Series: 2008 in review
Facing the future
Key questions for 2009
After a year dominated by the global credit crisis, the election of a new president in the US and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Observer writers look ahead to the issues that are likely to dominate headlines next year
- The Observer, Sunday 28 December 2008
In one of his more intriguing koans, George Bush, when asked about his legacy, responded: “In history we’ll all be dead.” As 20 January, Inauguration Day, approaches, all I can think is: “L’histoire est morte. Vive l’histoire!”
To me, the election of Barack Obama feels like a new lease on life. Of course, I don’t underestimate the challenges that his administration will face in this war-torn, financially distressed, globally overheated moment. But perhaps it’s because we’ve hurtled so far downward in recent years that I am optimistic: frankly it is much, much too easy to imagine an alternative universe, a veritable slough of despond. We Americans came very close to electing John McCain and Sarah Palin. Imagine this interregnum if McCain were filling his cabinet with insiders from the Bush White House. Imagine what Sarah Palin’s budget for clothes might be, just for the swearing-in ceremony alone. And imagine the savoury distractions: Last week, for one juicy if unfair example, Palin’s pregnant daughter’s fiancé’s mother (or “Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy’s mama” as the tabloids gleefully dubbed her) was arrested on drug trafficking charges.
Really – how could one not be panting with relief and a sense of promise just now? As the Palin family soap opera continued to unfold, Obama was busy rounding out his cabinet with the nomination of Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy. Chu is a physicist and Nobel laureate whose work centres on green energy alternatives. An actual climatologist! O joy and hallelujah!
President-elect Barack Obama (Lord, I love the feel of that on the tongue) really does represent a profound change of thought and direction for the US. Whether he can accomplish all that some of us hope remains to be seen, but the very fact of the change is sustaining. He’s intelligent, well-informed and thoughtful; for the most part, he has surrounded himself with the same. He’s also an unparalleled source of inspiration, giving the term “role model” whole new vigour. A young friend tells me that the Barack Obama action figure is selling like hotcakes, literally leaping off the shelves, something few black action figures have ever done before. “It’s got moveable joints,” exults my friend. “And it points!” Towards the future, I’d warrant. Yes, we’ll have to see just how far symbolism can get us, but in Obama’s case it’s already farther than one might have had reason to expect.
So here’s my New Year’s shout-out to us all: Season’s greetings, global friend!/The Great Mistake is at an end./Whatever gloom may yet portend,/ Just think what Heaven did forfend.
Patricia J Williams
Professor of Law at Columbia University