At the Times, it is house style to refer to a successful Presidential nominee by his full name in the lead of the main story the morning after the election. He may be Bill or Jimmy on his campaign posters, but in the newspaper of record on that one momentous occasion he is William Jefferson or James Earl, Jr. So say it loud and say it proud: Barack Hussein Obama, President-elect of the United States. Of the United States of America, as he himself liked to say on the stump—always, it seemed, with a touch of awe at the grandeur and improbability of it all.
Barack Hussein Obama: last week, sixty-five million Americans turned a liability—a moniker so politically inflammatory that the full recitation of it was considered foul play—into a global diplomatic asset, a symbol of the resurgence of America’s ability to astonish and inspire. In the Convention keynote speech that made him instantly famous four years ago, Obama called himself “a skinny kid with a funny name.” Funny? Not really. “Millard Fillmore”—now, that’s funny. The Times contented itself with referring to the candidate’s “unusual name.” Unusual? Unusual would be, say, “Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Ten weeks from now, the President of the United States will be a person whose first name is a Swahili word derived from the Arabic (it means “blessing”), whose middle name is that not only of a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad but also of the original target of an ongoing American war, and whose last name rhymes nicely with “Osama.” That’s not a name, it’s a catastrophe, at least in American politics. Or ought to have been.
Yet Barack Obama won, and won big. Democrats have now achieved pluralities in four of the last five Presidential elections. But Obama’s popular vote was an outright majority—a little more than fifty-two per cent, at the latest reckoning—and the largest share for a nominee of his party since Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964. Obama made significant gains compared with John Kerry, four years ago, in nearly every category that exit polls record: black folks but also white folks; liberals but also conservatives; women but also men. His gains were especially striking among Latinos, the very poor and the very well-off, Catholics and the unchurched, and the two groups most likely to be concerned about the future—young people and the parents of children living at home. And although the Obama wave does not seem to have brought with it a filibuster-proof Senate, it did sweep into office enough new members of both houses of Congress to offer him the hope of a governing legislative majority.
This election was so extraordinary in so many ways that its meaning will take many years to play out and many more to be understood. But there is already the feel of the beginning of a new era. As in 1932 and 1980, a crisis in the economy opened the way for the rejection of a reigning approach to government and the forging of a new one. Emphatically, comprehensively, the public has turned against conservatism at home and neoconservatism abroad. The faith that unfettered markets and minimal taxes on the rich will solve every domestic problem, and that unilateral arrogance and American arms will solve every foreign one, is dead for a generation or more. And the electoral strategy of “cultural” resentment and fake populism has been dealt a grievous blow.
Obama is young, educated, focussed, reassuring, and energetic. He is as accomplished a writer as he is a speaker. His campaign was a marvel of discipline, organization, and prescience. He has, as a conservative critic acknowledged, “a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.” We have had these qualities in our Presidents before, if rarely all in the same person. But Obama’s most visible attribute, the only one mentioned in that Times lead, is unique, even revolutionary: the color of his skin. As surely as Appomattox, the post-Civil War constitutional amendments, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the nineteen-sixties, Obama’s election is a giant victory in the long struggle against what an earlier generation of Republicans called the Slave Power and its long legacy of exclusion and hate.
During the campaign, Obama’s “exoticism”—both real (his childhood in Jakarta) and imagined (“he’s a Muslim”)—served bigots as a cover for racism. But it was a shield as well as a vulnerability. It set him apart from the stereotypes of racial prejudice. It broadened rather than narrowed his “otherness.” His absent father was Kenyan; if the son’s line of descent includes American slaves, they are hidden on his mother’s side, as they are in the lineage of myriads of this country’s white citizens. His upbringing in his mother’s far-flung world and the polyglot Hawaii of his white grandparents gave him the perspective of both an outsider and an insider. His search for identity—the subject of his book “Dreams from My Father,” now assured of a place in the American literary canon—made him a profound student of the American dilemma. In his Philadelphia speech of March 18, 2008, prompted by the firestorm over his former pastor, he treated the American people as adults capable of complex thinking—as his equals, you might say. But what made that speech special, what enabled it to save his candidacy, was its analytic power. It was not defensive. It did not overcompensate. In its combination of objectivity and empathy, it persuaded Americans of all colors that he understood them. In return, they have voted to make him their President.
A generation ago, few people anywhere imagined that they would witness the dissolution of Soviet totalitarianism, or the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of a multiracial South African democracy, or the transformation of China into a fearsome engine of capitalist commerce. Nor did Americans of an age to remember Selma and Montgomery and Memphis imagine that they would live to see an African-American elected President of the United States. It has happened. No doubt there will be disappointments and difficulties ahead; there always are. But a few months from now a blue-and-white Boeing 747 emblazoned UNITED STATES OF AMERICA will touch down on a tarmac somewhere in Europe or Asia or Africa, the door will open, and out will step Barack and Michelle Obama. That is something to look forward to.