Obama victory signals new push for unity
Americans elect their first black president and deal a blow to an era of Republican ascendancy.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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. Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at 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 Mr. 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Obama's campaign was steeped in historical references.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. A year and a half later, Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president on the 45th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
And 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 Dallek.
Along the way to his election, the mixed-race Obama first had to convince African-American voters that he was "black enough," then convince white, Latino, and all other hues of voters that he would represent all Americans, not just African-Americans. Obama's post-racial pitch was reinforced by his own heritage, with a black African father and white American mother. His father left the family when he was two years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother and her parents. Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, passed away on the eve of the election, giving his victory an added poignancy.