The great machinery of American democracy has seemed incredibly flawed in recent years.
I have occasionally felt very close to Marcus Tullius Cicero: a man who wanted to defend the Roman Republic's tradition of liberty, but who was defeated by the corruption and decadence of the Republic's own institutions. Incidentally his 2101st birthday took place yesterday.
I, like Patrick Henry in 1776, have felt that Western Liberalism stands upon a knife-edge: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!". I feared that the entrenched political elite in the United States has eliminated all but the already rich and powerful from the national political process. I feared that the Senators, that club of billionaires, no longer speaks for State or Union, but solely for the power of money. The final insult, it seemed to me, was the flawed election of George W. Bush, which seemed to ignore the form of democracy, let alone its spirit. With the advent of Hillary Clinton as a serious candidate, there seemed every prospect that only a Bush or a Clinton might be President between 1988 and 2016- a 28 year span.
Thus the primary season began.
The problem with the Iowa caucus is that it tends not to give the eventual final result, but rather it generally has to be interpreted. Thus, the actual result from the Hawkeye state is not usually particularly likely to be the final result in the national primary campaign. Yet, finally the US election season can tuck into its first result.
From the point of view of the UK, almost any candidate can be an improvement on the hapless, incompetent, dishonourable, dissembling, posturing sack of cack that we- rather fearfully- watch in the Oval Office right now (I stand by my judgement that the 43rd President is the worst to occupy that office in the 232 years of American history).
The new President will face some highly demanding questions almost immediately he -or she- takes the inauguration oath. However, I am also becoming increasingly impressed by the rapidity with which the US economy is adjusting to new conditions following the credit crunch. The fall in the Dollar is boosting exports dramatically, and the deficit issues are indeed being brought into a more sustainable shape as the US economy rediscovers its competitiveness. The journey is only just begun, but the most extreme potential problems that the credit crunch could bring seem- at least for now- to be firmly off the agenda.
China, supposedly unstoppable last year, has seen statistical adjustments that show a more realistic- and much smaller- set of economic data. More to the point, there is now a greater realism about what the country can actually deliver. Product recall scandals, inflation and the archaic banking system amongst many other issues show the limits of the Chinese model.
America is finding that it is still able to compete with the behemoth.
So, the 44th President may not face the worst case economic scenarios that only a few weeks ago were being discussed. Despite this, in international relations, there will be plenty in the in-tray. Despite the short run -relative- success in Iraq, the war continues to cost the US dearly in blood, treasure and in reputation. The use of Guantanamo bay as an extra-judicial prison is a spit in the eye to all the American constitution stands for. The use of torture, illegal rendition and the rest of the so-called "war on terror" continues to undermine both America's view of itself and its worldwide reputation. That will be the principal legacy of George W. Bush.
Though we do not yet know who will be the 44th President, the fact is that the field has now, already been narrowed down to two candidates on the Democratic side and three candidates on the Republican side. At least one message we can take away from Iowa: it is quite unlikely that a Republican can be the 44th President. The differential turnout between Democrats and Republicans was 2:1. Democrats are enthusiastic and motivated, while Republicans are uncertain and divided. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor of the caucus, is not greeted with the clamour that Barack Obama, the Democrat victor, receives and indeed he gained less votes than any of the other two of the top three Democratic candidates, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.
So, which of the Democrat candidates can win?
As I remarked, I hate the idea of Hillary Clinton as the 44th President, so maybe my judgement is not sound in these matters. However, if Senator Obama wins in New Hampshire, I believe that he could be poised not only to capture the Democratic nomination but also win the Presidency by a landslide.
If that is the case, the reputation of the United States will be utterly transformed. It would indicate what Americans most hope is true about their society: that race is no longer an issue, that opportunity truly exists for all.
More to the point, it gives hope that the system might not be broken. Even on the first day of office, that would be a far more substantial and positive legacy than anything the 43rd President is set to leave us with.