Monday, 3 November 2008


(A pre-note on Obama’s victory speech, scribbled down in Kuala Lumpur)
A few years ago, well, exactly four, Liz and I were invited to a posh dinner on what happened to be the night after the US elections. The organiser was a good friend, who rushed up to me as we were looking for our seats, looking rather anxious. Tamás - she said - I beg you, please, please, no scandal tonight… As it turned out, we were seated next to an elderly Florida Republican couple, who were full of their recent electoral victory. (They were also partially deaf, which, coupled with the news that they financed the concert the next day, I found - shamefully - very funny. Oh those lovely trills of the violin, the nuanced pianissimo of the flute! Ah!) The reason I bring them up here is that they spent the entire evening banging on and on about how we, non-Americans, had nothing to do with their election, so we should just, plainly, shut up. It was none of our business. Full stop. (They probably said ‘period’.)
Oh irony! Now they will have the chance to vote for the First President of the World. (Unlikely as it is that they will use the opportunity...)
Over the past 18 months or so I have asked so many emerging market economists around the world about Obama’s chances. Now that he is almost there, it might be interesting to recount the universal answer: “That would be amazing. But there is no way it will happen.” The excitement, together with a hushed-worry, has reached an incredible intensity by now. There is very little debate about the real merits of the policies in question, outside the US. But as much as Obama, and Obama’s chance, have become more than the story of a politician in his home country, he has also become the symbol of the non-wealthy world. Tim Russert in his famous reaction to Obama winning the primaries said that he would love to teach history to inner city kids the next day, a point that could be widened to 90 percent of the world’s schools. The World will be a different place Wednesday morning. Or at least the World will think of itself differently Wednesday morning. Which amounts to much the same thing. 
And thus, it is surprising that there is very little analysis these days about the impact of this political opera on the non-US part of the world. Ironically, the US is possibly the most Obama-sceptic place on Earth, even as it elects him to be president. (Bar Iran, of course, if polls of these kind can be trusted at all.)
Yet there is an important policy upshot of Obama’s victory. He will be able to push through almost anything, at least at the beginning. First, he is rather likely to have a Congress and a Senate that will (a) do what he wants, and (b) perhaps even be filibuster-proof. Second, much of the rest of the world sees him as its leader. Unlike the way my Floridian table companions saw it four years ago, then, and to a much larger extent now, much of the world really does have a say. Their ‘votes’ are not counted, but the action of choosing is there, and that could give Obama a mandate on the global level. Obama will be able to push through a global agenda if he wants. Third, the hunger for sensible global leadership was palpable during much of Bush’s second term.  Now though, the global economic crisis presents an issue where new leadership could really make a difference. This offers a space into which Obama, the new political leader of the World, as opposed to merely the political leader of the superpower of the World, could move. 
The time-window will be very short, though. For someone from whom so much is expected, disappointment on specific policy positions could quickly erode political capital. There is no omnipotency in real life. 
This is why I will pay a lot of attention to what Barack Obama, the First President of the World, will say when he makes the very first speech in which he can say something. Tuesday night, American time. 


  1. I am very worried that Obama won't actually win. I believe opinion polls exaggerate his lead by at least 5 to 7% for two reasons: race and voter deregistration campaigns by republicans. I hope to be proven wrong.

  2. If this happened, then there would be more backlash than just the opposite of the current enthusiasm. And that would not merely be due to the policies that the McCain - Palin ticket was to bring. It would be generally regarded around the world, as illegitimate. The global leadership vacuum would thus be accompanied by the new president being outright rejected.

  3. I agree: if Obama loses now without a clear mistake, it will be regarded as a 'stolen' election. That would indeed take away any global legitimacy there may be.

    However, I think the probability of this path is very small. First, the pollsters are aware of the problem, and there is no one better at understanding their data than them. Second, the hyper-organised Obama team is also aware. Their record is pretty good so far...