President Barack Obama
The Meaning of Obama’s Win: How He Rewrote the Book
are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope. Barack
Obama never talks about how people see him: I’m not the one making history, he said every chance he got. You are.
Yet as he looked out Tuesday night through the bulletproof glass, in a
park named for a Civil War general, he had to see the truth on people’s
faces. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, he liked to say, but
people were waiting for him, waiting for someone to finish what a King
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place
where all things are possible," declared the President-elect, "who
still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who
still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
Barack Hussein Obama did not win because of the color of his skin. Nor
did he win in spite of it. He won because at a very dangerous moment in
the life of a still young country, more people than have ever spoken
before came together to try to save it. And that was a victory all its
Remember this day, parents
told their children as they took them out of school to go see an
African-American candidate make history. An election in one of the
world’s oldest democracies looked like the kind they hold in brand-new
ones, when citizens finally come out and dance, a purple-thumb day, a
velvet revolution. A hundred thousand people came out in red states to
hear Obama; a hundred fifty thousand turned out in purple ones, even
after all this time, when they should have been sick to death of Hope
and Change. In Michigan, people put an electric fence around their yard
sign to protect it. NASA astronauts on board the International Space
Station sent a video message encouraging people to vote; they did, from
200 miles up. A judge in Ohio ruled that homeless people could use a
park bench as their address in order to register. A couple flew home
from India just to cast their ballots. Obama’s Ohio volunteers knocked
on a million doors on Monday alone. That night, a Florida official
locked himself in the Seminole County election headquarters and slept
overnight with the ballots to make sure nothing went wrong with the
vote. Early-voting lines in Atlanta were 10 hours long, and still
people waited, as though their vote was their most precious and
personal possession at a moment when everything else seemed to be
losing its value. You heard the same phrases everywhere. First time ever. In my lifetime. Whatever it takes.
When it was over, more than 120 million pulled a lever or mailed a
ballot, and the system could barely accommodate the demands of Extreme
Democracy. Obama won more votes than anyone else in U.S. history, the
biggest Democratic victory since Lyndon Johnson crushed another Arizona
Senator 44 years ago. Obama won men, which no Democrat had managed
since Bill Clinton. He won 54% of Catholics, 66% of Latinos, 68% of new
voters — a multicultural, multigenerational movement that shatters the
old political ice pack. He let loose a deep blue wave that washed well
past the coasts and the college towns, into the South through Virginia
and Florida, the Mountain West with Colorado and New Mexico, into the
Ohio Valley and the Midwestern battlegrounds: you could almost walk
from Maine to Minnesota without getting your feet wet in a red state.
After months of mapmaking all the roads to 270, Obama tore right past
The victory poured down the ballot, bringing along a larger Democratic
majority in both houses, though not as broad as some had predicted:
Democrats widened their margins in the House and the Senate. The
Republican caucus is smaller, more male and whiter at a time when the
electorate is heading the other way. But the Democrats did not come
close to their dream of a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the
Senate, which suggests that people’s hunger for change is tempered by
their faith in restraint.
When the race was called, there was a rush of noise, of horns honking
and kids shouting and strangers hugging in the streets. People danced
in Harlem and wept at Ebenezer Baptist Church and lit candles at Dr.
King’s grave. More than a thousand people shouted "Yes we can!" outside
the White House, where a century ago it was considered scandalous for a
President to invite a black hero to lunch. The Secret Service said it
had never seen anything like it. President Bush called the victory
"awesome" when he phoned Obama to congratulate him: "You are about to
go on one of the great journeys of life."
John McCain, freedom fighter, has always seen the nobility even — maybe
especially — in a losing battle, which takes the most courage to fight.
When he called Obama to concede the race, the younger man honored the
elder statesman. "I need your help," Obama said, and McCain offered it
without reservation. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow
Americans," McCain told the crowd in a gracious speech beneath the
Arizona mountains. "I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to
help him lead us through the many challenges we face."
