The senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, made history Tuesday when he was elected the 44th president of the United States. The scale and sweep of his victory are nothing short of breathtaking: Not only did he win a landslide in the electoral college, but he rode a Democratic wave into Congress. He should savor his victory: He knows the road ahead will be steep and that his win was the means to an end, not an end in itself. The real work now begins.
It is hard to imagine the distance Mr. Obama has traveled to the presidency. As he said in his victory speech, he was never “the likeliest candidate for his office.” He is a first-term senator, who five years ago was just a state senator. His journey took him from Hawaii to Indonesia and back, to California and then on to New York and Chicago. It included the rarefied air of Harvard Law School and the gritty streets of Chicago’s poorest communities.
He burst onto the national political stage during the 2004 Democratic Convention with an eloquent and electrifying address to the party faithful. He launched his campaign in 2006, a long-shot bid that ultimately prevailed over such luminaries as Sen. Hillary Clinton and his eventual running mate, Sen. Joe Biden. His victory in the primaries and his landslide win Tuesday are a testimony to his vision, his perseverance and the extraordinary political machine he and his team put together. While the symbolism of his win is important, so too are the mechanics that made it possible.
Mr. Obama raised $640 million, the most money ever raised by a presidential candidate. Most significantly, it came from individuals, small donors who were reaching into their pockets for the first time, a sign of how he galvanized ordinary Americans. Just as important was the decision to conduct his campaign in all 50 states — to reach out to all Americans and try to construct an enduring Democratic majority in the U.S. Only four years ago, Republicans were talking about constructing a new and permanent Republican majority. That project is dead and the electoral map is in flux. Time will tell how the GOP responds to this defeat — whether it regroups and moves to the center of American politics or embraces the base and moves further toward the fringe of U.S. opinion.
It is not clear whether the Democratic Party’s wins in the Senate — now comfortably in Democratic hands — and the House of Representatives, where it has made significant gains — were ushered in via Obama’s coattails or were the product of a more general rejection of the Republican party. All public opinion polls showed an overwhelming majority of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track. Outgoing President George W. Bush is the face of that failure. The economic crisis, the war in Iraq, health-care insurance, and a sense that the country had lost its standing and its way in the world all contributed to the Democratic victories.
Despite his lack of experience, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Obama won. He is a thoughtful and deliberate man, and an extraordinary speaker who combines the rhythms of the pulpit with the logic of a law school professor. Still, it is remarkable that Americans turned to Mr. Obama to get back on track, for he is an African-American, and few people thought that the country was prepared to select a black man as president. Indeed, the symbolism of that victory is the greatest hope for the U.S. Mr. Obama’s win is a reminder that all things are possible in the U.S., that hope can prevail and that the country will strive to find and use the best of its people. His win embodies the ideal of America as a land of opportunity for all. His anthem, “yes we can,” exemplified and embraced the promise of his candidacy.
While he can change the tenor of the national discourse and offer a new course for the nation, reality will prove considerably less amenable to his not inconsiderable talents. In many ways, the greatest challenge Mr. Obama now faces is reconciling the expectations of his supporters with the constraints he will inherit. While he has promised to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, that will not be an easy process. It must be done in a way that does not hurt U.S. security, its credibility or its image in the world. And even if that is a success, he faces a renewed insurgency in Afghanistan that will continue to drain U.S. resources. To tackle these challenges and the many more that will top his foreign policy agenda, he will need friends and allies. He must reach out and assure them that they — we — will be part of his effort. Some in Japan feared an Obama victory. The leadership in Japan should seize the moment to forge a stronger relationship with the new administration.
He inherits a nation that is diving into recession, whose financial system is broken, and a government and a society that are living well beyond its means. He must rein in spending while reducing taxes, find ways to provide health care for all Americans, get the economy back on track, and provide assistance to the millions of people suffering through the downturn. Most important, he must bridge the partisan divide that has poisoned American politics. His victory is a reminder that such dreams are not beyond reach. We wish him good luck.