The man who once described himself as a ”skinny kid with a funny name” stood before a vast, euphoric crowd — and a watching world — and in a speech that was by turns sombre and inspirational, took upon his shoulders the great weight of leadership of the United States of America.
Barack Obama emerged on to the stage at Chicago’s Grant Park as president-elect to greet a crowd that had waited for several hours to see him — and for decades to witness such a moment. There had been tears all evening, as one key state after another fell — first Pennsylvania, then Ohio — turning the hope of victory into a certainty.
But for many it was the sight of the man himself that finally made reality sink in. There he was: an African-American man who from today will be addressed as Mr President.
Obama himself seemed to understand the gravity of the moment. Save for a few thank-yous to his campaign team — and a message to his daughters that they had earned the new puppy that the Obamas will take with them to the White House — he did not deliver a cheery victory speech celebrating an electoral triumph. Instead he used the occasion to give the first address of his presidency.
He declared that ”Change has come to America,” but left no doubt that his election marked only the first step along a road that will prove long and hard. ”We may not get there in one year or in one term,” he cautioned. ”But we will get there.”
Reprising a line he had used in the stump speech that launched his ”improbable journey” in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire a year ago, he reminded his audience that they were a nation at war, with an economy in trouble, living on a planet in peril. He called on all Americans — including those who had not voted for him — to join him in the tough work ahead: ”I hear your voices, I need your help and I will be your president too.”
It was one of several calls for unity from the man who made his name with a 2004 plea for America to remember that it is not made up of blue states or red states, but must always be the United States. He seemed to be attempting to assemble a new coalition, even a government of national unity, to tackle the great challenges of the age. In a flourish that echoed John F Kennedy, he declared: ”Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”
The crowd in Grant Park — scene of one of the most bruising chapters in recent US political history, the Chicago riots of 1968 — stood rapt. They listened as Obama seemed to steel them for a collective effort unseen since the days of FDR.
That crystallised a sense that had been building about Obama in the final weeks of his campaign: that he aspires to be not just a successful politician who wins elections, but a genuine leader — ready to steer his people through an onslaught of troubles. ”America, we have come so far,” he said, as if the entire nation were gathered before him. ”We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.”
He also had a message to the rest of the world, one that will be welcomed almost everywhere. ”To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from Parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world — our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
In this speech, and with his victory, Barack Obama has drawn a line under the last eight years, ending an American era that few will mourn. For today marked nothing less than the first day of the Obama presidency.
End of a long journey
Obama won at least 338 Electoral College votes, far more than the 270 he needed. With results in from more than three-quarters of US precincts, he led McCain by 52% to 47% in the popular vote.
McCain, a 72-year-old Arizona senator and former Vietnam War prisoner, called Obama to congratulate him and praised his rival’s inspirational and precedent-shattering campaign.
”We have come to the end of a long journey,” McCain told supporters. ”I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our goodwill.”
Blacks and whites celebrated together in front of the White House to mark Obama’s win and Bush’s imminent departure. Cars jammed the downtown Washington streets, with drivers honking their horns and leaning out their windows to cheer.
Thousands more joined street celebrations in New York’s Times Square and in cities and towns across the United States.
”This is the most significant political event of my generation,” said Brett Schneider (23) who was in the crowd for Obama’s victory speech in Chicago.
”This is a great night. This is an unbelievable night,” said US Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who was brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, during a voting rights march in the 1960s.
He was at a celebration in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the home church of King, who led the civil rights movement and was murdered in 1968.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, joined the celebrations in Chicago on Tuesday night, tears streaming down his cheeks. – guardian.co.uk