Remember this day. We now get
to imagine, at least for a while, that the election of Obama has not
just turned a page in our politics but also tossed out the whole book
so we can start over. Whether by design or by default, the past now
loses power: for the moment, it feels as if we’ve left behind the
baby-boomer battles of the past 40 years; the culture wars that took us
prisoner and cut us off from what we have in common; the tribal warfare
between rich and poor, North and South, black and white; and the
illusion, if anyone still harbored it after the past eight years, that
what happens in Washington does not affect what happens everywhere
How He Rewrote the Book
"She has gone home," Obama told the quiet crowd in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday night, recalling the grandmother
who had raised him and shaped him and died on the eve of his victory.
"She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America," he
said, and tears we had never seen before streaked his face. "They’re
not famous. Their names are not in the newspapers, but each and every
day, they work hard." One day later, Madelyn Dunham’s grandson would be
the most famous man in the world.
At a moment of obvious peril, America decided to place its fate in the
hands of a man who had been born to an idealistic white teenage mother
and the charismatic African grad student who abandoned them — a man who
grew up without money, talked his way into good schools, worked his way
up through the pitiless world of Chicago politics to the U.S. Senate
and now the White House in a stunningly short period. That achievement,
compared with those of the Bushes or the Kennedys or the Roosevelts or
the Adamses or any of the other American princes who were born into
power or bred to it, represents such a radical departure from the norm
that it finally brings meaning to the promise taught from kindergarten:
"Anyone can grow up to be President."
A nation doesn’t much need a big President in small times; it needs one
when the future is spitting out monsters. We’ve heard so much about
Obama’s brand-new voters that we easily forget the others he found, the
ones who hadn’t voted since Vietnam or who had never dreamed they’d
vote for a black man or a liberal or a Democrat, much less all three.
But many Americans are living through the worst decade of their lives,
and they have anger-management issues. They saw a war mismanaged, a
city swallowed, now an economy held together with foreign loans and
thumbtacks. It took a perfect storm of bad news to create this moment,
but even the big men rarely win in a walk. Ronald Reagan didn’t. John
Kennedy didn’t. Those with the clearest vision often have to fight the
hardest for others to see things as they do.
Obama belonged to a party that was bent on retribution; he preached
reconciliation, and when voters were asked a year ago who had the best
chance of winning, Hillary Clinton crushed him, 71% to 26%. He had to
build a new church and reach out to the seekers who had lost faith in
government or never had any in the first place. He ran not so much on
any creed as on the belief that everything was broken, that the very
system that produces candidates and frames issues and decides who loses
and who wins in public life does little more than make a loser out of
the American people. We need to start over, he argued, speak gently,
listen carefully, find solutions, keep our word. It was precisely
because he was an outsider with a thin résumé and few cronies or scars
or grudges that he could sell himself as the solution.
On the cold January night in Iowa that he calls the highlight of the
whole campaign, he offered a glimpse of the possible. Caucus-night
victory speeches are usually sweaty affairs in crowded rooms full of
debts to pay off. But Obama got up in his tightened tie and with total
focus, in front of a teleprompter so he’d be sure to get it exactly
right, delivered what even skeptics called one of the great political
sermons of our time. "They said this day would never come," he
declared. "They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to
ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night —
at this defining moment in history — you have done what the cynics said
we couldn’t do." He won women without the help of women’s groups,
blacks without the help of race pols, and that golden snitch of
American politics, the youth vote, whose presence not only gave his
campaign a feeling of hope and energy but made old people feel younger
too. That was the first test of what was really on voters’ minds: even
in the face of two wars and a looming recession, only 1 in 5 cited
experience as the highest priority. More than a third of them cared
most about who could bring about change.
It was just one of many ironies that his historic ascent required
blocking Clinton’s. Experience can be a virtue, but it also means
familiarity and wounds and scars, and it was hard to look at her
onstage — her husband behind her, his gears visibly spinning — and see
her as the future. Many who saw Clinton as the victim of virulent
sexism could still be eager to move on to someone who did not fight in
the last war.
