The America that we want back

Today, in Barcelona, I spoke to the Direct and Interactive Marketing Global Forum about the future of advertising. But after my speech, all anyone wanted to talk about was Obama and America. The Spaniards  all had the same question. It was about the United States. They all wanted to know about the future of America. They wanted to know if Obama could save America.

Over a tapas lunch, one guy, a very senior Catalan marketing executive, confided in me. "The America we all know, the America of innovation, the America that continually reinvents itself, " he asked with a childish hopefulness. "Is that America dead? Can Obama reinvent America?"

Thomas Friedman had the same sorts of conversations in Cairo last week. Like the people I met in Barcelona today, Friedman's Egyptian friends have a "hunger" for the "idea of America." In "Obama on the Nile", Friedman explains today in the New York Times that it's the Emersonian idea of America as the future which most inspires the rest of the world:

In his history of 19th-century America, “What Hath God Wrought,” Daniel Walker Howe quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as telling a meeting of the Mercantile Library Association in 1844 that “America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”

The mistake, I fear, is to expect too much of Obama. The one area most resistant to change in America is politics. Change, real change, in America is going to come through business, technology and education. That's where we have to look for Emerson's beginnings, projects, vast designs and expectations. But the America political system has become so ossified that it will take more than a sweet talking lawyer to transform government into the core engine of American innovation.

So Obama, who should easily defeat McCain in November, will become no more than a symbol of American reinvention in the early 21st century. We've got to look elsewhere to glimpse the future of America. Experiments in social capitalism. The universities. The green revolution. The entertainment industries. Biotechnology and nanotechnology. Even, dare I say it, the Internet.