So America is ready for a black president after all.
As the returns came in on Tuesday night, first in spits and trickles, Barack Obama pulled ahead of John McCain slowly, capturing the dependably blue states of the East Coast to build an early lead.
As the evening grew longer, the battleground states began to fall like dominoes: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa. The final nails in the coffin, Florida and Virginia, were ceded before midnight.
In the end, Obama won by a sizable margin, turning over nine states that helped reelect Bush in 2004 and entering the presidency with considerable momentum.
It can be seen as nothing less than a mandate by the American people for governmental change.
“Change” was the buzzword for this election, and though it was eventually co-opted by nearly every candidate in the running, it began with Obama’s historic bid for the highest office in the land.
He is unlike any other president we have ever had, a man of mixed race with an African father, raised by a single mother who had him while she was still a teenager. And his style is different from his predecessors, too.
“It’s his poise,” said Andre Callis, a 22-year-old graphic communications major at NC A&T University, who had just cast his vote for Obama in the student union. “With Bush, when he talks you can tell it’s scripted. With Mr. Obama, he can really talk, and he doesn’t downgrade his opponents.”
Obama’s inspirational and straightforward oratory style was but one of the tools he used to secure the election. His themes of hope and redemption resonated with Americans, holding an appeal that crossed racial, cultural and economic lines. His parries against an opponent who often resorted to attacks and fear mongering in his campaign reassured voters of his calm and intellectual nature. And he oversaw one of the best campaigns in American history.
The campaign’s inception really began at the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he was tagged as a rising star after delivering a speech trumpeting hope over cynicism in support of John Kerry. But as the nation’s malaise deepened during the second Bush term, Obama’s message to the American people became more urgent.
A decade of startling developments that began with the terrorist attacks of 9-11 wended its way through massive job losses, disasters both natural and man-made, ill-conceived wars, legalized torture and the suspension of habeas corpus and the outing of a covert agent, and culminated in a crippling economic disaster as the credit markets seized up and the stock market plummeted. A struggling middle class was met with empathy and clear solutions by a candidate whom they percieved as understanding to its plight.
Obama’s reaction to the economic crisis is as fine an example as any of his ability to cope with stressful situations. As some institutions failed and others were absorbed, Congress voted down a bailout hastily assembled by the White House which was then bounced over to the Senate. While his opponent ordered a frantic, grandstanding suspension of his campaign, Obama calmly made phone calls to his colleagues in the Senate seeking support for a revised bill.
But the most impressive thing about Obama’s bid for election is the campaign itself.
Obama adopted Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, getting feet on the ground in every state. He used the internet to get his message out, employed text messaging to foster communication with his supporters. As the campaign stretched out, Obama grew his base, forcing the Republican candidate to defend old territory rather than gain new ground. He constructed an inclusive fundraising network that focused on small donations from millions of people that outpaced his opponent exponentially. He successfully harnessed the youth vote in a way no other candidate has before, and in the end he built a coalition that crossed every line that had heretofore divided us, gaining endorsements from sources as disparate as Andy Griffith and Jay-Z. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old… they cast their votes in astounding numbers to bring their man to the White House.
For African American voters, the election was especially poignant.
Thelma Walker, a 70-year-old Greensboro woman, who is black, never thought she’d see this in her lifetime.
“I did not march with the civil-rights people,” she said. “I did not march with the kids who were entering the Woolworth’s, but I was aware of it. I remember when we sat in the back of the bus. I remember the ‘blacks only’ water fountains. I remember the segregated schools. I remember the Caroline Theatre, and we didn’t sit in the loge, not the balcony; we sat in a place called the ‘eagle’s nest.’ That’s what we called it, it was so high up.
“It’s just a proud moment,” she continued, “not necessarily for people of color, but I think it should be a proud moment for all America.”
With this choice, the country has shown it is ready for a black president, yes, but that is perhaps the least of it. With the election of Barack Obama, we make a deliberate move away from the bitter politics of the last eight years and towards something better — opportunity, empowerment, inclusion. We make a stand against a government that has dished out abuse against its land, its industries and its people. And we show the world that we are capable of change for the better.
Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States. His mission will not be just to undo the damage that has been wrought by the decisions of the last eight years, but also to soothe a frazzled populace, to reassert our status as a world power and to lead us into the next chapter of American life.
It is no easy task, as challenging in its own way as those tests faced by Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy during their administrations. But if he can maintain the qualities he demonstrated during this most historic presidential run —intelligence, organization, determination and equanimity among them — then he is the man for the job.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.