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From the frontline of the US presidential race

Thursday, November 6, 2008
From the frontline of the US presidential race

Dr Brian McDonnell, senior lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University’s Albany campus, is on a Fulbright Visiting Lectureship teaching New Zealand Studies (film and literature) at Georgetown University, Washington. This is his first-hand account of the US election.

It has been a hugely exciting time for me over the past few months to actually be here in the United States, and especially to be in Washington where politics always rules. For me it's been a real privilege to be able to witness in person such an historic Presidential campaign climaxed by such a moving night of victory for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

It's been particularly stirring to be right in the cockpit of change in the nation's capital, surrounded by all the historical monuments to past Presidents and past conflicts, and observing everything in close-up. Of course, with the availability of live television pictures, New Zealanders can get some of the thrill of what's happened, but believe me there is nothing so vivid as being here on the ground for such an unrepeatable occasion. One of my students is Joe Biden's niece and she has given me a more personal insight into the Democratic campaign, one that I feel lucky to have had contact with.

It's almost a cliche to say the atmosphere of this election has been electric. But it's accurate in this case. Obama's rise has been so meteoric that it is hard to take in.
Sure, the economic downturn and the unpopularity of President Bush and his wars, made the timing ripe for change. But Obama has had to overcome a canny fighter in Hillary Clinton as well as all the other Democratic contenders, and to see off the challenge of John McCain with all his folksy ways, his compelling life story, and his tenacious fighting spirit.

Throughout it all I have been struck by Obama's poise, confidence, intelligence and ability to command and organise the best campaign team in living memory. For a while I thought he was too academic, unemotional and cerebral for broad appeal to Americans and he definitely took time to adjust to the entry of Sarah Palin into the race but, as with every other challenge, he absorbed that pressure and emerged as unruffled, imperturbable and elegant as before.

Some criticise him for glibness and wonder if his fine words can be matched by action, but I think his hyper-eloquence is the real thing and that he has authentic leadership genius. I hope that the hard realities of being President don't cut too deeply into the euphoria his victory has set off.

Everyone around me here, from Democratic colleagues at Georgetown through to Republican neighbours in my Northern Virginia community, to people of all ethnicities I speak to on buses and trains, to my own students - all acknowledge the historic sea change we've witnessed.

Barack is the first African American President (or biracial President to be absolutely accurate) to capture the White House, and his accession also marks a generational change in national leader as clear as did Jack Kennedy's win in 1960. And on election night 2008 it was that realisation that I think made so many people throng to the parks and the squares and the streets to soak in the atmosphere and participate in history being made.

For me, as something of an outside observer, there has been fun too amid the rhetoric. Political satire is far healthier here than in New Zealand and the TV shows have made great sport out of the pomposity and inanity that feature in any race for power.

'Joe the Plumber', the near-invisible President Bush and especially Alaskan 'maverick' Sarah Palin have all been targets for those who see the funny, even ridiculous, side of public life. Some say Palin represents the future of the Republican Party, but I am more of the view that she is actually the last example of the old culture wars, and that Obama's huge win marks a fundamental shift in the electorate that may consign her brand of brash, anti-intellectual conservatism to history.

As we settle down from the elation of the victory, New Zealand can start to figure out more methodically just what a Barack Obama presidency, and a massive Democratic dominance in Congress, might mean for us in the next four to eight years. In regard to the challenges he faces in both domestic and international affairs, I wish him the best.


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