Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Place Where all Things Are Possible

How significant is this? It is hard to comprehend the full meaning of Election Night, but a couple of thoughts come to mind, randomly, and maybe they will fit into some larger theme.

-- Barack Obama won 54 percent of the vote of the Virginia county that was the setting of Walton’s Mountain.

-- Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House filled immediately and spontaneously after 11 p.m. when polls closed in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. Though I had witnessed many public demonstrations there in the past, either as a participant or paid observer, this was reminiscent of what I had read of the candle-lit crowd that appeared after Lincoln was assassinated.

-- Joyous crowds gathered spontaneously in Washington at an intersection known as 14th and U. It is a place from my childhood and teen years that epitomized the one place no white person should ever be found, dead or alive. It was the intersection where civil insurrection erupted on April 4, 1968. Now, 14th and U is the center of a gentrified neighborhood of condos, restaurants, small business and gay sensibilities, among others. (And a much better class of whores that can be found on Capitol Hill.)

-- A mayor of Chicago named Richard Daley arranged for and invited the entire populace of “Chicagoland” to Grant Park to celebrate an event that takes it place next to the first American revolution and right after the Civil War as a moment in history that will be remembered for centuries and in every corner of the world.

Grant Park, of course, was where a previous Mayor Richard Daley fought and thought he won a war that Bill Ayers, Joseph Wright and so many others resisted until it became “no big thing” that an African-American whose middle name is Hussein could fill the vast yearning of white, brown, red and black Americans to get past old divisions.

I will stop now and wait for later to fully digest what this means, this incredible turnout of about 125 million voters -- and to stop crying.

This generational torch passing ought to wind up with a masterpiece of spot-history, written by a Congressional Quarterly author who came by his talent on his own:

Obama Wins; America Elects Its First Black President
By Jonathan Allen, CQ Staff

Yes, he did.

Democrat Barack Obama was elected to be the nation’s 44th president, and its first black commander in chief, on Tuesday, defeating Republican John McCain .

Obama crossed the threshold of 270 electoral votes when a trio of West Coast states, California, Washington and Oregon were called in his favor at 11 p.m., but it became clear earlier in the evening, when he captured Ohio’s 20 electoral votes, that he would win.

Obama, a 47-year-old first-term Illinois senator, was swept into office by an electorate that also expanded Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, better positioning him to enact the raft of changes he has promised to make once he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Obama’s most solemn campaign vow, one that initially fueled his primary victory over former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and later distinguished him from McCain, was to end the six-year-old war in Iraq by sharply limiting the size and scope of the U.S. force there by May 2010.

But it was the faltering national economy, particularly a September meltdown in the financial sector, that gave resonance to Obama’s long-articulated call for a change in the nation’s fiscal course.

McCain, Arizona’s senior senator, had difficulty distinguishing his own economic prescriptions from those of President Bush, whose extremely low approval ratings did not benefit from the dire economic news.

Obama, on the other hand, promised to implement economic recovery plans that would cut taxes for lower- and middle-class families, let Bush-era tax cuts for couples earning more than $250,000 expire, increase the federal minimum wage, freeze home foreclosures, and spend hundreds of billions of dollars to create millions of new jobs and bolster the nation’s infrastructure.

He won praise for his selection of Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. , the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as his running mate, a choice that contrasted starkly with McCain’s pick of then-little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin , who had no experience in national or international affairs.

Palin, who energized conservative voters, would have been the first woman to win the vice presidency.

Obama’s election caps a rocket-like political ascent that took him from state senator to U.S. senator to president-elect in the span of four years. It comes 138 years after African Americans won the right to vote by adoption of the 15th amendment to the Constitution and 43 years after the Voting Rights Act ensured that the federal government would back that right.

“Tonight the vision of the founding fathers, the Constitution and ‘a more perfect union,’ have intersected with the hopes and aspirations of the descendents of the slaves -- on this night they became one,” said Illinois Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. , a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign.

“The American people have entrusted to Barack Obama the future of our nation,” Jackson said. “America showed the world a peaceful revolution, the power of redemption. Because of their faith the American people will now have a government as good as the American people.”

Obama won Rust Belt states where some analysts had once predicted he would have trouble persuading working-class white voters that he would best represent their interests and at least one state, Virginia, that had not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964.

