ROME -- A crowded room with more than 400 anxious Barack Obama supporters huddled in silence during the early hours of Wednesday morning at an election watch party organized by the Rome chapter of Democrats Abroad. When polls closed on the West Coast at 5:00 am local time and CNN declared Obama the next president, the room exploded.
It was the emotional climax of a long political odyssey that began two years ago after the midterm elections gave Democrats control of the Congress. But to measure the time for many of these people in those terms is too simple. For them, as partisan Democrats, American expatriates, or even as Italians who have no participation in the American political process whatsoever, it was a catharsis after eight years of George W. Bush in the White House.
Many people were crying, hugging, and celebrating as the enormity of what just happened sank in. Others began working their cell phones to call friends and family to share the historic moment that just happened.
If 9/11 was the first global event of the 21st century, then the race between John McCain and Barack Obama was the first global election. While non-Americans are not allowed to vote or donate money in the American political process, they were interested in the outcome of this election as if they could.
CNN showed images of people around the country and the world fixated on the returns as they were coming in, perhaps none as jubilant as those from Kenya, where Obama is treated like a national hero. The State Department gave credentials to 4,000 foreign journalists who were covering the race. Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund recently told Newsweek, "In a globalized world, America's president can shape lives worldwide. He is our president, too."
It was a big story here in Italy, routinely drawing coverage on the front pages of local newspapers or a slot in the first block in local newscasts.
"In Italy, many people hear abut the election everyday on TV and also on the Internet, but it's the same as if it were my election in my country," freelance Italian journalist Enzo Cursio said. "With the same passion as if it were happening in my country."
Ximena Alberttis, a 19-year-old student at John Cabot University in Rome voting in her first election, says the interest from Italians was intense. "All Italians were asking, 'Did you vote? You're voting for Obama, right?' They're pretty supportive of Obama here in Italy."
But the election impacts Americans the most, and for the people at the election watch party they could not be happier. Despite all the signs and the trends seemingly in their favor, many Democrats were superstitious and overly cautious about their chances last night. The Ghost of Elections Past was in the minds of some.
"There's a little part of me that thinks that we'll go to sleep and think that Obama is winning, and then we'll wake up and somehow magically McCain will have won," says Megan Fitzgerald, a career and entrepreneurial coach from Atlantic Beach, Fla.
At the time of the interview, Florida had not yet been called by any of the networks. As the ultimate outcome would have it, Florida was just the icing on the cake because by the time it was called in the middle of John McCain's concession speech, Barack Obama already had enough votes in the Electoral College to win the presidency. He essentially exorcised the ghosts of the last two elections by winning the two states that got George W. Bush elected.
Earlier in the evening before the first returns came in, Lisa Finerty, chair of the Rome chapter of Democrats Abroad which organized the event, was reserved about her party's chances on Election Day.
"I'm not a macro political gal, I'm a community organizer from Chicago so you start small," she answered, noting that she would probably have more to say after Virginia was decided.
After the final outcome was decided several hours later, Finerty was exhilarated and exhausted. Now that the presidential campaign was over, she pointed out it was time for the next step.
"It's a beginning. Those of us here have realized how much work was put into this campaign. It was like moving a battleship around in a bathtub," Finerty explains. "We need to muster that kind of energy outside of the campaign to do it in our government, and I think the will is there to do it."
While President-elect Obama's victory speech was well received, many took to heart the fact that the time for campaigning was over and the time for governing is about to begin. Obama made a lot of proposals and promises during the campaign, but even he was quick to admit he might not be able to achieve everything during his first year or his first term.
"The delivery is what I'm always a little bit cynical about," said former investment banker Giovanni Zoli.