What Barack Obama did, in one sense, is not all that remarkable. He is a Democrat who won in a year when a Democrat was supposed to win—in a year when the Republican incumbent had become a pariah and America's finances (along with Republican economic theory) lay in ruins. Obama's greater triumph was winning the nomination.
On that chilly day in February 2007 when he declared his intentions, it was far from obvious Obama would be the candidate left standing. His experience seemed too slight, his ambitions too grand—and then there was that race thing. The speculation was that he was really running to be Hillary Clinton's vice president.
As we all know now, Obama won because he had a better organization and a more resonant message. He won because he offered decency instead of cynicism, because he seemed calm and steady under fire and because he held out the promise (evident in his often-featured genealogy) that America's many strands could come together as one. So when his opponents in the general election suggested he was some wild-eyed, un-American extremist, many voters simply couldn't accept that. It brings to mind the question Richard Pryor posed when caught in a compromising position: "Who are you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?" Most people, it seems, believed their eyes didn't lie.
During the primary season, my daughter, then 5, would periodically ask whether Hillary or Barack was winning. And it struck me that hers would be the first generation to grow up believing it perfectly natural for a white woman or a black man to be president. Obama's election is not an event we can comprehend fully right now. It portends a shift whose magnitude will only be realized as my daughter's generation comes of age. But it will change, forever, our assumptions of who can become what in this world.
The political implications are similarly huge. The modern electoral map owes much to the social upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, when the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights and the GOP the party of white resentment. The "Southern strategy" always depended on whites to vote their racial anxieties over their economic self-interest. It is unlikely that strategy can survive an Obama presidency, given that Americans, overcoming centuries of prejudice, proved more interested in ending our collective economic misery than in keeping the White House in white hands.
This is not to say we have transcended race. Poverty, incarceration and opportunity all remain too color-coded. A few years back, when Princeton sociologists Devah Pager and Bruce Western sent identically credentialed testers to apply for more than 1,000 jobs, they discovered that employers were more willing to take a chance on whites with criminal records than on blacks with no record. (Latinos were more favored than blacks and less favored than whites.)
But they also discovered something else: that as applicants spent more time with prospective employers, the numbers began to shift. Whites went from being 9.6 times more likely to receive a callback or job offer than blacks to 1.9 times more likely. Prejudice was persistent, but familiarity went a long way toward breaking it down. Americans of different races are becoming more comfortable with each other. Obama's ascension is the strongest indicator of that—and it comes at a critical moment.
In an essay written months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Life publisher Henry Luce pronounced the dawning of "The American Century." In this new era, America was called upon to "accept wholeheartedly our duty … as the most powerful and vital nation in the world." It was our job to feed the world's hungry, to guarantee the world's freedom and spread America's gospel of democracy.
It will fall on Obama to update Luce's vision—to herald in a New American Century, one alive with both possibility and humility. With Obama's election, he breathes life into the American Dream by embodying at least one aspect of its fulfillment.