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... America's fate in the half-century ahead is not to be transfigured, but to be relegated. Steering your team through a relegation can be as important a test of leadership as handling a promotion, but it is a different test. Though he may not yet know it, the role for which the US President-elect has been chosen is the management of national decline. He will be the first US president in history to accept, and (if he has the gift) to teach, not the possibilities but the constraints of power.
The fate of his predecessor George W.Bush was to test almost to destruction the theory of the limitlessness of American wealth and power - and of the potency of the American democratic ideal too. With one last heave he pitched his country into a violent and ruinous contest with what at times seemed the whole world, and the whole world's opinion. He failed, luminously.
But maybe somebody had to. Maybe we shouldn't be too hard on President Bush for donning a mantle hardly of his own making but a well-worn national idea created in the triumph and hegemony of victory in the Second World War...
... Mr Obama will have to find a way of being honest with Americans about their country's fall from predominance. Reading, as I often do, the furiously chauvinistic online reaction from US citizens to any suggestion that their country can be beaten at anything, I quail for him.
We British know something about the loss of empire. Successive 20th-century prime ministers struggled both to manage relative national decline and to make it explicable to the electorate. It is upon this road that 21st-century American presidents must now set foot. Mr Obama will be the first. “Yes we can!” was an easy sentiment to recommend. “No we can't,” will be a far, far harder thing to say.
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