And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.
For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Most of what you read and hear today, and in the coming days and weeks, will be puff and nonsense. It is as well, when contemplating Barack Obama's victory oration - so oddly reminiscent of an Oscar acceptance speech - to remember how hollow and ultimately meaningless such occasions often are. Tony Blair in 1997 incarnated similar yearnings, a similar belief in a new dawn: and look what happened to that. For now, Obama represents the triumph of hope over experience. It remains to be seen whether or not he also represents the triumph of style over substance. I doubt if anyone - even the man himself - knows whether he will be a great president, a disappointingly conventional president, or a disastrous one. Yet even this cynic, who saw Blair coming a mile off, is full of optimism this morning.
Some extraordinary rubbish has been spoken and is still being spoken by starry-eyed European lefties - such as Justin Webb of the BBC, who I heard this morning speculating that Obama's victory will see an end to what he called the centre-right orientation of US politics of the last 40 years. Most Democrats are still considerably to the right of Britain's Conservatives, at least when viewed in terms of actual policies, and are likely to remain so. Nor is there any evidence that Barack Obama either wants, or would be capable of bringing about, such a revolution. America's first black president will in all probability be about as radical as The Cosby Show. His rhetoric has been avowedly centrist. Even universal healthcare, something Europeans take for granted as part of civilised life, may prove to be beyond him in the current economic climate. As for abolishing capital punishment, forget it.
The right of the Republican party - the Christian conservatives, the neo-Cons who were behind disasters of the Bush-Cheney years - has been defeated, not narrowly, but convincingly. What this signifies is not a leftward shift but a return to the status quo: the pragmatism of the Clinton years or, indeed, of the older George Bush. Don't forget that the citizens of avowedly liberal California, even as they cast their votes in record numbers for Obama, also voted to outlaw gay marriage.
There was a telling moment on this morning's Today programme on Radio 4, when Jim Naughtie turned to the conservative-leaning historian Niall Ferguson and said, "of course you're disappointed." And of course Ferguson wasn't disappointed - as Naughtie should have been aware, since he was already on record as looking forward to an Obama victory. There are many natural conservatives, both within and especially outside the United States who aren't disappointed either. On the other hand, I suspect that there are many in the international left, who have been absurdly ecstatic at the prospect of President Barack Obama, who are likely to be very disappointed indeed.
Forget the soaring rhetoric, which in any event hasn't been that soaring or even particularly rhetorical. Those who saw the impassioned crowds and heard the repetitive chants of Yes We Can and thought they detected the germ of a populist personality cult, or who paid too close attention to the sermonising of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, or read too many evangelical websites, have been looking in the wrong place. Listen to what Obama actually said, rather than the response it received, and you will find it surprisingly conventional: aspirational, serious-minded, rather short on details, traditionally American in its constant invocation of hopes and dreams. It's the sort of language that Martin Luther King traded in; but then so did Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton was a master of this species of rhetoric - unfortunately, for various reasons, he was seldom able to translate it into reality. But what does it amount to? We need change. We need hope. We need to come together as a nation around a common cause. We need to believe. Yes We Can.
If that is all there is to Barack Obama, then the great hopes he has engendered will evaporate as the reality of a bankrupt economy and dwindling international power hits home. Fortunately, his measured words in his victory speech - like the almost supernatural calmness with which he has comported himself throughout the campaign - suggest that the personal qualities which so many Americans and others have detected in him are no illusion. The symbolism of his victory is, of course, immense; but symbolism, however meaningful (and it is) is nothing without substance to back it up. He will need both skill and luck to negotiate the tough times ahead.
Of all the styles and titles of an American president, the most resonant but also the most problematic is an informal one: Leader of the Free World. America's president, like it or not (and many don't) is ours too. George W. Bush has too often looked and sounded not like the Free World's leader, but as its enemy. Constantly invoking freedom, he presided over a regime of domestic repression and overseas aggression and calamity. Where Theodore Roosevelt spoke of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, Bush shouted loudly and used his stick so often it shattered like Wotan's spear. The Bush years started badly, with an election openly and disgracefully stolen in Florida; and while the attacks of 9/11 attracted worldwide sympathy and solidarity, even at the time there were worryingly many who saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as some sort of come-uppance. This year's financial crisis, with its foreboding sense of economic power sliding inexorably from America's grasp, has likewise been greeted with ill-disguised glee by the country's many jealous and small-minded enemies.
Of course, there were many for whom the Bush presidency was good news. The totalitarian government of China prospered on a rich diet of American indebtedness. The Iranians under the deeply weird and possibly unbalanced Ahmadinejad exploited the disasters of Anglo-American policy in Iraq to build up an influence unknown since the days of Shah Abbas in the early 17th century. Putin's Russia used the shield of Bush's war on terror to do far worse things with virtual impunity. Even the Taliban have survived. The bankers who destroyed (for the moment) the West's prosperity have been well looked after by Bush and Cheney. Tony Blair has already grown rich. By and large, though, the world is an immeasurably nastier place than it was eight years ago, and for that the incumbent has a considerable share of the blame.
I wonder what would have been the reaction if Al Qaeda had struck while Obama was in the White House. The shock and outrage would have been as great, but the sense of fellowship would have been far more acute. There would have been revulsion against Bin Laden in the Middle East, and fewer recruits to the cause. I would venture to suggest that the attacks might not have taken place at all, if only because the terrorist leaders would have been intimidated by the American president's cherished global status.
Barack Obama is the man that the free world (and also much of the world that yearns to be free) wanted as its leader, and it'll be amusing to watch European leaders falling over themselves in the stampede to praise and touch him. Expect to hear much less talk in Europe - even in France - of a widening Atlantic, less resentment of American leadership, less enthusiasm for cosying up to China or Russia. This morning's sense of optimism and delight will give way soon enough to pragmatism and reality, but the aura of a reinvigorated sense of American destiny and moral leadership will surely remain.
Already we see the delicious spectacle of American democracy being lauded by the Guardian. "So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world," declares the newspaper that has caricatured the Americans more crudely than most during the past several decades. "Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America's hope and, in no small way, ours too." Savour them indeed; savour their source still more. No doubt the Grauniad, along with the BBC, will return to its default Americaphobia before Obama's first term is over. But here as elsewhere Obama's racial origin will come to his aid; the Guardian will find it harder to attack a black president, even if he is American.
A few months ago, China presented its manifesto for the leadership of the 21st century. Its calling card, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, was spectacular, overwhelming, awe-inspiring, monstrous. Last night the USA hit back. If offered us the spectacle, first of all, of long queues of voters, peaceful, self-organising, patient, choreographed by nothing more than their individual commitment to the democratic process. And then a man, standing on a stage, enunciating and embodying dreams. He spoke of change: but there is one change that no-one should want to see, and that is a change in global leadership from the free to the unfree world; a world which gives up on the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, opting instead for the Chinese offer of prosperity bought at the cost of personal enslavement. The American brand has been so tarnished during the Bush years that for many around the world - even in Europe - that alternative began to seem attractive. I for one hope that Barack Obama can bring about enough real change for the most important things to stay the same.