January 22, 2008
Among armchair pundits there is a real crackle of anticipation in the air. Like many, I've spent late nights glued to the 24-hour news, hanging on every report, waiting for the latest election count in Manchester or Camden. Yet this is no British election; from the coverage dominating the front pages of our national newspapers, it is easy to forget that we don't have a vote. Not just here, but across the globe, US election enthusiasm is reaching fever pitch - and the main event is still more than 10 months away.
It's hard to recall a campaign like it. Politics feels more alive than ever, fizzing with passion and ideas. The mood at the Fabian conference on Saturday was no different. Everyone has an opinion, and when I straw-polled the audience on who they were backing, it was a dead heat between Obama and Clinton - Huckabee clearly didn't get his vote out on the day. Nevertheless, before chairing Saturday's debate, I began to wonder amid all this passion and excitement whether we are missing an essential truth. That while we are all yearn for change, to see an America more engaged with the world, we forget that this is an American election which will be won or lost mainly over competing domestic platforms.Camden, South Carolina or New Hampshire, despite the shared language and familiar faces, are steeped in a very different political culture than their British counterparts.
We must, in these heady days, realise that a Democrat will not change America overnight. It takes time to turn a complex nation of more than 300 million people into a force for internationalism. Indeed, pinning too much hope on one figure risks raising expectations far, far too high. Indeed, the Bush presidency still has a year to run and the Republicans may still win in November. Putting the Middle East peace process on hold or delaying action on climate change cannot be predicated upon a hypothetical future yet to be realised.One thing is for certain: Americans are not focused on electing a foreign policy expert to the White House. Nearly every American presidential election winner in the last 30 years has had to campaign strongly on domestic issues in order to win. George Bush Snr's foreign policy experience was no match for Bill Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid." And in 2000, Gore clearly had more foreign policy experience, while Bush Jr struggled to name world leaders. In the end, foreign policy experience counted for little.So we shouldn't be complacent about the outcome. I am by nature an optimist, and not alarmed that the average American is looking for a domestic vision of change. Perhaps, if we are honest, things are not so different on this side of the pond in Camden or Manchester; it's local schools, hospitals, crime and housing that are the big issues.
The eventual winner in November will have been elected because they have the answers to questions of working people's insecurity, the economy and universal health cover. Whether they are isolationist or an internationalist by nature, like their immediate predecessors, they will have to engage with the world dealing with challenges as they arise. Expectations are obviously high, but, like everything in politics, we need to be mindful of what we wish for, and recognise that although a different president will bring change, the new incumbent will also represent American national interests first and foremost.
I will continue to be glued to the coverage, and quietly rooting for Obama. I do so passionate about change, and confident we will see a more open and engaged America, but also realistic about the prospects for American foreign policy. We should be ready to engage with the new occupant of the White House whatever their political hue.
David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham and Minister for Skills in the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills