Obama built his campaign on a positive vision, but in reality he will be the first US President to manage an empire in decline
How often does a leader know, before he asks us for our votes, what office will ask of him? He mouths the promises of the moment but history may have a different task in mind. The role may be glorious, it may be tedious, but – count on this – it will be different.
Barack Obama declares and believes that he will change America, and that this “makes possible incredible change in the world”.
The accent throughout has been on the positive. Making things possible has marked the whole tenor of his campaign. Hope, optimism, ambition, confidence, reform amounting almost to renaissance – such has been his appeal. “Yes, we can” was a cocky, but not an empty slogan. A deep and swelling sense of the possible, focused on America’s future but rooted in America’s past, has dominated the struggle for the presidency. It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Mr Obama’s promise transfigurative.
But maybe destiny has other plans. America’s fate in the half-century ahead is not to be transfigured, but to be relegated. Steering your team through a relegation can be as important a test of leadership as handling a promotion, but it is a different test. Though he may not yet know it, the role for which the US President-elect has been chosen is the management of national decline. He will be the first US president in history to accept, and (if he has the gift) to teach, not the possibilities but the constraints of power.