The dream comes true?

I have a dream that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

The saying goes that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. And that’s certainly been true of the financial crisis gripping the world which really got going in the US sub-prime housing market.

So it’s understandable that all eyes this morning are on the senator from Illinois. Barak Obama, the first African-American to be elected as leader of the free world. And by some considerable margin, too. I don’t completely understand the way the US elections work, but he won 349 electoral college votes, compared with McCain’s 162.

The voter registration riots of the 1960s were only a few years before I was born, so it’s a measure of how far the US has come that the electorate had a choice between a black president or a female vice-president (and I don’t believe we’ve heard the last of Sarah Palin either now she’s had a taste of the limelight). I think one of the most memorable sights of this election has to be that of the Reverend Jesse Jackson in tears at Obama’s victory speech. The world wasn’t ready for him in 1984 or 1988, but it’s ready for Obama now.

The question of course, is what now? Once he’s inuguarated in January, will Obama do the things he said he would? He’s promised tax-cuts, and better health-care access for the millions of uninsured people, all of which will cost money when the country is deep in recession.

He does have a few things on his side though. For starters he’s not Bush, and there’s a massive amount of international goodwill towards him as a result. Then there’s the fact that historically, equity markets tend to get a boost after a US election and those boosts tend to be bigger when the victor is a Democrat. And don’t forget that one of the most successful and popular presidents of the 20th century, Franklin D Roosevelt, was elected at a time of severe economic crisis.

Whatever Obama ends up doing he will rely upon his gift for communication, his relative youth and vitality and the huge swell of confidence that the country is now experiencing. He may not be able to solve the global financial crisis just by being elected, but if he can keep that feeling of confidence going, it will go a long way towards making people feel that things could get better. And when things improve in the States, they will improve here – it’s the way the world works.

One caveat though. I remember the huge swell of optimism in May 1997 when I stayed up all night to watch another young, charismatic politician sweep aside the old order with a landslide victory and the promise that things could only get better.

And they did, for a while. But 10 years later we couldn’t wait to get rid of Tony Blair.

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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