Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 12:38 UK

Challenges for changing America

Professor Simon Schama discusses his travels across America.

Barack Obama's emergence as a presidential candidate in the US represents a profound change in the American psyche, distinguished historian Simon Schama argues in his new series for the BBC, The American Future.

"Whether or not he wins the presidency, this represents an historic shift in America's self-perception," Mr Schama says.

It would have been inconceivable in the 1960s that white Americans in the midst of a major economic collapse would have turned to a black man to lead them out of the crisis, Professor Schama says.

The new attitude to race is the result of a generational shift that began with the civil rights movement, and has now affected not only the "baby boomer generation" born in the 1950s but their children as well, he says.

Economic challenges

However, whether Mr Obama or any other politician is up to the challenge of dealing with the economic crisis is unclear, Professor Schama says.

Simon Schama filming in the US West
The promise of limitless resources shaped American life

One of the big problems he sees is that Americans have been taught to believe that government is the problem, not the solution.

The key, as it was in the Great Depression, is restoring America's faith in itself, he says.

He believes that Americans are still fundamentally optimistic, and that despite everything they believe that the US is a new and more attractive society than the Old World.

But one aspect of American ideology has to be revised, he says - the belief in limitless natural resources as underpinning America's growth.

America was founded by pioneers who had an expectation of plenty, who believed that it was endowed with God-given natural resources and thought that through hard work it could provide enough resources for all.

Professor Schama argues that Sarah Palin, as the governor of Alaska, represents the enduring power of the frontier as a continuing factor in American politics.

He says that her belief that only full development of Alaska's oil and gas reserves can save it from dependence on foreign powers has echoes of the 19th Century belief in Manifest Destiny which aimed to conquer nature and take control of the whole of North America.

But, he says, all the oil and gas in Alaska, if exploited, would only provide 18 months of the US energy needs at the moment.

Faith culture

Professor Schama argues that one of the key elements that sustains American optimism is American religious faith.

Simon Schama looks at war graves
Simon Schama believes the US attitude to war has been misunderstood

He says that it is the belief in religious freedom - and in the right of people to choose their own faith, not have it imposed on them from birth - that underlies the American belief in self-improvement and change.

And he says it is "remarkable" that in the US presidential election, it appears that the Democratic candidate Barack Obama is more shaped by his faith, than his Republican rival, John McCain. It would usually be the other way round.

He says that although Americans have a belief in their country as a "city on a hill" - a shining example to others - they are not complacent about the economic and foreign policy issues facing the US.

There is a recognition, he believes, of the real challenges posed by the rise of China as an economic power, and he believes that there will be more conflict over investment in China than immigration from Mexico.

Americans are by no means as militaristic as the rest of the world seems to believe, he says, with the debate about how big the military should be going right back to the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

But Professor Schama believes that one of America's great strengths is its ability to re-invent itself at the time of crisis.

And at the moment America's self-image is being remade.

The first episode of The American Future: A History will be broadcast on Friday 10 October on BBC Two at 9pm BST. There are three further episodes on subsequent Fridays, at the same time, covering war, faith, and immigration.

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