Americans Have Never Felt So Excited, and Yet So Depressed

As the nation basks in the warm glow of Barack Obama's win, its wealth and power are perched on the edge of a precipice

One night, in a bar in Zanzibar, I saw two sex workers chatting up a
couple of Germans. The men were in their 50s, paunchy and balding - the
women were young and pretty. It was a painful sight, the Germans plying
the women with drinks and single entendre; the women laughing as though
their lives depended on it, which in a way they did.

But after
a while the true pathos became apparent: the men actually thought that
these young women were interested in them because of who they were
rather than what they had - money. That their dazzling personalities
and dashing good looks had magically transformed them into irresistible
specimens of manhood. Mistaking the possibility of a commercial
transaction for the unlikelihood of sexual attraction, their eyes
lingered on the mirror behind the bar as they started preening
themselves, as though their looks mattered.

Power, whether you
wield it or not, has a way of shading our sense of selves and others.
In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls a businessman seeing Al
Gore shortly after the 2000 election. "During the campaign I would take
his calls any time of day," the executive said. "But suddenly, after
the election, I couldn't help feeling that the meeting was a chore. At
some level he wasn't Al Gore, former vice-president. He was just one of
the hundred guys a day who are coming to me looking for money. It made
me realise what a big steep cliff you guys are on."

The US may be
perched on the edge of a similar precipice. The degree to which it
commands its hegemony through wealth and might (hard power) as opposed
to culture and democratic example (soft power) has long been an open
question. The personal aspiration, individual liberty and social
meritocracy that are central to its national brand has an almost
universal appeal. But how much that ethos makes sense without wealth
and power is another matter. People need a social ladder worth climbing
and something to do with their freedoms when they get to the top.

Caribbean kids been ditching cricket for basketball because it is
faster and slicker, or because it offers the possibility of university
scholarships, riches and fame? Was Obama's victory any more miraculous
than Evo Morales's - he was the first indigenous Bolivian to rule his
country - or do we just know and care more about it because of
America's impact on our lives? What is Sex and the City without the
shopping and the skyline? By almost any count Sweden has greater gender
equality and liberated sexual mores than the US. Yet would the
escapades of four single women in Stockholm stand a chance of becoming
an international blockbuster, even if it were in English? Unlikely.

truth is that American economic and cultural power are so inextricably
woven that to separate them would be to see the whole thing unravel
before your eyes. Both are fundamental to how the rest of the world
views the US and how Americans view themselves.

And yet, with the
simultaneous transition of Obama's ascent to the White House and the
national economy's descent into long-term decline, countervailing
pressures are pushing those two factors in contradictory directions.
Abroad, American political leadership has never been so popular or so
impotent. At home, Americans have never felt so excited about what
their country might become or so apprehensive about where it might be
heading. The next few months are shaping up to be truly Dickensian: the
best of times, and the worst of times.

On the one hand, almost
three weeks after the election, Obama still peers out from posters and
badges. The warm glow of his victory still radiates and few seem keen
to snuff out the flame. On the subway in New York last weekend an
African-American woman in her 50s asked me what I thought of "our new
president". We talked politics until my stop, exchanged a handshake and
a hug. I dare say I'll never see her again.

The disappointing
composition of his transition team (if he was going to appoint half the
Clinton cabinet, why not just let Hillary have the nomination?) has
done nothing to blunt the enthusiasm. Two months before he takes office
Obama enjoys a 61% approval rating. If the rest of the world were
polled, it would be even higher. As his triumph was announced, public
celebrations erupted in almost every time zone. It is difficult to
think of a moment when there has been more global goodwill towards an
American leader, let alone such a dramatic reversal of attitude towards
US leadership.

On the other hand, it is difficult to think of a
moment when Americans felt more depressed about the state of their
country or were less able to enforce their will on the world. Just one
in six believe that the country is heading in the right direction, and
consumer confidence is at a historic low. A country wedded to the
notion that every year will be better than the last, and every
generation more prosperous, has seen social mobility stall and the past
look more promising than the future. Meanwhile, thanks to Iraq and
Afghanistan, the nation's military is hopelessly overstretched and its
reputation for invincibility lies shattered. Diplomatically, it is out
of moral capital. Economically, it is out of plain old capital.

these two trends coincide, they are not moving in lockstep. The
presidential transition is hostage to a definite time period - Obama
will not take the oath for another 57 days. Meanwhile, the scale and
pace of the economic decline is indefinite. Less than two months ago,
Citigroup was one vulture swooping in to feed from the carcass of the
failed Wachovia bank. With its shares now in freefall and its chief
executive in peril, Citigroup now looks set to become carrion itself.
Obama wants to try and save the big three car manufacturers; it remains
to be seen how many will be left by his inauguration.

Obama's win may have been a lesson for the rest of the world, as
claimed by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. "Electing a black
president says around the world that you can overcome old wounds," she
told the New York Times last weekend. "I've said in our case, we have a
birth defect, but it can be overcome."

The trouble is the rest of
the world no longer needs to attend the lectures. "Owing to the
relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military
power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing
among as many policy options," concluded the National Intelligence
Council (which coordinates analysis from all US intelligence agencies)
last week. The report acknowledged that, while the US would remain the
single most powerful force in the world, its relative strength and
potential leverage are in decline.

It doesn't take a genius to
work this out. Which is just as well, since there are clearly few
geniuses in the NIC. Its last forecast, in December 2004, predicted
"continued US dominance", and oil and gas supplies "sufficient to meet
global demand".

It can take time for perception to catch up
with reality. By the time those Germans figured out their true
aesthetic value, they may well have been broke.

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