Nearly two years after he announced his intentions to run for the White House, Barack Obama returned to Chicago on Tuesday night, triumphant in his quest for the presidency.
The president-elect -- the first African American to assume the post in American history -- achieved the task with a mandate to proclaim. As of Wednesday morning he had won 349 Electoral College votes, poaching traditionally Republicans states like Indiana and Virginia as well as bitterly-fought battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida. Of the estimated 133 million votes cast (62 percent of eligible voters went to the polls), he had received 52 percent to John McCain's 46 percent -- the first Democrat to earn a majority since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
More importantly, he recruited to his candidacy voters of all stripes: black, white, and Hispanic, southerners and northerners, educated and non-educated, the politically engaged and those who had previously stayed on the sidelines.
"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," Obama triumphantly declared. "It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference."
Democrats, after eight years of frustrations and ideological setbacks during the Bush years, where given the permission to peak at the road ahead. What would this mean for Iraq? For global warming? For America's image around the world?
Obama, too, was making plans for the future. Not content to be caught flat-footed, he offered the post of White House Chief of Staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Similar preparations were being made for other cabinet positions. His campaign had been a well-oiled machine; his transition promised to operate the same way.
But the numbers and the process told only half the story, and the drier half at that.
Obama's victory was, at once, sweeping and historic. An African American man, one generation removed from the height of civil rights tensions, had ascended to the White House. Only a few years in the Senate, he had defeated a decorated war hero and, before that, the wife of a former president, by revolutionizing the way a politician relates to the public.
For Republicans even, it was hard to deny the emotional symbolism of it all. In a gracious concession speech, Sen. John McCain offered his admiration to his future president for "inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had so little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president."
"This is an historic election and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans," he added. "And for the special price that must be theirs tonight. I always believe that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it."
Speaking to reporter the following morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed genuinely moved by the events. The United States, she said, "continues to surprise. It continues to renew itself, to beat all odds and expectations. You know Americans will not be satisfied until they form that more perfect union."
Stalwarts of the African American political community were affected as well. Rep. John Lewis called the Obama win a non-violent revolution. Rep. James Clyburn remarked that he would now be able to tell school children with conviction that they can be whatever they want in life.
And so, Obama enters the White House with a different type of mandate than presidents past: one that is as based as much on an emotional connection to voters and colleagues as it is on political influence. To be sure, he has plenty of the latter: Accompanying last night's win were the gains that Democrats made in congressional elections. On January 20, President Obama will have approximately 56 Democratic Senators and more than 250 Democratic members of the House with whom he can craft a legislative agenda.
The challenges, even with the deck stacked this way, will be daunting: an economy that is in deep crisis, wars waging in two hot spots in the Middle East, state budgets that are crumbling, and a health care system bursting at the seams. Obama, for his part, seems to understand the enormity of the task ahead.
"There will be setbacks and false starts," he told the crowd last night. "There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand."
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