answer he was looking for. There were more great books; a headlong dive into political theory. But although Harlem was on his doorstep and part of him wanted to lose his doubts east of Morningside Park, his black and white angels continued to wrestle in his head. For some months after graduation, Obama worked as an apprentice consultant to a business corporation in Manhattan. He suited up and bought the briefcase. Hair neatly cropped, he was the African-American In the Office. When he shared his yearning to do something that brought him closer to the tough realities of black life in the cities, the African-Americans who worked at the low-paid cleaning jobs told him they didn't need any more social workers – what they needed were brothers who "made it", who brought the bacon home to the hood.

Barack came of age with the news of his father's death. Obama was 21, living a mournful, solitary life on a block of East Harlem "treeless and barren, lined with soot-coloured walk-ups". Later, he would learn from his half-sister that there had been a sorry decline. Barack Sr, the gifted goatherd's son who had made it to Harvard, had been an oil company executive, then a government economic advisor in independent Kenya. But he had paid a heavy price for standing up to Jomo Kenyatta over the Kikuyu monopolisation of offices at the expense of the Luo. His own job had gone; penury and depression followed and in their train, inevitably, multiple women and heavy drinking. By the time he managed a sad, slow climb back, he had been consumed by humiliation and resentment. The tragic picture liberated Obama from that indeterminate vision of the missing but charismatic father on whom he could project some sort of heroic wishful thinking. Now he knew he needed solid connection; the "hunger for community" that later he would accurately believe America itself craved.

He would find it in south Chicago, though the road to solidarity and success was hardly paved with yellow bricks. Working for the Developing Communities Project, run by a Jewish convert to Catholicism, Jerry Kellman, in the tough projects of Roseland and Altgeld Gardens was an apprenticeship in heartbreak. Trying to mobilise tenants to claim rights to basic services, Obama endured empty meeting halls; hardened cynicism from the city; disbelief among the black churchmen who wrote him off as another naïve, over-educated kid who would high-tail it back to a fancy job when he realised he couldn't build Jerusalem overnight on the south side of Chicago. But just the fact that the first black mayor, Harold Washington, was in office, along with deep reserves of tenacity and the famous Obama unflappability, along with the refusal to back off from the improbable, got him through many of these trials. He earned respect the hard way. And through working with the churches – the vital link to the neighbourhoods – Obama found religion the social way, with Jesus the ethical teacher. Once inside, he made the instinctive, historical connection with the entire history of black self-determination, from the secret slave churches in the south through to the great temple establishments that ran schools and cared for the sick and pretty much everything during the century of Jim Crow segregation. He began to tune in to its melodies and cadences; the music itself, but also the mighty instrument of its preaching, without which the civil rights leaders would have been muffled or distant apostles. From being a listener, he became a speaker, so that when the accusations against Jeremiah Wright's unhinged anger threatened to derail his campaign in March 2008, it was the most natural thing in the world for Obama to deliver the finest of all his speeches, in Philadelphia, in which he undertook to help white America face and understand the long history through which race, religion and the politics of salvation were all braided up together.

So Barack Obama became an interlocutor, discovering that without compromising his own history he could disarm paranoia and make people of opposite minds and backgrounds listen to each other. At Harvard Law School, where he had gone to acquire the sharp knowledge he would need, whether he stayed in community work or, as his inner voices (and friends) were telling him, tested the waters of politics, he became the first elected black president of the Harvard Law Review because he was already seen as someone who transcended partisan alignments. In a bitterly divided institution, Obama was elected with the help of conservatives who saw him as a maker of consensus rather than someone who endorsed radical positions as a duty to his race.

This is how it has gone on ever since. Stereotyped over and again as a presumptuous outsider whose unapologetic reverence for knowledge somehow was supposed to make him tone-deaf to the needs of regular people, Obama has mobilised those who were tired of hearing that the way things had to be was the way they had always been. That went as much for black city and state politics as for the kind of presidential campaign his own was organised to confound. When he went back to Chicago, taking a job in a law firm specialising in civil rights cases, rather than the high-paying corporate position that would have been offered on a plate, there was no question about either his understanding of, or his credibility with, the districts of south Chicago. Marriage to Michelle Robinson, who had gone from a working class background to Princeton, did no harm to perceptions of Obama as someone whose understanding of, and credibility with neighbourhood politics was unimpeachable.

