Freshman Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois completed his "improbable journey" to the White House with a stunning victory over John McCain on Tuesday, racking up far more than the necessary 270 electoral votes to become the first African-American to be elected president. McCain called Obama to concede shortly after 11 p.m., and quickly delivered a speech in which he said: "I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president good will and an earnest effort ... to find necessary compromises to bridge our differences." President Bush also phoned Obama, promising a "smooth transition."
According to early returns, Obama also appeared likely to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter did it 32 years ago. Obama led a nationwide resurgence of Democrats in the Senate and House in what was widely perceived as a broad repudiation of the Bush administration and the Republican Party. With the Democrats picking up additional seats in the Senate and the House, the Democratic Party will now control Washington's agenda in a way that has not been seen since Ronald Reagan declared the era of "big government" to be over in 1981. "His presidency is probably going to mark the end of the Reagan era—this whole conservative impulse that has dominated the country's politics for the last generation," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "I think you're going to see a whole new era of federal progressive activism."
For Obama, it was a poignant and gratifying victory on a number of levels. The election came a day after the death of his 86-year-old grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who had helped to raise him and whom he credited for his pragmatism and common sense (she managed to vote for him by absentee ballot before she died). Four years ago, Obama was an obscure state senator best known for his eloquence and his early opposition to the war in Iraq. But he rocketed to national renown with a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and in the following year won election to the Senate. As the Democratic primary season began a year and a half ago, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York was seen as a virtual shoo-in for the nomination. But by campaigning on slogan of "change you can believe in," the Washington neophyte outlasted her and several other establishment lions, including the man he eventually named as his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden.
In the general election, Obama surged past McCain, the veteran Arizona senator, with what many political experts said was not only the best-funded but also one of the best-organized campaigns in American history. Obama became known not only for his stupendous rallies—at his last one on Monday in Manassas, Va., he gathered about 100,000 supporters—but for amassing hundreds of millions in individual donations and organizing grass-roots get-out-the-vote efforts. Obama was also aided in the final months by an abrupt economic downturn that seemed to tilt many undecided voters his way—and will almost certainly prove to be one of his most pressing issues upon taking office Jan. 20.
The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya who bequeathed his name to him, Barack Hussein Obama, 47, qualifies as one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of American politics. Obama managed to transcend race as an issue for most of the campaign, despite some early stumbles related to questions about his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Even so, he never let Americans forget that he consciously chose, as a young man, to identify himself as a member of the black community, and he often spoke of the legacy of the civil-rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A former president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama could have had his choice of cushy jobs but chose to be an inner-city organizer instead. "I'm running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now," he said after winning the Wisconsin primary earlier this year.
For McCain, it was a bitter loss after a remarkable campaign in which he seemed to come back from the dead after being almost counted out for the GOP nomination in the summer of 2007. The 72-year-old Arizona senator, who savored his reputation as a maverick, knew he had an almost impossible task. He needed to energize a smaller GOP base while reaching out to the middle in an environment in which vast majorities of Americans said the country was headed in the wrong direction. On his plane ride home, long before the results were in, McCain sounded an elegiac note. "We've had a great ride, a great experience, and it's full of memories that we will always treasure," McCain told reporters.
At the Marriott Hotel in Glen Allen, Va., a despondent crowd watched Fox News call Pennsylvania and then Ohio for Sen. Barack Obama. But it wasn't until Fox News called Virginia for Obama at around 10:45 p.m.—with 91 percent of precincts reporting and just 50,000 votes separating the candidates—that the remaining two dozen or so people at the state Republican Party's "victory" celebration expressed the full extent of their disappointment. "I'm devastated," said Carl Woo, a 54-year-old CPA from Richmond. Woo's friend, a furniture-store owner named Ed Barden, tried to reassure him. "It's not over yet," Barden said. "But the patient's on life support," a dejected Woo replied.
Obama succeeded not only because of discontent with the Bush administration and the GOP over issues such as the Iraq War and the economy, but because he managed to broaden the Democratic Party's appeal nationally. In winning Florida, for instance—which went to the Republicans in the last two elections—Obama took 55 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls, says Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, Obama's Hispanic polling firm. That marks the first time in memory that a Democrat has carried the state's Latino vote. Obama also managed to win states that no Democrat had managed to take in decades, like Virginia.
More than any previous president, Obama's background is a dramatic mix of races and cultures; every family gathering is "like a meeting of the United Nations," he has joked. Born in Hawaii, Obama spent most of his youth there and in Indonesia and moved to the U.S. mainland only as a young man. Yet Obama sees himself as no less a true-blue American for all that. His beloved mother, Ann, wanted him to be "a citizen of the world," Obama once told NEWSWEEK, but he said that "somehow didn't feel right for me. I wanted to be rooted in an American city and an American context."
He is also, to a degree that is unusual, rooted in the nation's North and Midwest, regions that have been somewhat eclipsed after a generation in which the nation's demographics have favored Southern and Western candidates. Obama is the first Northern Democrat to take the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The "Sun Belt" politics represented by George W. Bush "has for the moment played itself out," says Dallek. And the era of Barack Obama has begun.