On January 20 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. The election was one of the most eagerly anticipated in living memory, with media coverage reaching an unprecedented level in the US and across the world. For Dr Martin Durham, Subject Co-ordinator for American Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, the election result marked an important historical moment for the country he has lectured on for the last 20 years.
“I think it was very significant. It is going to be seen as a major shift in race relations that someone who is from a half black heritage has achieved the highest position in the land,” he says.
“The other way it is important is that it will shift foreign policy. Obama may have to be in Iran or Pakistan and be more militaristic than you might expect. But he wants to withdraw from Iraq and have a better relationship with the world.”
Dr Durham argues that the turning point in the election was the economic crisis. The candidates – Democrat Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain – seemed close in the polls, with McCain playing heavily on his experience and ability to lead.
“John McCain was doing reasonably well until the economic situation hit crisis point. If it had been a security election, McCain would have won. Some of the comments McCain made about the economy made him seem very distant from ordinary people’s fears and pressures.
“There was a risk Obama would seem distant or too academic but he improved greatly. He now has got to do well with the economy in the first few months and it would be good if he could do well with energy and education – but he also has to stave off the recession and improve people’s situation.” But Dr Durham also states that out-going President George W. Bush experienced a ‘honeymoon’ period following his election in 2001.
“I wrote an article on Bush after he was elected as president and I was affected by what a great election winner he had been, and the early signs were that he was, surprisingly, good on education. It is hard to remember the honeymoon period though.”
In addition, there was a wave of sympathy for America in the immediate aftermath of the terrible 9/11 terrorist attacks. Dr Durham recalls that French newspaper Le Monde used the headline: ‘We are all Americans now’ to show support for the country. But this did disappear.
“America was seen as imposing, arrogantand militaristic. Obama will be seen as – and practice – working closely with other countries,” Dr Durham argues.
He believes that Obama will get on well with both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the opposition Conservative party in Britain – although there may be problems in some areas of Europe.
“There is a lot of warmth towards Barack Obama in Britain and Western Europe – it is an amazing chance to get on with a large section of Europe. But he may have problems in Eastern Europe, where some quarters might not see him as the best choice.”
Dr Durham also believes there could be an added benefit to Obama’s election as president – more people will be interested in American politics and history, which could also lead to an increase in the number of students taking courses in the subject. And within days of the election result, Martin was making changes to relevant modules on the University of Wolverhampton’s BA (Hons) American Studies.
“I have already been adjusting my PowerPoint slides to feature Obama!” he says. “There was certainly a buzz among students during the Presidential Elections.”
The School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences course focuses on the cultural, historical and political development of the USA and includes many areas where the election of the new President will be relevant. Students are given a comprehensive introduction to American Studies in their first year, with modules in American government and politics in the second year.
As the interest around the election and the recent inauguration shows, America is a country of such rich history and renown that it can capture the imagination of people from all walks of life and across the world. And there is no sign of the excitement, interest and expectation about the new President waning as he embarks on the biggest challenge of his life.