At the moment just after eleven o’clock Eastern last night when the networks all declared that Barack Obama would be 44th president of the United States, I was standing on a grassy knoll looking out over Grant Park in Chicago, remembering the first time I met the guy, almost exactly twenty years ago. We’d both just arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, him at Harvard Law School, me at the Kennedy School of Government. One day, I was loitering on the steps of the law-school library, when a mutual friend walked over with him and introduced us. I don’t think we shook hands, because I was busy clawing into a pack of Marlboro reds. We both just nodded, and Obama said, in a tone that struck me — or so I’ll tell people from this day forward — as eerily presidential, “Hey, you mind if I bum one of those? I’m dying for a smoke.”
Having watched Obama since that day emerge as a figure of prominence and promise and outsize achievement — the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, the third black U.S. senator since Reconstruction, the first black major-party presidential nominee — I suppose that I should have been psychologically prepared for what occurred last night. But I wasn’t, and neither, it seemed, were the 240,000 people who gathered to celebrate in and around Grant Park. When Obama took the stage and delivered his speech, their raucousness subsided. There were cheers, no doubt, but they were muted. There was joy, but it was hushed. It was as if, for all their longing for Obama to win, they never quite believed he would. And now, faced with the reality, his supporters were slightly dumbstruck, awed and overwhelmed by the sense of historic significance that suffused the warm night air.
Obama’s address played a part here, too, in quieting the crowd, for although it had its stirring passages, its overriding tone was one of sobriety, seriousness, and humility. Which was precisely as it should have been. Indeed, the speech struck me as pitch-perfect, exquisitely calibrated to the moment: replete with appeals to unity and common purpose, drenched with a recognition of the vast responsibility now on his shoulders, and also with a patriotism deeply felt and movingly conveyed. In parts, it reminded me of the themes — the desire to the turn the page after more than a decade of nasty, knee-jerk, red-blue warfare and mindless ideological reflex (and reflux) — that Obama struck so compellingly back in Iowa, themes that took a backseat as he became a more conventionally partisan candidate during the general election.
“Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” Obama said. “Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House — a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends … though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn — I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.”
Those words would have had different implications had Obama’s victory been won by razor-thin margins; they would have been more a plea than a promise. But instead, Obama stood before the crowd able to claim a rare kind of mandate. He was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to claim a majority of the popular vote, and his 52 percent of it was the largest secured by a member of his party since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He won states in every region of the country, some of them places that no Democrat has been competitive in years or even decades — Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina — and he even scored a partial victory in Nebraska, where no Democrat has ever before prevailed. [Ed. Note: Updated 11/08.] He won among women by thirteen points, among men by one. He won overwhelmingly among black voters (95–4), Hispanic voters (66–32), young voters (66–32 among 18- to 29-year-olds) and new voters (68–31).
And although Obama didn’t win the white vote overall, no sane analyst ever expected him to do that. But his share of it, 43 percent, was higher than Al Gore or John Kerry attained in 2000 and 2004 — a point of particular pride to his advisers. Moreover, among white voters aged 18 to 29, Obama beat McCain by fully ten points.
All along, the central questions of the 2008 election were these: How much had the country actually changed? Was it really ready to elect an African-American president? With the coalition Obama assembled, he provided definitive answers: a lot and yes. The power of that young whites-plus-minorities coalition is difficult to overstate. It’s not just the future of the Democratic Party. Demographically speaking, it’s the future of the country.
To say that now the hard part starts is a cliché, but it’s also true. Truer, in fact, in the case of Obama than for most new presidents. The troubles that await him are daunting and many, foreign and domestic. The expectations that have been heaped upon him are ludicrously weighty. It’s all too easy to spin scenarios in which Obama winds up humbled, broken, a failed one-term president, and trust me, there are already neurotic Democrats and vengeful Republicans churning up those dark and foreboding visions. But me, I’m thinking about a line I remember reading in 1992 — possibly crafted by the great Mike Kinsley, but I’m not sure — on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s election: “Of course it will all end in tears, but today it feels great.” I dunno about you, but for now I am content to go with that.