The tear-stained face of black leader Jesse Jackson among the Chicago audience that listened to Barack Hussein Obama’s victory speech on Wednesday captured what the election of the 44th US president meant for many Americans.
Jackson is the only African-American to have twice tried for the Democratic nomination.
<b1>Obama acknowledged his accomplishment in his speech to the cheering audience of 125,000: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
It was not merely that Obama was the first black man or the first person with a Muslim middle name to be given the keys to the White House, but that he did so in a landslide. With two states left to declare, Obama had secured 349 electoral college votes compared to John McCain’s 163.
He secured five per cent more of the popular vote, making the scattered reports of voter irregularities irrelevant. He took states like Nevada and Virginia that have not gone “blue” in living memory.
The man with a Kenyan father and white American mother comes in with a remarkable rainbow of support soaring over him. At least 45 per cent of white Americans voted for him as did over three-quarters of Hispanics. The Democrats also consolidated their hold on the Congress, picking up five Senate and 20 House of Representative seats.
“There was no evidence whatsoever of a Bradley effect in the election,” said pollster Nate Smith. The Bradley effect argues that polls fail to catch hidden racism voters.
With a quietness that belied the historicity of his victory, Obama spent a good portion of his speech warning of the many economic and political problems that faced the US.
Obama addressed those who did not support him saying, “I will be your president too.”
His dignity was matched by his Republican rival John McCain who conceded in a speech that urged his supporters to fully back the new president.
McCain noted how his rival’s victory was an accomplishment for not merely the Democratic party, but for the US as a nation:
<b2>Obama believed his victory would restore the standing of the US in other parts of the world. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 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,” he said.
At the Republican National Committee election party at the Washington Hilton, the cocktails and oysters flowed but the suited guest focused on local election results rather than the national.
When, after the first three states had declared, McCain led 13 electoral college votes to Obama’s three, there was a hollow cheer: “Look we’re winning.”
Historians will debate whether Obama was lucky that the sub-prime crisis exploded weeks before election day, converting a two point deficit into an eight point lead for him.
Others will argue the crisis only underlined what many Americans were increasingly coming to appreciate, the candidate’s “calm populism” and eloquence, qualities that belied his inexperience.
At worst, he would have won with a smaller margin, say his supporters. His other strength, and one which won the admiration of business executives, was the disciplined election machinery. This machine is being seen as an indication of how an Obama administration will run – with discipline, internal debate and minimal publicly expressed dissent.
And then there was his star quality. Says Kansas City Star journalist Steve Krascke, “I met him at a hotel. People descended on him, pulling at his cufflinks and collar. I haven’t seen this in several decades. They say John and Bob Kennedy got this sort of response.”
The Democrats will fall short of the 60 votes in the Senate that would have ensured Republicans would not be able to block legislation even procedurally. Some Obama advisors privately said this was not unwelcome as they feared the Democratic Congress’s leftwing instincts would trigger an electoral backlash.
There are some concerns that Obama is bound to fall below the expectations of his supporters, that he won’t be able “to walk on water.” However, it is likely he will have an extended honeymoon if only because of the negative sentiments that surround George Bush.