Two Men, Two Visions
Given a President who was radioactive and an economy weak in the knees,
you could say the outcome should never have been in doubt. Seventy
percent more people voted in the Democratic primaries as in the
Republican; 9 out of 10 people say the country is on the wrong track.
In that light, McCain was his party’s sacrificial lamb, a certified
American hero granted one more chance to serve, with enough rebel
credits on his résumé to stand a chance of winning over disgruntled
voters if Obama somehow imploded.
While it may not have been much of a race in the end, it certainly was
a choice: not just black and white or red and blue or young and old,
though there was a full generation between them. Over time, it’s become
clear that these men view change very differently. McCain sees change
as an ordeal, a test of his toughness; Obama sees it as an opportunity,
a test of his versatility. McCain sees change as reforming the system;
Obama talks about rebuilding it from the ground up. McCain does not
e‑mail. He became famous by riding a bus. And he brandished at every
opportunity the values that never change with circumstances: duty,
honor, country first.
Yet Obama, derided as so ethereal compared with the battle-tested
McCain, was the clear-eyed realist in the room; he was a child of
change — changed countries and cultures and careers, even his very
name: Barry became Barack. You can’t stop change from coming, he
argued; you can only usher it in and work out the terms. If you’re
smart and a little lucky, you can make it your friend…
The Road Ahead
…His vow to bring people together will mean nothing if he just does
what’s already easy. He has to find real Republicans to put in real
Cabinet positions, not just Transportation. He needs to use his power
in ways that make both parties equally unhappy, to dust off the weighty
words we need to hear, not just the uplifting ones — like austerity,
sacrifice, duty to the children we keep borrowing from. The national
debt passed $10 trillion in September; in the next month, we added $500
billion to it — the fastest, deepest plunge into red ink in more than
50 years. Will Obama end the double standard between how Washington
works and how everyplace else does, the loopholes it defends, the
common sense it defies?
"This victory alone is not the change we seek," he challenged the
nation on Tuesday night. "It is only the chance for us to make that
change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It
cannot happen without you."
We get the leaders we deserve. And if we lift them up and then cut them
off, refuse to follow unless they are taking us to Disneyland, then no
President, however eloquent, however historic his mandate or piercing
his sense of what needs to be done, can take us where we refuse to go.
This did not all end on Election Day, Obama said again and again as he
talked about the possibility of ordinary people doing extraordinary
things. And so, we are merely at the end of the beginning.
— With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick / New York
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
American voters honour Martin Luther King’s dream with victory for Obama
When the first African-American cast a vote in 1870 he thought the world had changed. Yesterday the US proved it really had
Martin Luther King, Jr: a result he could only have dreamt of
On March 31, 1870 Thomas Mundy Peterson, the son of slaves, did something that
no African-American had ever done before: he voted.
Slavery had been formally abolished five years earlier, and the 15th Amendment
to the US Constitution had established that “the right of citizens of the
United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by any state on
account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude”.
Tom Peterson, a 47-year-old school janitor, exercised that right in Amboy, New
Jersey, casting his vote under the angry stares of the town’s white
inhabitants. He voted Republican, in recognition of Abraham Lincoln, the
Peterson’s humble and courageous act reaches forward to the election of Barack
Obama, and back through the generations of black people taken from Africa
and forced to live in American servitude. The idea that a black man could
vote would have been as unimaginable to Peterson’s slave ancestors as the
idea of a black president would have been unthinkable to Peterson himself.
We imagine history to happen in a linear progression, in this instance a
straight line from bondage to freedom to civil rights to equal rights, from
Mundy to Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. But history — least of all the
tortured history of black America — does not work that way.
For a brief period after emancipation, black democracy seemed about to
flourish. Two black men, one a preacher, Hiram Revels, and the other a
teacher, Blanche Bruse, were elected to the US Senate from Mississippi. To
this day they are the only African-Americans ever to represent a Southern
state in the Senate.
The dream of black democracy swiftly evaporated. The Ku Klux Klan had aleady
come into being at the end of the Civil War in 1865. As Reconstruction
collapsed after a few years, black voting rights were suppressed, racial
segregation was imposed, lynchings, race riots and school burnings spread.
