UCL News


First person: UCL on Obama victory - comments

5 November 2008

At 4am today Greenwich Mean Time, Democrat Barack Obama swept to victory in the US election, becoming the United States' first black president, elected by a record number of voters thanks to turnout levels only equalled when women were given the vote in 1920.

Adam Smith

There are over 600 American students at UCL, London's global university. Thousands of our staff, alumni and other members of the UCL community also hail from the US, work there, or research aspects of the nation. UCL Communications asked a cross-section for their initial reaction on the historic result, and what they feel it means for the country and beyond.

"A watershed in American history"

Dr Adam Smith, Senior Lecturer, UCL History

"There will be a time for a reckoning, a time to work out how far this election result signifies a partisan realignment, or a profound change of direction for the United States. It is certainly the most profound repudiation of eight years of all that Bush represents. But for now this is what we must focus on: the two children who will now move into the White House are the descendants of slaves; their ancestors could have been owned by the first 15 presidents of the United States.

"The American president is much more than a head of government or even a head of state; he is a reflection of how America sees itself, or wants to be. For a black family to be in that place marks a watershed in American history. To see black and white faces together in Chicago in the early hours of the morning was to watch a turning point in the dark history of race relations in America. The road ahead will be a rocky one because there are Americans who will never accept the legitimacy of a President Obama, but, for now, he will have the good will of the world and the opportunity to transform America and America's image in the world; an opportunity not offered to any president since Kennedy - or maybe even since Lincoln.

"Who would have imagined just four years ago that the election of an American president would be greeted with a national holiday in an African country? If American politics has sometimes been dominated by appeals to fear, last night Obama won by appealing to what Lincoln once called the 'better angels of our nature' and in doing so he has gone a long way to restoring the place of the United States as truly the last, best hope of earth."
Dr Smith's book 'The American Civil War' was published by Palgrave in 2007.

"A moment when history was made on a multitude of levels"

Tom McNally

Rt. Hon. Tom McNally, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords; UCL Economics 1962-66, President of UCL Union 1965-66

"God Bless America. There is a lot wrong with the United States. We are told so almost every day - not least by Americans. Yet it also has the capacity to amaze and inspire. The election of Barack Obama, both in style and substance, was a moment when history was made on a multitude of levels. When I was at UCL over forty years ago we experienced the hope of John Kennedy's Camelot and Martin Luther King's dream. In a way I have not felt since those student days, the election of Barack Obama makes me believe that the hope lives on and that the dream will never die."

"I was invited to the American Embassy election night party"

Prof Kathleen Burk

Kathleen Burk, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, UCL History

"I was invited to the American Embassy election night party, where I was surrounded by over a thousand people, endless supplies of drink, and the unforeseen chance to dine on my first Burger King hamburger in 25 years. The geeks amongst us withdrew to a medium-sized auditorium to watch CNN's coverage of the unfolding events.  When Pennsylvania and Ohio went for Obama, the room erupted with cheers; when a southern state went for McCain, there was one small cheer, but the man was rapidly shushed by his neighbour, leading him to ask, plaintively, whether no one was allowed to celebrate McCain. 

"Judging from the responses over the next hours, the answer appeared to be no.  Unfortunately, the Embassy deemed the party over at just after 3:30 am, so I made my way to Paddington station, where the first train home was at 5:16 am. I had no choice, therefore, but to shiver my way through the next hour, which meant that when McCain conceded and Obama celebrated, I was sitting on a cold metal seat, ignorant of these events.

"The entire world is aware of the international implications of this transforming event. The expectation is that the US will re-join the international system, respecting its rules and using diplomacy first and force, if deemed necessary, after. Certainly the hope is that the US will draw back from the unilateral approach to relations with other states celebrated by the Bush Administration. However, other governments will be disappointed if they expect the Obama Administration entirely to foreswear intervention and force, even if American attention and efforts are more acceptable if transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan. Obama is as concerned as McCain is with the threatening possibility - probability - of an Iranian nuclear capacity. But if torture is again deemed unacceptable, if Guantanamo prison is closed, if the US again appears willing to work through the UN, it will truly be a new day, a situation which the majority of Americans and of the rest of the world can only welcome."
Prof Burk is author of the recently published 'Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America' (Little, Brown) and (with Michael Bywater) 'Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine' (Faber & Faber).

"America is a place where all things are possible"

Prof CJ Lim

CJ Lim, UCL Pro-Provost for North America and Professor of Architecture and Cultural Design (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture)

"Congratulations America! It just goes to show that America is a place where all things are possible!

"The result will no doubt change America forever and most likely have influential consequences for the rest of the world. It was splendid that so many Americans voted to exercise their constitutional rights and demonstrated to the world that democracy prevails. This is certainly the most important moment in our 21st century so far - we wish President Obama every success."

