The Democrat breaks the ultimate U.S. racial barrier with his defeat of Republican John McCain.
By Mark Z. Barabak
November 5, 2008
Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, was elected the nation's 44th president Tuesday, breaking the ultimate racial barrier to become the first African American to claim the country's highest office.
A nation founded by slave owners and seared by civil war and generations of racial strife delivered a smashing electoral college victory to the 47-year-old first-term senator from Illinois, who forged a broad, multiracial, multiethnic coalition. His victory was a leap in the march toward equality: When Obama was born, people with his skin color could not even vote in parts of America, and many were killed for trying.
"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 told more than 240,000 celebrants gathered along Chicago's waterfront. Many had tears streaking their faces.
"It's been a long time coming," said Obama, who strode on stage with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. "But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."
Obama was beating Republican John McCain in every state Democrats carried four years ago, including Pennsylvania, which McCain had worked vigorously to pry away. Obama also made significant inroads into Republican turf, carrying Ohio, Colorado, Indiana and Virginia; the latter two voted Democratic for the first time in more than 40 years. He won the swing states of Florida, Iowa and New Mexico, which backed President Bush in 2004.
In winning the White House, Obama modified the electorate:About 1 in 10 of those casting ballots Tuesday were doing so for the first time. Though that number was about the same as four years ago, most of the newcomers were younger than 30, about a fifth were black, and a fifth were Latino. That was greater than their share of the overall population, and those groups voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
He also won large majorities of female, black and Latino voters. Although he lost among white voters, Obama did better than Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in 2004.
Voters also handed Obama a fortified congressional majority, as Democrats picked up at least five seats in the Senate and more than a dozen in the House. The party knocked off at least two GOP incumbents, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
With Obama leading every preelection poll, his hometown of Chicago was primed for a celebration. Downtown skyscrapers stayed lighted for the occasion on an improbably warm November night. At Grant Park, giant video screens were tuned to CNN, and raucous cheers erupted each time a state fell Obama's way, until finally victory came just a few moments after polls closed on the West Coast.
Shortly after, Arizona Sen. McCain called the president-elect to concede. President Bush then telephoned with his congratulations.
In Phoenix, McCain, 72, delivered a gracious concession speech that nodded to history and his erstwhile foe.
"We have come to the end of a long journey," a somber McCain said. "The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight."
He shushed the crowd when they booed Obama -- "Please," McCain said, motioning for silence -- and urged them to join him in working with the incoming president for the greater good of the country. "Whatever our differences," McCain said, "we are fellow Americans."
McCain, burdened by his party's frayed image, prevailed in a band of states that make up a shrinking Republican base, mainly in the South, the Plains and parts of the interior West.
Two of the hardest-fought states -- North Carolina and Missouri -- were too close to call.
For most voters, the sagging economy was the topmost concern -- a dynamic that played strongly to the Democrat's favor. Six in 10 voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the nation, according to exit polls -- far more than cited energy, Iraq, terrorism or healthcare.
Obama alluded to those worries and others in his victory speech, offering a note of sobriety amid the celebration.
"The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there."
Voters flocked to the polls in record numbers Tuesday, continuing a pattern of electoral exuberance that started in the primary season.
There were scattered voting problems reported throughout the day, including long lines, malfunctioning voting machines and mislaid ballots. But there was nothing like Florida's infamous "butterfly ballot" fiasco, which sent the 2000 presidential contest into several weeks of overtime before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to settle the race.
Mostly, there was patience, good cheer, and for many, pride in taking part in a slice of history, whatever the result; had McCain won, his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would have been the first woman to serve as vice president.
Lines began forming across the country before the sun had risen, with queues starting at 4 a.m. in New York City. The outcome across most of the Democratic-leaning Northeast was never in doubt, but many felt it was their responsibility -- and privilege -- to vote.
"I needed to cast my own ballot today, not just because it's my duty as a citizen but because for once it feels like it counts," said Eric Schwartz, 36, a computer specialist on New York's Upper West Side. "It's a more global feeling. Like I needed to make a mark on a day when things matter. Today, everyone matters."
Obama will be one of the youngest presidents in American history, the first born outside the continental United States (in Hawaii) and only the third to move directly from the Senate to the White House.
He burst on the national political scene just over four years ago, with an electrifying keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. His soaring speech previewed themes he would reprise in his presidential bid, including a call to end the partisanship symbolized by a country divided into Republican red and Democratic blue.
Months after that address, Obama won his Senate seat, and there was immediate talk of a run for president. The speculation, however, vastly understated the challenge facing Obama, who by his own admission entered the crowded Democratic field as an underdog. His victory over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton after a long, contentious primary season was in itself a major political upset.
Contrary to the wisdom at the time, the battle did not sap but rather strengthened Obama. He built campaign organizations in traditionally Republican states, such as Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado and Indiana, that came into play in the fall thanks to the groundwork laid in the spring.
Obama also became a better, more substantive candidate and a much stronger debater, which served him well in his three matchups with McCain. Obama's unflappable performance on stage and steady response to the Wall Street meltdown helped allay voter concerns about his judgment, maturity and readiness to assume office, undercutting what was perhaps McCain's strongest argument against the freshman lawmaker.
For all the wild celebration -- in Los Angeles, New York, Kenya and outside the gates of the White House -- there were quieter moments Tuesday that captured the weight of history.
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a veteran of civil rights protests in Selma and Birmingham, Ala., and other racial flash points, was among hundreds of black Atlantans who crowded the pews for an election-watch party at the Rev. Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church. When CNN called Pennsylvania, an early harbinger, Young pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed away tears.
Later, in Chicago, Obama recalled images of that turbulent time: "the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people, 'We shall overcome.' "
He spoke of other triumphal moments: landing a man on the moon and winning the Cold War. "America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do," Obama said. "This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time."
Barabak is a Times staff writer.
Times staff writers Richard Fausset in Atlanta, Michael Finnegan in Chicago, Johanna Neuman in Washington and Maeve Reston in Phoenix contributed to this report.