Barack Obama: The audacity and the expectation

Barack Obama's audacity and hope is rewarded in the morning when he's finally sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Many worry about the pressure of expectation, but it might not be as overwhelming as they fear

In the lead up to tomorrow's inauguration, I've been re-reading some of my Barack Obama file, especially two stories in Time and the New Yorker that ran before he announced he would run for the presidency. There's a tone underlying both stories that he's the too-good-to-be-true candidate, the dream good-guy candidate who you interview for the sake of democracy and write a nice piece about safe in the confidence that he'll never actually be elected.

Yet tomorrow, the dream comes true. A young(ish), African American man; a liberal Democrat who grew up mostly in a small, politically irrelevant state and has no military service record; a conciliatory urbanite with a splendid academic record and a sometimes professorial manner will become President of the United States.

Much of the theory in those early stories was that he didn't have the fight in him. He was too reasonable, too respectful of differing opinions, too on-the-other-hand, to determined to put the United back in USA. The code was that he was naive. And that's not counting the simple fact that he's black and was running against a Democratic hero in Hillary Clinton and a national hero in John McCain.

I noted in the margins of the New Yorker piece, "in this campaign he's the dream. Hillary's the reality". I underestimated America's love of the dream. The change America wanted wasn't just from a bewildered president to a competent one; America wanted to believe again.

In Time Joe Klein suggested that to run for President, Obama would have to "overturn all the standard political assumptions". And so he has.

The funny thing is that just hours from this staggeringly hyped, seemingly magical ceremony, the impossible candidate now just seems so right for the job. He so far seems to be handling the pressure with grace; he's relaxed without seeming slack. The pundits are expecting him now to "recast" the presidency and re-imagine America, all before lunchtime.

There has been a lot of talk about expectations and anticipation of Roosevelt-like successes. The reality is that he will not – he can not – live up to the superhuman results some expect from him. Having said that, concerns about crippling expectations are over-egging the reality of the situation.

Most expectations will lie with the economy. Yet if he can only get Americans buying imports again he will keep much of the rest of the world happy, and if he keeps Americans in their jobs it will enough. The clouds of doom over the world's economic transactions are so dark that even the merest ray of sunshine will gladden people's hearts. In other words, no-one expects him to deliver 90s-style prosperity in 2009; he just needs to just avert disaster. What's more, the credit crunch is losing its grip and – an unnerving growth in protectionism aside – a global consensus has grown around the government-led policies needed to weather the storm of recession.

No, there won't be peace in the Middle East by next Christmas, Iran won't stop trying to grow its hold over the region, Pakistan won't stabilise in a hurry, Africa won't suddenly shake off the chain of corruption and Putin's Russia won't suddenly pull its head in. But he can "end" the Iraq war within the next year or 18 months and many of the inevitable failures will be worn by Hillary Clinton. Again, that will be enough for a while.

And what many non-American observers miss is that Obama will be judged most on other, domestic issues; issues that have had little attention since he won the election. First will be healthcare. He has promised universal healthcare and he has the congressional numbers to deliver it in his first two years. Think about what the public health system has meant to New Zealand in the decades since it began, how integral it is to our way of life and political debate and you get a sense of how this will change so many Americans' lives.

Second comes the issue of climate change. Obama is already promising billions towards a Green economy, using it as a jobs machine, and is committed to a cap and trade system. He may wait until next year to pass any final law – waiting until a new international climate change consensus has formed and been agreed at an all-important UN conference in Copenhagen in December.

Along with the economy, those are likely to be his marquee issues this year, and making progress on all three is not as daunting as some make it sound.

But as we wait for the work to begin, let's enjoy the spectacle and history of tomorrow morning, shaking off the cynicism for a while and enjoying the power of dreams that come true.

PS: The speech... Has a politician's meeting with a microphone ever been more anticipated? In case you're interested, the shortest inauguration speech was George Washington's second, at a mere 135 words. The next one, by John Adams, had 700 words in the third to last sentence alone. But the longest address was famously by William Henry Harrison in 1841. It's famous because it killed him. As the then-oldest candidate ever to win office, Harrison, 68, didn't want to look feeble and so determined to make his speech hatless and without an overcoat. He spoke for more than two hours, caught pneumonia, and died a month later.

The best inaugural speeches, everyone agrees, were Lincoln's (with his second regarded the best of his two, because it bound the wounds of the US civil war). JFK's is thought to be next best. Until tomorrow, at least.