It's true that astonishing breaks have come his way. During the campaign for the United States Senate in 2004, first his Democratic opponent, the billionaire Blair Hull became terminally mired in a bad divorce; then his Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, was exposed as forcing his wife to have sex in public in heavily equipped swinger clubs. This did not go down well with the party faithful. More often, though, Obama has made his own luck. Taking on a veteran black politician, Alice Palmer for a seat in the Illinois Senate seemed a wild gamble designed to separate him for good from exactly the constituency he would have to count on for any kind of political career beyond the city. But time and again, he has caught the change in wind-direction, projected himself as new life for an enervated body politic, whether city, state or country, and time and again he has managed to put together a coalition of support across race, class and the cultures that are presumed to divide the United States into two permanently alienated warring camps. Last year, Indiana was in his column.

He is not all mouth and mind. Though his opponents liked to caricature him as someone who talked the talk while ducking votes, his time in the Illinois Assembly and his shorter tenure in the Senate were certainly not short of evidence that he knows how to deliver legislation that makes a concrete difference to people's lives. In Illinois, hundreds of bills bore his sponsorship and many of them, though unglamorous, were of the utmost importance: securing state funding for free mammograms and prostate screening, for example. In the Senate, he teamed up with the pillar of orthodox Republican foreign policy, Richard Lugar, to sponsor legislation dealing with the security of nuclear waste and to tighten oversight of nuclear materials that might have gone stray inside or outside the United States. What could be more important than that? Well, saving the nation, I suppose. (Let's leave the world out of it for the moment, shall we?) No election campaign or no curriculum vitae could guarantee he is up to the task. But last October, when everything fell apart and the dread phrase "uncharted waters" kept on issuing from the lips of stricken veterans of US political and financial life, Americans recognised a stark difference in the capacity of the two men they were being offered as potential presidents. John McCain imploded in meaningless histrionics, suspended his campaign and marched to Washington to do, as it turned out, nothing in particular. Obama kept his cool. When he opened his mouth it was to say things that, on the whole, made sense to the confused and the panicky. It was a good enough omen to win him the White House.

Calm intelligence will be the necessary but insufficient condition of bringing the United States out of its economic trough. At a time when public faith in those who were entrusted with money, power, credit and weapons has utterly collapsed, it falls to Barack Obama to restore belief in the history and destiny of the American experiment. Who could conceivably be in a stronger position to do that?

So as he took the oath of office on the bible that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861, Obama at last began wiping clean American history of its ancient taint: the promise of equality and liberty, made by the Founding Fathers at the same time that it was denied to its slaves and their shamefully oppressed descendants. A day later, on 21 January, his government was installed on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's great Washington speech, and Obama can now say to whoever will listen that it is truly a dream no longer postponed. All of America can be embraced in that recognition, just as all of America, those who voted for him and those who did not, was uplifted by his election.

None of which guarantees he will be the President his country and the world is hoping for. But I'm prepared to take a bet he will.

In his own words

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

"Americans... still believe in an America where anything's possible – they just don't think their leaders do."

"Hope – Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead."

"Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled."

"If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress."

"I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

"We have a stake in one another... what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart."

In others' words

"Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place."

Nelson Mandela

"Your extraordinary journey to the White House will inspire people not only in your country but also around the world."

Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

"By choosing you, the American people have chosen change, openness and optimism."

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France


As a teenager he took drugs including marijuana and cocaine. He inhaled the marijuana: "That was the point."

He has read all of J K Rowling's Harry Potter books.

The name Barack means "one who is blessed" in Swahili (and, loosely, in Arabic).

He finished repaying his student loan in 2004.

He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics

The Secret Service have objected to his Blackberry habit, claiming that it is too easy to hack into.

At high school he was known as "O'Bomber", because of his skill at basketball. He was also known for a while as "Barry", but dislikes the name.

While he was studying at Harvard, he put himself forward as a possible model for a black pin-up calendar – but was rejected by the all-female selection committee.

As a teenager, he worked in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. He now hates ice cream.

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