Obama is under no illusions about the struggle ahead. While many of his supporters have high expectations of a new dawn where the magic black president will wipe away all racial prejudice and make millionaires of every downtrodden member of a poor minority, he warns that there will be tough times ahead. The economic situation threatens to make many of Obama's electoral promises impossible, such as the 5 million "green collar" jobs he pledged, to help the environment.
What began with the explosion of the housing bubble has unfolded into a far-reaching global financial crisis affecting everything from banks to retail sales to the auto industry. Consumer confidence is hovering at record lows and consumer spending has declined for the first time in 17 years as Americans prepare to ride out what economists think could be the most severe recession in decades.
The first order of business for the new president will be to stabilize the economic crisis.
In his victory speech, having just been elected, Obama said "For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."
There's little doubt that Obama would be a better choice than McCain for the environment, and his election is welcomed by environmentalists, yet it is doubtful he has the time to undo the damage done, even in these last weeks, by the Bush administration.
As the U.S. presidential candidates sprint toward the finish line, the Bush administration is also sprinting to enact environmental policy changes before leaving power.
Whether it's getting wolves off the Endangered Species List, allowing power plants to operate near national parks, loosening regulations for factory farm waste or making it easier for mountaintop coal-mining operations, these proposed changes have found little favor with environmental groups.
Obama's stance on biofuels remains problematic, and raises doubts over whether he has a principled commitment to the environment or whether his decisions have more to do with self-interest, balancing electoral appeal with pleasing big business.
Senator Obama has been a big supporter of corn subsidies for American farmers to produce the plant-fuel ethanol.
But a new report from his own green adviser warns of the many problems associated with the biofuel.
Daniel Kammen's paper says that a car will emit more greenhouse gases driving on corn ethanol processed with coal than it will using normal petrol.
The West's financial crisis heralds the end of the American era according to highly regarded opinion all over the world, from Gore Vidal to Iran's leader Ahmadinejad, although it is likely the decline will occur over a matter of years.
America remains the greatest single power in the world, yet the rise of China, the new belligerence of Russia and the wealth of the Gulf set this election in a very different context to its predecessors.
In this election America was not looking simply for a candidate able to command its forces as it enjoyed undisputed hegemony. It was more anxious than that. It was looking for a leader, like Mr Obama, who could command and might deserve the respect of the world.
The crisis in the financial markets only added to that feeling. For the first time in a generation the free market ideal and its advocates were on the back foot.
The world made it clear that they prefered the "change" promised by Obama to the continued arrogance McCain promised. Obama really is more respected by most of the world than his rival would have been, and he will be given a chance to prove himself. It is expected that Obama will end the eagerness to resort to aggression for which America has increasingly been hated throughout the world. Yet, some foreign governments are unhappy with his policies, while other nations see Obama as a man who can be negotiated with to demand more of a say in world events themselves, now that America has become weaker.
At a meeting on Monday in Marseille, the European Union's collected foreign ministers put finishing touches on a six-page memorandum that will guide their dealings with the next American administration. It is the first time that the EU has drawn up a road-map for relations with the US.
Other nations such as China and India would have preferred a McCain win, in the latter case to continue the special relationship which allows India into the nuclear club, allowing New Delhi to buy fuel, reactors and other technology to expand its civilian nuclear program and basically antagonising Pakistan. McCain wanted India to be a part of the expanded G8. China has its own reasons to bemoan Obama's ascendency:
To Asian ears, Obama's calls for tougher labor and environmental rules and steps to reduce the U.S. trade deficit sound like thinly veiled protectionism, just as a global financial crisis makes exports more crucial than ever.
``The immediate concern with Obama will be economic relations,'' said Wu Xinbo, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. ``The U.S. will be less forthcoming in pursuing economic liberalization in the Asia region'' because of concerns about jobs lost to trade.
Obama's goal of corralling developing economies into binding pollution-reduction commitments and his pledges to insert labor and environmental standards in trade agreements may spark unified opposition in an Asia that has more tools than ever to resist Western pressure.
Note that India and China are concerned with their position on purely materialist matters, and would oppose anyone who would really have the best interests of the American people and the global environment at heart, not that there would be grounds to expect that Obama would be such an idealist of course. These countries intend to take advantage of America in any way they can to become more powerful.
Russia also sees it's star rising once more.
It is unlikely that Putin, now Russia’s prime minister but still the country’s most powerful man, will be kept waiting when his aides call America to arrange a meeting with the new president.
Nor will Putin be as ingratiating and eager to please. Then he was the president of a broken, penurious country trying to find its place in a world utterly dominated by the United States. Today he steers a country eager to reassert itself and ready to challenge America at a time when US influence seems to many in Moscow to be on the wane.
No longer the supplicant, Russia is likely to try to test the new administration, probing its weaknesses in an attempt to humiliate its old Cold War foe.
Was it a conflict with Russia or, as most seem to think, Iran that vice president-to-be Joe Biden referred to when he warned:
"Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America ... Watch. We're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
Obama has a popular image as a man who will stop the "war on terror", a Bush project that even many senior members of the Republican Party now consider to be wrongheaded: the idea that America can use force to solve its international disputes. Yet Obama has in fact made it quite clear that he favours the introduction of conscription.
But it’s also important that a president speaks to military service as an obligation not just of some, but of many. You know, I traveled, obviously, a lot over the last 19 months. And if you go to small towns, throughout the Midwest or the Southwest or the South, every town has tons of young people who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s not always the case in other parts of the country, in more urban centers. And I think it’s important for the president to say, this is an important obligation. If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some.
There may be no more "war on terror", yet the threat of war remains undiminished, with a perceived power vaccuum in world politics as America loses it's dominance.
Obama has not yet set out how he is going to tackle these various problems on a practical level. The pledges he made at the beginning of his campaign were made in a rapidly changing world, and the banking crisis has made a revision necessary. In the next few weeks Obama will have to figure out what is possible and set his stamp on his future administration. Can he really do anything more than rearrange the furniture on the US Titanic?