Obama victory signals new push for unity

Americans elect their first black president and deal a blow to an era of Republican ascendancy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Obama supporters at a huge rally Tuesday night in Grant Park in Chicago.

Riding a promise of hope and change, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday.

Senator Obama's victory marks the first time American voters have elected a black man as their national leader.

It is a historic achievement greeted with cheers of celebration in urban neighborhoods that have had little to cheer about for years. More important, it is an achievement that may help unite the country and heal racial divisions as old as the republic itself.

"If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama declared in his victory speech.

Moments earlier, Republican John McCain had conceded the election, reaching across the partisan divide. "I pledge to [Obama] tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face," the Arizona senator said.

The election touched Americans of all hues, but perhaps none more so than African-Americans who had personally experienced a time when blacks had little opportunity for advancement.

"I prayed for the day," said James Bronson, who was born nearly 88 years ago on the wrong side of Jim Crow South Carolina and never dreamed he would live to see a black president in the White House.

News of Obama's success left Mr. Bronson almost speechless. "I am very much satisfied," he said.

In broader terms, Obama's election in all likelihood marks the end of a conservative era in Washington whose origins date back to the 1960s. In defeating Republican Sen. John McCain, the Democrat Obama will take office on Jan. 20 with expanded Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, and a demoralized Republican Party in retreat.

It's too soon to say whether the rise of Obama also signals a wholly new approach to government, much the way Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 gave rise to the New Deal. But with the nation in economic crisis and mired in two foreign wars, Obama has signaled swift action. Even before his election, he had been working with the congressional leadership on an economic-recovery package that includes an extension of unemployment benefits and spending on infrastructure. Obama has also promised to address Iraq on his first day in office. Healthcare reform remains central, but given the economic crisis it is unclear if Obama can push for that right away.

Historian Robert Dallek calls Obama's election both a reaction to the nation's economic woes and a repudiation of President Bush's eight years in power.

"There is this passion for a shift," Mr. Dallek 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 Catholic president. The election of Franklin 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. 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.

Obama's 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 the rest of the world and the prospect of an improved American image. Throughout the campaign, Obama promised more emphasis on diplomacy and a willingness to talk to America's enemies.

Across America itself, voters of all ideological stripes – including McCain voters – spoke with pride of the nation's historic step.

"Every American ought to celebrate tonight," said Karl Rove, President Bush's political guru, on Fox News after Obama won.
But perhaps no group felt more pride than African-Americans.

"What I'm most excited about is how greatly he would affect the image of black people in America – a first family with a first lady who is extremely intelligent and fashion forward, with two kids, and a man who is all about everyone working together to make the United States a better place," says Nakia White, an Oakland, Calif., resident who is black and who works at a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

"I don't really know if the nation as a whole is changing, going liberal," she continues. "I don't think this proves that suddenly race relations are [fixed], all discrimination or prejudice is gone. I just think it means there was a black man who was able to touch across the color lines."

What does it mean to Faith Kinyua, a Kenyan with a green card living in Oakland?

"To me, it's that America is actually what I always dreamed it was. Color has no meaning and Obama has proved it. Can you slap me? If I'm dreaming, I do not want to wake up," she says, moments after the networks called the race for Obama. "Do you know what this does for kids in Africa, whose parent died of AIDS? It's not just black America, it's blacks all over the world."

Then she says: "Now they have to protect him," meaning the Secret Service. Several people in the generally jubilant crowds in Oakland mentioned their worry that he will be assassinated.

Not all McCain voters were ready to embrace Obama's election. Anna Marie Hulma, a white resident of Alameda, Calif., says she started out as a Hillary Clinton supporter and vowed not to support the Democrats if she was not the nominee. She rejects the notion that the election signals that the country has changed much.

"It seems to be a pendulum – it swings one way, people get tired with that, then people vote the other way," she says. Obama, she adds, strikes her as more like "a white man's image of a black man, rather than an actual representation of what I have seen of the black community."
A. Raven, a white Berkeley mother of two, is relieved that Obama won. "It's truly an inspirational moment for all Americans," she said. "Barack Obama reflects the real America, he reflects my American family, and even just the idea of what you call him – he's biracial. I have many members of my family who are biracial and that's what they look like. He's a true American."

– Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Oakland, Calif.

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