To lay claim to the Oval Office, the relative newcomer out-dueled Clinton, who is New York’s junior senator, in a long and contentious primary and beat McCain, a 26-year Capitol Hill veteran whose lifelong service to his country included more than five years of captivity as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

He also deftly moved past a few potential pitfalls of his own making, including his relationships with convicted Chicago influence-peddler Tony Rezko, the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, who has said that the United States government created HIV to kill black people, and Bill Ayers, the leader of the violent 1960s and 1970s Weather Underground organization that bombed the Pentagon.

Obama’s equanimity proved to be one of the hallmarks of a campaign that developed a reputation for uncommon discipline and calm.

The candidate demonstrated a unique combination of political skills by connecting with massive audiences through a rhetorical style that weaved together soaring calls for hope, change and action with the rousing cadences of a preacher, by inspiring volunteers to sign up by the thousands, by devoting resources to teaching those volunteers to do their own organizing, and by raising record-shattering sums of money for his campaign.

Well aware of his fundraising potential, Obama became the first modern candidate to reject public funding for a general election and ended up raising a total of $639.2 million for the primary and general elections through mid-October -- a treasury that enabled him to spend several times McCain’s output in battleground states during the campaign’s stretch run.

But it was Obama’s willingness to invest time, energy and money in grassroots organizing that was critical to developing the most sophisticated political operation in American history, according to Marshall Ganz, a public policy lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who helped design and implement the organizing program used at “Camp Obama” training sessions across the country.

“They built this broad financial base and then they were able to do all the media stuff and invest in the organization-building that was required to make the whole thing happen,” Ganz said. “It’s not that expensive but it’s the thing that always gets cut.”

Ganz says Obama used a narrative form to articulate common values, created a relationship with supporters by talking about what they could do together rather than what he would do for them, and committed to teaching organizing skills that could be used to grow the campaign.

“There’s a kind of a resonance that emerged between Obama, the articulator of a call, and the way in which the organization developed on the ground that I think reinforced one another and then becomes very powerful.”

A graduate of Harvard law school who worked as a community organizer in Chicago before serving eight years in the state Senate, Obama first appeared on the national political scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston as a Senate candidate.

It was there, as he delivered the keynote address in support of that year’s Democratic nominee, John Kerry , that Obama began to win Democratic, ndependent and some Republican hearts and minds with a speech entitled “The Audacity of Hope” in which he appealed for national unity by observing that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America ... we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

The speech made Obama an instant star in the Democratic Party and marked him as a potential presidential candidate, though close associates say he did not begin to seriously consider running until after the 2006 mid-term
congressional election.

CQ © 2007 All Rights Reserved Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037


  1. Anonymous7:09 AM

    I am, of course, delighted with Obama's victory and I sat up until 3am UK time, until I was sure he had made it. America has an amazing capacity to renew itself. From one of the most reactionary administrations which has, I believe, brought shame on America's image abroad with its criminal war and its fascist concentration camps on Cuba, it has, overnight, changed the picture incredibly to a leader who is not just a black man - unthinkable not too long ago - but maybe one who has some of the most radical ideas ever seen in a leader of your country. Its going to be a tough haul at home and the danger is this 'walk on water' expectation which he can never live up to, but its a wonderful start just to be rid of the world of Bush and Cheney. I hope his approach to foreign policy will be more even handed than past administrations and - I know this is a ticklish one with you, Ira - I believe there is a real possibility of movement on the Palestinian situation with an American leader who may be able to step back a little from this Israel/US bear hug. Not suggesting the US should abandon Israel in any way, but just that its policies in the area show a little more understanding of the issues on both sides.

    Anyway a marvellous night for America ..and the world, I think

    Brian F

  2. Ira and Jon,

    Thanks for summarizing things so well.

    No novelist could have written such a story and been taken seriously.

    My wife and I were in tears of joy last night. For those of us who grew to adulthood in the late'60s, it will take a while to fully absorb how we feel. Perhaps our feelings will be governed to some degree by the expectations we had for America in our youth, and the degree to which we have felt disillusioned in the 40 years since 1968. My overwhelming thought last night was that this is how it is supposed to be. And not just (or even mostly)because we elected an African American. But, rather, because we elected someone with the temperament, intellect, and wisdom to lead us in trying times. And because President-Elect Obama is so clearly the best person to lead us. His speech last night provides precisely the template we need. The phrase "he gets it" has been overused. But in this instance, it is fully apt.


  3. Brian,

    My fervent hope is that Obama's election means that the Palestinian leadership, weak and stupid as it is, can figure out to lie low and give him the cover needed to actually make some progress.

    Domestically, the economic crisis will give Obama cover to not attempt politically risky new programs.

    The guy is golden.