Well Done, America

02/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Well done, America. Very well done, America. Friends of the United States
have spent ten years tearing their hair in despair. We have been through a
thousand cries of anguish, apologies, murmured curses and pleas that the
White House of Bill Clinton and George Bush "is not all of America, you
know." Tuesday's elevation of Barack Obama and the manifest joy of his
united nation shone through the current gloom as a stab of joy. It was the
dreamed-for moment.

The late Arthur Schlesinger used to say to all skeptics that the
American constitution contained hidden within it a secret self-correcting
mechanism called the ballot. However chaotic the ride, it would take the
country to the brink of disaster -- be it pre-war isolationism, McCarthyism,
Bush paranoia -- yet somehow find a means of retreat. Hope would never quite
die. The constitution was sound, indeed a work of genius.

I have endured many arguments over recent years at which I have
proffered that thesis, with diminishing conviction. The mendacities of the
war on terror, the idiocies of the war on drugs, the final assault on what
had been unshakable American liberties, all required an ever more
implausible act of faith. That faith has had its epiphany.

The rise of Obama is rightly presented as a symbol not a process.
Electorally his victory was no more than a pendulum shift back to the
Democratic Party after the Republican ascendancy. But democracy is a mix of
symbols and processes, of words as well as deeds.

Obama is a symbol and a word without precedent in American history.
To those of us who read his memoir long before he ran for president and
imagined a future for this extraordinary man, the moment is sweet indeed.
Not since the 1940s has the world so needed confident, liberal-minded,
Rooseveltian leadership. It needs guidance out of the morass of western
intervention in the politics of islam. It needs clear thinking through the
collapse of world financial markets. Above all it needs the confidence to
see the past decade as an era of correctable error, not original sin. The
tangled web of democracy and the risks and tolerances of liberty need
reasserting. While Obama's speech was mostly a sprucing up of familiar
clichés, it left no doubt of one thing. Here is a president who understands
the job required of him.

America's leadership has bullied, insulted and misruled the world
for long enough. In doing so it has damaged the sacred covenant of freedom
which, with more than a touch of smugness, it has long abrogated to itself.
Obama may yet prove a disappointment. The task asked of him by his
predecessors, by all of us, may be too great. But for the moment that is of
no account. American democracy has delivered, and done so spectacularly. It
is a moment not just of satisfaction but of exhilaration. Well done,