State-sanctioned racism emerged in the Southern states but infected the North.
The systematic oppression of one race by the other in the “Jim Crow” system
of laws would remain virtually intact until the 1950s. In Southern states
blacks could not vote or sit on juries or take part in enforcing the law.
Blacks could not go to the same schools as white people; they could not eat
in the same restaurants, travel on the same train cars, live in the same
neighbourhoods, or shop in the same places.
Between 1889 and 1922 about 3,500 people were lynched, most of them black men.
This form of murder cruelly emphasised the powerlessness of the victim: the
killing took place in public, the guilty were known to all, and effectively
immune from prosecution.
From about 1915 black Americans headed north and west in huge numbers to
escape the persecution, in what became know as the Great Migration. Slowly,
painfully, African-Americans fought back, through litigation, education and
lobbying. Campaigns of civil disobedience and direct action evolved into the
civil rights movement.
In 1954 the Supreme Court finally outlawed segregation in schools. A year
later a young seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a
white person on an Alabama bus. She was, she said, “tired of giving in”. She
was arrested, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott and huge protests.
Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was accompanied to school by federal marshals in
1960, to become the first African-American pupil at the all-white William
Franz School in New Orleans. The white pupils at the school promptly left,
and all but one teacher. For more than a year, Ruby Bridges was taught alone.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in employment and the 1965
Voting Rights Acts restored and protected black voting rights, nearly a
century after Peterson’s first vote.
The rising hope was personified by Martin Luther King, the Baptist minister
whose extraordinary natural oratory and energetic leadership of the civil
rights movement earned him the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 36. King was
prominent in organising the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in
1963, to dramatise the appalling poverty and discrimination against blacks
in Southern states and to demand civil rights legislation.
More than quarter of a million people massed for the largest demonstration in
Washington’s history, to hear King deliver his “I Have Dream Speech”, a
masterpiece of public speaking that would offer a frame the civil rights
movement in the same way that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had captured the
moral momentum behind the civil war.
“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day, down in Alabama, with it vicious
racists . . . one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black
girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as
sisters and brothers.”
This year pollsters predicted a record turnout of as much as 81 per cent in
the state of Alabama, after black residents registered to vote in record
The protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, but not before the
first attempt to do so had been broken up by police using teargas and clubs.
Footage of the violence would outrage public opinion as never before.
With hindsight, black rights were also marching forward, but it did not always
feel like that on the ground. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow,
segregation forever,” declared George Wallace, Governor of Alabama.
Progress came soaked in the blood of African-American martyrs: Medgar Evers,
field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured
People, holding a banner that read “Jim Crow Must Go”, was shot dead by a
member of the KKK outside his home; Martin Luther King was killed while
standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, sparking riots in more than 100
The political power of African-America swelled gradually, and hope rose. In
1967 Thurgood Marshall, the son of a railroad porter, became the first
African-American to join the Supreme Court.
In 1983 Jesse Jackson ran for president. In 1989 Colin Powell became the first
African-American to head the Armed Forces, and then later the nation’s first
black Secretary of State.
In 1995 the Nation of Islam convened the Million Man March on Washington, in a
powerful demonstration of African-American political engagement.
The following year a young lawyer named Barack Obama was elected to the
Illinois State Senate. In the same year that Peterson cast his vote, Hiram
Revels became the first African-American in the US Senate; 135 years later,
Mr Obama would become only the fifth.
The pace of political change for black Americans had been, up until that
moment, impossibly slow; but in the three years since then, it has seemed to
move with impossible swiftness.
In his “I Have a Dream” Speech, Martin Luther King spoke of the promise of
equality enshrined in the Constitution. “America has defaulted on this
promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of
honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad
check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”
Yesterday American voters — black and white — symbolically honoured the unpaid
debt in a way that Martin Luther King could only have dreamt of.
In 1870 Tom Peterson thought the world had changed forever, and he was wrong.
Today, millions around the world will feel the same, and they will be right.