"The tasks ahead are daunting"

Dr Colin Provost

Dr Colin Provost, Lecturer, UCL School of Public Policy

"Barack Obama's election to the presidency brings a sense of excitement and hope to millions of Americans, at a time when the United States faces numerous challenges at home and abroad. The pressure to solve these problems successfully will be enormous and will be felt almost immediately. If he is even moderately successful in tackling problems such as the credit crunch and poor health care access, he may be able to forge a lasting coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans for years to come, but if not, Republicans may be able to boost their numbers in Congress in the 2010 midterm elections. Additionally, President-elect Obama will have to discourage the Democrats from settling into a cosy, majority party status that exclusively serves special interests and eventually leads to outright corruption. Thus, while it is important to reflect on the importance of this election, Barack Obama knows that the tasks ahead are daunting and there is no time to waste."
Dr Provost is co-editor of the forthcoming book 'President Bush's Influence over Bureaucracy', to be published in 2009 (Palgrave-Macmillan).

"The majority of Latin America would have voted for Obama"

Professor Nicola Miller

Nicola Miller, Professor of Latin-American History and Head of UCL History

"Polls across Latin America showed that a majority of the region's people would have voted for Obama had they had the chance. As on so many issues, he has made all the right noises on Latin America, noting that there was a lot of work to do to repair the damage of the Bush presidencies, pledging a new alliance of the Americas and even suggesting that he might be prepared to meet Cuban President Raúl Castro. Fidel, in a flash of his old mischief, endorsed Obama, observing that he was 'more intelligent' than the 'bellicose' John McCain. Even Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, whom Obama characterised as a 'demagogue', has stated that he sees a glimmer of hope for improved relations now that Obama will be in the White House.

"Obama promised to cancel some of the more stringent extra sanctions that the Bush administration applied to Cuba, although he has also said he will maintain the embargo. The questions for Latin Americans are the same that everyone is asking, however: the rhetoric has certainly changed, which in itself is a great deal, but what about the substance? And like most previous presidential candidates, Obama has said relatively little about Latin America. What he has said has certainly been welcome, but the most likely scenario must surely be that, as has long been the case, when it comes to governing, Latin America's problems will come low down on the list of Obama's priorities."
Prof Miller's latest book is 'Reinventing Modernity in Latin America: Intellectuals Imagine the Future, 1900-1930' (Palgrave).

"An inspirational messenger pitch-perfect for his time"

Iyan Adewuya, UCL Public Policy 2005; Mergers & Acquisition Analyst, Bloomberg Financial Markets

"Obama's victory demonstrates how the right person with the right message at the right time can move very far and very fast in this country, no matter what the barriers. He had one huge thing going for him. He was an inspirational messenger with a message that was pitch-perfect for his time: change. Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this country. It signals that the American public has grown weary of ideologies. He made people feel good by voting for him. And that is hard to beat in America.

"Obama won on his own terms, strategically and symbolically. He rolled up a series of contested states, from Colorado to Virginia, long out of Democratic reach. And his victory reflected the accuracy of his vision of a reshaped country. Racism, much discussed, turned out to be a footnote, and African-American turnout was not unusually high. Instead, Obama drew his strength from an array of racially mixed, growing areas around cities like Orlando, Washington, Indianapolis, and Columbus on his way to at least 334 electoral votes."

"It's the first time I ever displayed a political endorsement"

Art Wasserman

Arthur Wasserman, Director, UCL Development & Corporate Communications

"I wore an Obama campaign pin on Election Day, given to me by my sister who visited from the States a few weeks back, and it's the first time I ever displayed a political endorsement. As an American living abroad and someone who travels globally, I'm painfully aware of the reputation of the United States around the world right now.

"After eight years of what will likely be considered the worst administration in the nation's history, it's time for change and a new direction. Today is electric. Obama's victory affirms the resiliency of democracy and a coming of age in the US.  I'm mindful of Obama's lack of experience but am confident he will surround himself with the best minds and will work to restore America's dignity and promise."

"We can look forward to more cooperative years"

Victor Chu

Victor Chu, UCL Laws 1979; First-Eastern Investment Group, Hong Kong; Foundation Board Member, World Economic Forum; Executive Board Member, International Chamber of Commerce

"Americans are crying out for change and Obama will probably bring about more healing efforts, more reaching-out to his traditional allies. Europe and Asia rightly think that they have been forgotten during the last eight years, so I think we can look forward to more cooperative years generally. But obviously as far as China is concerned, trade and currency will be a hot political issue.

