Obama's promise is global

A black president would mean most abroad, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

October 2, 2008

They keep telling me it's a "historic" election. This is a politically correct way of saying, "This time a black man will win." Although the media like to ratchet up the tension by pretending that the US presidential candidates are neck and neck, it is practically impossible for Barack Obama to lose.

The current Republican Administration has brought the world to disaster - although admittedly not many US voters care about that - and the country to the brink of ruin. Voters suffering from the effects of electing George W. Bush are not going to make the same mistake again.

The demographics of this election will be decisive. There are relatively strong concentrations of Obama's core voters - racial minorities, the young, the educated middle class - in most of the key swing states. The Democrats' organisation for whipping up the turn-out seems to be in better shape than ever before.

In the US, millions of dollars buy elections, but millions of voters abandon them when it comes to polling day. Because elections are always close, you need to get only a few thousand of the disenfranchised and self-excluded on to the register and into the booths. The Republicans performed the trick last time by bussing backwoods evangelicals to the polls.

This year, first-time voters are going to be overwhelmingly for Obama. Only two surprises can keep him from the presidency. A scandal or a successful lie campaign could undermine him, such as the "Swift Boat" allegations against John Kerry's patriotic credentials that wrecked the last Democratic contender's chances. Or some terrorist outrage or a turn in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan could re-burnish John McCain's renown as a mythic war hero and security expert.

So the historic outcome is on the cards. And frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. This is not just because the foregone conclusion makes the race boring. As a resident of the US, I can work up no interest in a contest that seems doomed to make no difference.

The election has lost importance on my side of the Atlantic partly because of the sheer intractability of America's problems.

Obama wants out of Iraq. McCain is willing to stay there for a hundred years. In practice, they will have to split the difference. Wars are smooth-sided pits, and there is no quick or easy way out.

The cost of war makes the country's economic difficulties intractable. The mother of all bailouts is going to leave the Treasury in pawn indefinitely.

The expense of rescuing the fat cats from their hot tin roofs will dissolve the Democrats' dreams of social programmes and renewed infrastructure. No one will bail out the poor or reinvest the arms budget in health care. Change is a luxury America can no longer afford.

In any case, with every day of the campaign, the candidates look more like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dumber. Their convergence was always predictable. Candidates invariably start by grappling the party faithful to their souls. They spend the rest of the time smooching the moderate majority and sounding ever more alike. They end up advocating the same, safe, standard, popular policies.

Both parties now claim to want to prioritise security, bail out the banks, punish Wall Street, clean up Washington, fight on indefinitely in Afghanistan, defend Israel against all comers, drill for oil in hell-bent frenzy, and to kill fewer unborn babies and more murderers. Where their declared policies are different - on Iraq, on Iran, on taxation, on immigration and on free trade - we all know that circumstances will drive them to the same non-solutions.

If I am right about voters' inclinations, the colour of the president's face will change in the new year - but not much else.

I have not been in the US long enough to be hypocritical about race. The hypocrisy is especially strong in the university sector, where colour-blindness policies are a mask for positive discrimination. We are not allowed to know the race of job applicants, but we search the CVs for clues to candidates who will boost our departments' racial diversity statistics.

I am genuinely colour-blind. As revanche for historic injustice, having a black guy in the White House seems to me to be what they call chicken feed in Dixie. In other respects, the colour of the president's skin makes no difference.

But as well as being a US resident, I am a citizen of the world; so I know I should be enthused - even impassioned - by Obama's prospects. If the people of the US signal that they are willing to spear the Great Satan by electing a black leader with Asian and African roots and Muslim relatives, there will be a chance, however faint, of reversing the global anti-Americanism that the Bush years have built up.

If Obama wins on 4 November, nothing much will change - despite his rhetoric and his promises - in America. But the outcome could change the world.

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