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Obama’s new political era

Democratic control of Washington brings unity but also new demands.

(Page 2 of 2)

Historian Robert Dallek calls Obama’s election both a reaction to the nation’s economic woes and a repudiation of President Bush’s administration.

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“There is this passion for a shift,” he says. “One party wears out its welcome. The conservative movement has been in the saddle for quite a while. Now there’s an impulse to shift ground.”

As elections go, he adds, this one could be compared to 1960, when John F. Kennedy overcame concerns about his faith and became the first Roman Catholic president. The election of Roosevelt in 1932 also contains parallels to today, with a Democrat sweeping to power in the face of daunting economic challenges. Others raise the analogy of 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode his conservative movement to Washington, also promising hope and change.

Like Reagan’s campaign, Obama’s began as a movement – defeating the powerful political machine of Hillary Rodham Clinton on his way to the Democratic nomination – and managed to maintain that sense of youthful optimism all the way to Election Day. At age 47, Obama will be one of the youngest American presidents to take office; his young family provides another echo of Kennedy’s election.

Obama’s election also broke new ground in the mechanics of campaigning. His campaign used the Internet, e-mail, and social-networking sites as community-organizing tools more effectively than any campaign in history. On fundraising, Obama opted out of public financing – the first nominee to do so since the advent of the system in 1976 – and raised at least $600 million from more than 3 million donors, another feat that defied expectations.

But no aspect of Obama’s election is more compelling than his decisive toppling of the racial barrier to ultimate power in America. Mr. Walters of the University of Maryland sees Obama’s election as the culmination of a journey that began more than a century ago.

“You have to go back all the way to the 19th century, when Frederick Douglass’s name was put in nomination for the vice presidency of the United States by the Republican Party in 1882,” says Walters. “That’s when I start my analysis of the fact that presidential politics began to evolve in the strategy for African-Americans and [became] something to aspire to.”

Obama’s campaign was steeped in historical references. When he announced his candidacy in February 2007, he stood on the grounds of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech against slavery in 1858. Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president this year on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Two days after that, historians noted the 100th anniversary of the birth of former President Lyndon Johnson. It was in 1964 that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, signaling the end of racial segregation in America – and, ultimately, paving the way for Obama to run for president 44 years later. “It’s a Johnson moment, too,” says Mr. Dallek.

Obama’s postracial pitch was reinforced by his own heritage, with a black African father and white American mother. His childhood, spent mostly in Hawaii, included four years abroad in Indonesia, adding to his multicultural persona. As the new face of the United States, Obama represents a profound change to rest of the world.