"I think the Obama administration could defy a lot of people's scepticism. It's the dynamism, the coolness and the intelligence that appeal to people, and after eight years of rather disappointing Republican rule, it's the swing of the pendulum. You need different skills at different times, and I think in the next decade we need a lot of cooperation and coordination, a lot of reaching out."
Extract from an interview on 'Live Voices', Bloomberg TV

"Proud to be an American"

Marisa Traniello

Marisa Traniello, UCL MSc International Public Policy 2007; Global Strategy Analyst, Clinton Foundation

"After 18 months of presidential campaigns, Americans were ready to vote - and we came out in record numbers. Early morning lines, many snaking around the block and hundreds deep before the doors even opened, did not deter us. The mood was exciting with news cameras everywhere and helicopters circling overhead.  We were going to elect either the first African-American President or the first woman, as Vice President. Something great was happening and we all wanted to be a part of this historic moment. 

"Voting in Boston was surprisingly well organised and almost too easy. In a local school gymnasium I was handed a paper ballot and headed for the booths to cast my vote, praying not to cause a paper jam as I fed my ballot into the machine. My reward was an 'I voted sticker' and an empowered sense of self that I voted for change.

"That change came at 11:00pm Eastern Standard Time as news broke that Barak Obama would be the next President of the United States. This news was greeted with joy, fulfilled hope and a sense that this victory went beyond just the presidency. At that moment, I was, and still am, proud to be an American.

There is calm, almost relief today, November 5th, that the campaign is finally over. But I do not doubt the calm will only last a few days as Mr Obama has a tall order to fill. Waiting for him at the White House are two unpopular wars, a deepening financial crisis at home, an American reputation to rebuild, alliances to mend, and world issues such as global warming to address.  For Mr Obama, it is not just Americans anticipating his leadership; the world is also watching and waiting for change. To President-elect Barak Obama: The bar is set high, but I believe, yes we can."

Are you a current US student at UCL with a view on the election? Contact Lara Carim, UCL Communications with your opinion.


Donald Lawrence, Honorary senior research fellow & UCL Computer Science lecturer

My thoughts follow as an American deeply involved in markets/economics, that travels 75% of the year overseas.

I have moved from being disenchanted as the perceived 'certainty' of the Clinton nomination earlier this year descended to much more of a wild card. This first week of November (while here in New York) I have had a sense of jubilation knowing that the incumbent administration will vacate large tracks of government in 70 days from now. I am uncertain how long it will take us to recover.

I am taken back by the powerful rallying cry of President-Elect Barack Obama, & pray that the new administration team will be able to seize the momentum and drive the nation & its neighbours onto a trajectory to tackle the monumental problems we face.

I do not think that any US president-elect, in my life time, has faced so many overlapping global issues & crises coming to a head on inauguration day. I pray that America is ready, willing and able to modify behaviour, and can gather together for the climb on the long steep road to economic & psychological recovery. I have met dozens of people across US northeast socio-economic strata this week, and find the American optimism has been damaged.

I've worked in world markets all my career and have come to understand that the most important ingredient that survivors have in common, is confidence. Give us strength to overcome the mess we find ourselves!

Katherine (Karen) Wright, Lecturer, UCL Institute of Archaeology and American citizen

I've been an Obama supporter from the day he announced he was running. Anyone who saw his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention knew that he was a new star. I stayed up all night watching the returns before coming in to work at UCL on Wednesday. But a sleepless night could not prevent me from going with 3 friends to the Democrats Abroad party near Trafalgar Square. The crowd seemed tired but with a sense of mission accomplished. I had to ask someone - 'Has this really happened? Tell me it has really happened.'  'It happened.'

President-elect Barack Obama's victory is a victory for international multilateralism and a renewed faith in diplomatic solutions. It's a victory for thoughtful approaches to serious problems in the United States and beyond. For me, the deepest significance is that this is the brightest, most articulate, most innovative candidate for the presidency in my lifetime. That alone makes it historic. And - oh yes, his victory makes history on other levels too. Democrats like me who grew up in the American South feel a special satisfaction.

Sarah Fox, current American student at UCL, MSc in Light and Lighting (UCL Bartlett School of Graduate Studies)

My mom called at 4:30am, via Skype, crying to announce that Obama had won. Her exact words were "Finally someone GOOD has gotten in; don't tell your dad I said that." My family and state of Ohio are primarily Republican. Our family votes Republican mainly because my dad does a lot of work with the military and when there is work there is money for us to live on.

This year, being in London, my parents were adamant on me absentee voting, as of September. As the months passed and they realized that the absentee ballot is flawed, I did not vote. People ask me who I would vote for and until the election I said I wasn't voting. Afterward they then asked me if I was happy with the results, I said most definitely because one of the reasons I came to London, was to get away from America. Now I realize that I had to go 3,000 miles away to learn to love my country again.

We, the US and the world, can only go up from here. Good Luck.