The last waltz

Barack Obama's triumph marks more than the end of a campaign - it also closes the book on the Clinton era.

** FILE ** ** ADVANCE FOR THURSDAY, MAY 29 **  In this file photo from Nov. 1, 1992, former President Bill Clinton and current Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., dance on stage during a "Get-Out-The-Vote" rally at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. Sunday night, Nov. 1, 1992. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan, File)
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Imagine that in 1992, shortly after Bill Clinton won the presidency, you were to tell an American that in 2008 Hillary Clinton would be narrowly defeated in her effort to win the Democratic presidential nomination by an earnest half-Kenyan legal academic and erstwhile community organiser based in the South Side of Chicago. My guess is that your interlocutor would consider you half-crazed. That would happen before you went on to explain that the African-American candidate in question won the nomination on the strength of his support in states like Iowa, Kansas, and Montana, or that an ageing Republican senator from Nebraska was itching to join forces with him. Yet that is exactly the world we're living in. Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, and there is a very real sense in which the Clinton era has drawn to a close.

To be sure, political dynasties have long lives. Just as George W Bush rose from a semi-successful career as a professional baseball enthusiast to avenge his father's defeat, it is possible that Hillary Clinton will make another run for the White House, or that Chelsea Clinton will take up the mantle at some point many years hence. Failing that, Senator Clinton could still achieve distinction as a masterful legislator, following in the footsteps of Senator Edward Kennedy, who had frustrated presidential ambitions of his own. But it seems very unlikely that the Clintons will ever again be the defining figures in American public life.

First, it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton's failure is in part a function of Bill Clinton's success. To put it baldly, there is no way Barack Obama would have been elected in the divided, fearful America of 1992. It is easy to forget the crippling pessimism that battered the country, and the American elite, in the early 1990s. But as Clinton took the stage America's political future seemed profoundly uncertain; the possibilities ranged from the right-wing white nationalism of Pat Buchanan to the idiosyncratic heartland populism of Ross Perot, from the libertarian hedonism of postmodern California to the hard-edged ethnic tribalism of New York.

America had won the Cold War - or at least outlasted the enemy - but there was a keen sense that we were losing the more pressing war for jobs and technological leadership. The supposed economic threat posed by Japan and West Germany led many to call for a wholesale transformation of American political economy, a replacement of Reaganite laissez-faire with a mixture of corporatist industrial policy and soft social democracy. George HW Bush's "New World Order" was dismissed as a hollow formulation, a sure sign of what Paul Kennedy astutely termed "imperial overstretch". It was only later that Clinton would revive the imperial mantra: only this time, we were the "indispensable nation", in Madeleine Albright's memorable formulation.

Ideological boundaries blurred. A number of neoconservatives offended by George HW Bush's establishmentarian foreign policy saw Clinton as their unlikely saviour. And though neither Albright nor Richard Holbrooke would dare call themselves neoconservatives, they were among the many Democratic foreign policy hands who advocated a "muscular internationalism" - one that would take the lead with or without allies.

Some of the more hysterical voices even foresaw the Balkanisation of America, a notion that had renewed salience as Yugoslavia slowly descended into murderous anarchy. But by the time Bill Clinton left office, the United States had entered a period of almost unprecedented prosperity, and the American elite reached new heights of smug self-regard. Though the Clinton presidency will be remembered for Bill's tawdry escapades, the real story was the narrowing of the ideological spectrum. Chastened by his political enemies in the Congress, Clinton governed as - in his own frustrated estimation - an Eisenhower Republican, a cautious moderate who balanced the budget and gently trimmed the welfare state, memorably declaring late in his presidency that "the era of big government is over."

Both Clintons struggled in the 1970s and 1980s against a resurgent political right, and their instinct was to protect their right flank. Theirs was a defensive, incremental politics. It was about studying the playbook of your rivals and beating them at their own game. And, for a time, it worked. Clinton had the good fortune of presiding over an historic increase in productivity, fuelled by the spread of information technology and, just as importantly, a cultural revolution in American business. This was a cultural revolution that emphasised robust competition and shareholder value, and shattered older norms about what was and was not appropriate in the realm of executive compensation.

More striking still, the Clinton boom also accelerated demographic change. The American population grew more Latin, black, and Asian during the long 1990s, yet interethnic tension was for the most part dulled by the salutary effects of a growing economy, including a sharp decrease in crime and a small but significant decrease in family breakdown. In 1940, over 80 per cent of American adults were non-college-educated whites. That number has since decreased to just under half of American adults. When you consider that American politics have long centred on this constituency, on its cultural and economic anxieties, you can appreciate what this means.

The American future would be built, in the Clintonite view, on an increase in human capital. America would be more ethnically diverse, but it would also become a nation of college-educated bourgeois. And in this America would become a template for the world. The American model of flexible labour markets, low taxes, and modest redistribution was, in the eyes of Clinton and Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, being vindicated, and so it was to be exported aggressively.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote of "the End of History" he was describing an impersonal, dialectical process. But at the fin-de-siècle, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Bill Clinton was the man who ended History single-handedly. Recalcitrant nations couldn't resist the force of "democratic enlargement", whether its instrument was the International Monetary Fund or, in the case of Milosevic's Yugoslavia, NATO bombs.

George W Bush came to office convinced that there was no problem that American ingenuity and American power couldn't solve, and no threat that it couldn't vanquish. In this regard, at least, he was very much Bill Clinton's heir. America's Democrats insist that the reckless unilateralism of the Bush years represented a repudiation of everything they stood for. The awkward fact is that "rogue state rollback" was a bipartisan idea. So it is only natural that Hillary Clinton backed the invasion of Iraq with unbridled enthusiasm, regardless of what she's said on the campaign trail.

The years since have discredited this outsized confidence, thanks in no small part to the many failures of American adventurism in the Middle East. Democratic enlargement did happen in the world at large, albeit fitfully and to often unpredictable ends. But democratic retrenchment happened as well. We're now seeing the faint outlines of ideological alternatives to Western liberalism in China and Russia and Brazil, and perhaps even in Iraq. It is by no means clear that the American model will triumph.

Obama's humility, his insistence on the limits of what American power can accomplish in the world, represents a recognition that the unipolar moment has drawn to a close. His paeans to mass social activism, his questioning of neoliberal orthodoxy, his cosmopolitan upbringing - all suggest a willingness to learn from the world beyond America's borders as well as to teach it. He is, in this respect, the un-Clinton. And that can't be a bad thing.

Reihan Salam is an editor at the Atlantic, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and the co-author of Grand New Party.