From stock traders to battle-weary soldiers to everyday citizens glued to their television screens, the world was awaiting incoming US president Barack Obama’s swearing-in yesterday and the dawn of a new era of US leadership.
Hours before the first black president in US history draws the curtains on the George W. Bush era, the weeks of excited anticipation were coming to an end with the somber recognition of Obama’s difficult work ahead.
“Just being elected has allowed Mr Obama to make Americans feel their country has been lifted to another plane,” said the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, summing up the feelings of the new president’s strongest supporters.
It is sometimes said, half in jest, that choosing the US president is too important to be left only to Americans, and Obama was clearly the choice of many people around the world after eight years of the deeply unpopular Bush.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time where the international community was so excited about the election of an American president,” former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright told the BBC.
A BBC poll of people in 17 countries found that most — an average of two-thirds — believed Obama would improve the relationship between the US and the rest of the world.
Obama inherits a wobbly global economy, bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a US whose international standing is widely seen to be lower than any time in living memory.
He also comes to power with massive expectations, on everything from climate change to Middle East peace to disarming North Korea, and analysts have already warned many of those expectations are unrealistic.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero said the world economic crisis could be shortened if Obama’s administration inspires confidence. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to pour cold water on the hopes of optimists.
“I am deeply convinced that the biggest disappointments are born out of big expectations,” Putin said.
That bit of plain speaking underlined the difficulties that lie ahead for Obama, whose wide popularity will soon enough brush up against the need to take the unpopular decisions of leadership.
He has already acknowledged that dismantling the “war on terror” prison camp at Guantanamo Bay would not be done as swiftly as once thought.
“It is clear that Mr Obama’s election campaign promises are going to be kept slowly, if at all,” Thailand’s Bangkok Post said. “The new president has little adult experience of world affairs.”
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation where Obama spent four years of his childhood, the Jakarta Post said he would be seen with affection as a “brother” — but was also not the answer to every problem.
“Many in Indonesia, as well as in other Muslim nations, have certain expectations that the new US president is not likely to be able to meet,” it said.
But for one day at least, the focus will be on the pomp and pageantry, on the hopes for Obama and the US, and all that he has come to represent in his surprising run to capture the White House.
“Tomorrow he will be prey to politics as usual. Tomorrow he will be, perhaps, just another president,” the Indian Express newspaper said. “But leave till tomorrow the concerns and carping: Today he is not just a president-elect, not just a president — he is a symbol of all that the democratic spirit can hope to achieve, of the promise of power open to all,” it said.