For citizens of the UK, especially in recent years, we look on the US presidential race with a combination of alarm and powerlessness. Certainly since the Reagan era we have known that because the UK is bound so tightly (though I am glad that the bonds are loosening a little compared to the Thatcher-Major-Blair years) the type of US President that is elected affects many lives in the UK. If Al Gore had been properly appointed in 2000, hundreds of UK citizens would still be alive, not having died in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is that clear a correlation. Thus, the choice of American electors impacts heavily on us British and yet we have no control over the electoral process at all. Though we sometimes elect malicious or misguided people to be our prime minister, we do not elect morons in the way Americans do. Reagan and George W. Bush certainly seemed to lack the abilities necessary to fulfil the post they held and you could even question the capabilities of Jimmy Carter. Nixon was bright but oversaw a bitterly divided party and his obsession with power (similar in some ways to our own Tony Blair's) made his term of office infamous. Similarly Clinton let other obsessions, notably sex, get in the way of putting his abilities to full use.
It does seem rare that the US electorate, their opinions distorted through the electoral college system (though even with direct voting Bush would have made a clean sweep in 2004 there is no denying that), actually pick a candidate by their policies, they pick the person (up until now always a man) that appeals to them, and in fact often who resembles them. This might seem the ultimate form of democracy, but for electing someone to the most powerful position (debatably now the second most powerful after the Chairman of the People's Republic of China given China's rapid economic growth [including recent financial support to leading Western banks], the size of its armed forces and a population 5 times larger than the USA) in the world it is not about class but have the personal capabilities to fulfil the role. A rich man can be stupid; a poor man can be intelligent. US voters tend to vote for stupid, rich men.
Now among the potential candidates for the US presidential election there are ones who are very different to what we have seen ever since the USA was founded. On the Democrat side, Barack Obama who won the primary in Iowa (apparently the fourth 'most white' state in the USA) is the first black candidate (and to people in the UK his skin tone looks incredibly pale for a 'black' person as we define them, but I accept he is racially in the US category of African-American, though he is mixed-race) since Jesse Jackson and also a woman Hillary Clinton. Now, Clinton despite her gender actually fits the recent (last 50 years) mode of candidates in that she comes from a presidential dynasty (like the Roosevelts, Kennedys (effectively I know none of them was elected after John) and the Bushes) and is well-off and less commonly, though not uniquely is intelligent. She and Obama are neck-and-neck for New Hampshire. Ultimately I doubt it matters which of the two of them wins as Obama has now established himself strongly enough and Clinton is holding on well enough that either would have to consider the other as their vice-presidential candidate. Could it really be that by 2009 we have a black man and a woman as President/Vice-President or Vice-President/President? Possibly.
I doubt a Democrat victory because the USA is currently running in a very Republican direction. Bush picked up an additional 3 million votes in 2004 over his 2000 victory. The New Right has continued to be successful in scaring the US population into backing harsh measures against the continued supposed threat of al-Qaeda and in turn to try to wriggle out of any limits on US industry implied by climate change legislation. Attitudes counter to this are currently not popular in the USA. However, as I say the US electorate will often look past any policies to elect the person they like. No-one seems to have noticed that Reagan made a 180° turn between his first and second terms of office from condemning the USSR as the 'evil empire' to meeting with its leader. Whatever he said, however, contradictory it was, was accepted because Americans liked Ronnie (and the rest of the world was terrified of him). I watched '1983 - Brink of Armageddon' last night and it revealed how close nuclear war came on 10th November 1983 and it seems to vindicate that unilateral disarmanent would have reduced global tensions, let alone multilateral disarmanent, and that Reagan's posturing was actually endangering world stability in the way many of us warned).
The difference may be that Obama is mobilising people who are generally politically inactive or non-committed and he may be able to get enough of these to tip the balance against the Republicans in some states. However, given the entrenchment of the New Right and just general Republicans throughout the US system I imagine that if he comes close they will pull off some electoral shenanigans as we saw in 2000 (and we witnessed in the UK in 1992 especially in South-West England). In addition, I think since the moment when Obama won the Iowa primary he became the top candidate for assassination in the USA. The closer he comes to even being a presidential or vice-presidential candidate the more risk he will be under, just remember the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 and he probably stood less chance of winning the candidature than Obama does at this moment. Of course many on the extreme right-wing of US politics have opted out of the political system and are preferring to run around in militia rather than at hustings and I just hope the secret service can defend Obama.
So, does Obama's success mark a shift in the USA? To some degree, no. Despite his background Obama draws on solid roots. He combines the rhetoric of the chapel with the tones of the civil rights movement (which in fact can easily translate into civil rights for the poor as well as the black). Christianity is always a good thing to have on your side in US politics and drawing on the words of the great and good of history is always a good idea too (though sensibly Obama has quoted Martin Luther King sparingly). It seems that his emphasis that freedom is not immoral but actually stems for a decent morality, appeals to usually apolitical people who are beginning to chafe against the restrictions imposed by the perceived threat of terrorism but are in fact more about increasing authoritarian control in line with New Right ideas and about nice wars overseas to control raw materials and provide business opportunities for the President's friends rather than freeing oppressed people. So to some degree people are waking up to the fact that a smiling face does not make their lives better, it is actual policies aimed at the broad sweep of US society rather than a narrow elite. As Bush admitted himself in October 2000 where addressing a dinner costing $800 (£400; €556 at today's rather than 2000 exchange rates) per plate: "This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base." How can even the middle class vote for a man with such a focus. So maybe we are seeing a changing approach to US politics which can only be for the good for both the average person in the USA and hopefully for the rest of the world. Though, of course policies can be brilliant for US people and damage the rest of the world, the two do not have to correlate, look at cheap fuel in the USA for example. In addition, if Obama does get to be President he might have to be even tougher than another candidate would have been, as given the prevailing hysteria is under attack from a SPECTRE-like organisation named (by the Americans themselves) al-Qaeda, this would be to prove that he is not 'soft' on terrorism an accusation which people will lay against him because of his race and political background.
A victory for Obama or Clinton as president, however unlikely would mark a step forward, showing that actually people from different backgrounds can progress to the highest level. The Bush governments seem to have suggest by their very personalities that only the elites can aspire to such a role. Neither Obama or Clinton are from even lower middle class backgrounds, but they are not white men from rich families which was beginning to seem the only criteria for becoming president. As I have noted before, the level to which a person can rise in a society reverberates through that society and with a black or female president many blacks and women can aspire to more realistically to become manager of their factory or store or wherever. That is the role of symbolism, but also moving to policies which will improve US society which is really decaying and a foreign policy which does not wreak death and destruction wherever it touches would be great things for have not only for the USA and the West but also the broader world. Hopefully the US electorate can see that, though I doubt it and we may have to wait a few more decades yet.