x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'A new dawn of American leadership'

Barack Obama's decisive victory capped the remarkable political rise of a man who transcended race to be elected the first black US president and whose campaign on the twin themes of hope and change captivated the United States and the world.

President elect Barack Obama looks on after giving his victory speech during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov 4 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.
President elect Barack Obama looks on after giving his victory speech during an election night gathering in Grant Park on Nov 4 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.

CHICAGO // He promised change, and it has come. Barack Obama's decisive victory on Tuesday capped the remarkable political rise of a man who transcended race to be elected the first black US president and whose campaign on the twin themes of hope and change captivated the United States and the world. Mr Obama, a first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, pledged throughout his historic 21-month campaign to take the country in a new direction at home and abroad and to bring to Washington what he called a "new kind of politics". With that message he was able to draw into the fold - and to the ballot box - millions of people who previously felt alienated by US political leadership and tuned politics out. Mr Obama, 47, and his vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden, competed in a climate that favoured Democrats from the start, in large part because of the unpopularity of George W Bush, whose approval ratings have been abysmally low. And in the final weeks of the race, a worsening economic picture redefined the contest and helped Mr Obama connect with voters in a way his Republican rival, John McCain, did not, on the issue that by far mattered to them most. At the same time, Mr Obama ran what many called a highly disciplined and strategically flawless campaign. He reshaped the US electoral map using a strategy that saw him pursue votes on Republican-leaning turf where Democrats traditionally have not, using an army of volunteers the likes of which has not been seen. In the end, Mr Obama's victory over Mr McCain, a 72-year-old Arizona senator and war veteran who has served in Congress for nearly three decades, was even more decisive than pre-election polls suggested it might be; he won at least 349 electoral votes to Mr McCain's 147, far more than the 270 needed. He captured an estimated 52 per cent of the popular vote, to 47 per cent for Mr McCain, the largest victory by a Democrat since Jimmy Carter's. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Mr Obama told a rally of tens of thousands of supporters at Grant Park in his adopted hometown of Chicago. But even as he celebrated and savoured victory, Mr Obama acknowledged the challenges ahead, calling them "the greatest of our lifetime". As the 44th president of the United States, he will inherit a domestic economy that has all but collapsed, two difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what he described as a planet in peril - and expectations that could prove impossibly high. "The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."One of the big unknowns of the campaign, the longest and most expensive in US history, was what role race would play; it was not even half a century ago when blacks were forbidden in some parts of the country to drink water from the same fountain as whites or to sit at the front of a bus. Mr Obama made a conscious decision to run a campaign largely devoid of racial considerations, and he was sometimes called a "post-racial" candidate. But race entered the contest, awkwardly and forcefully at times. Mr Obama was obliged to confront it head-on in the Democratic primary after video clips showed the Rev Jeremiah Wright, his long-time pastor in Chicago, using incendiary rhetoric in some of his sermons, including one in which he damned America. There were doubts about his ability to connect with, and win over, working-class whites; some white voters, particularly in rural and conservative areas of the country, vowed outright not to support a black candidate. In the end, though, while he was buoyed by near unanimous support from African-Americans, Mr Obama drew the backing of a broad and racially diverse segment of the electorate. According to exit polls by the Associated Press and the major television networks, he received 43 per cent of white votes overall, the most by any Democrat running in a two-way race since 1976. That included 54 per cent of young white voters. Exit polls also showed Mr Obama winning about two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, and 84 per cent of those who had supported Hillary Clinton, his rival in the Democratic primary. To many, part of the appeal of Mr Obama's candidacy was his promise to bring the country together, something Mr Bush pledged to do eight years ago but could not. On the stump Mr Obama often used a line he first spoke in 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, a speech that effectively launched his national political career: there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is not a black America and a white America, there is just a United States of America. On Tuesday he pledged once again to bridge the types of divides that hard-fought campaigns tend only to highlight. Mr McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor, spent the final weeks of the race attacking Mr Obama as "risky" and "dangerous" for the country, and supporters at some of their rallies turned angry and even hateful. "As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies, but friends'," Mr Obama said, referring to another president to hail from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who served in office during the Civil War. "'Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection'."And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn," he said, "I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help and I will be your president, too."A new dawn of American leadership is at hand," he said. Many times throughout the race, Mr Obama - whose campaign mantra was "Yes We Can" - held himself up as an example of the American dream, saying his rise to the heights of political power was an unlikely one. He was born to a white mother from small-town Kansas and a black father from Kenya who left the family when Mr Obama was two; his mother sometimes had to rely on food stamps. He spent a few childhood years in Indonesia but grew up mostly in Hawaii, where he attended a boarding school on scholarship; he then attended Columbia University in New York. After a stint as a community organiser in Chicago, he attended Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Mr Obama launched his political career in Chicago in 1996, winning a seat in the Illinois state senate. In 2004, he was elected to the US Senate. A little more than two years later, he was pursuing the presidency. The prospect of him clinching the Democratic nomination was considered - back then - an improbability. He took on one of the biggest names in Democratic politics in his bid for the party's nod at a time when conventional wisdom held that it belonged to Mrs Clinton. But in January, nearly a year after he launched his campaign, he stunned the political world when he upset the New York senator in the Iowa caucuses. From there on out, the contours of the race were changed. Democrats feared that his protracted and sometimes bitter battle with Mrs Clinton - she did not drop out of the race until June, after the last primary - would hurt the party's chances in November. But the hotly contested primary probably helped him win on Tuesday. He has said that Mrs Clinton made him a better candidate. And the grassroots infrastructure he built - beginning early - all across the country, including in states that traditionally favour Republicans, ultimately allowed him to expand the electoral map. That gave him far more paths to victory. Mr Obama's win was a sign of a much broader Democratic success. The party added seats to its existing majorities in both the House and the Senate. When Mr Obama takes office in January, it will mark the first time since Bill Clinton's presidency that Democrats control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. That could usher in challenges of its own, as Mr Obama and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill will have to decide how far and fast to push their agenda.Mr Obama said the election was just a first step."This victory alone is not the change we seek," he told supporters. "It is only the chance to make that change." eniedowski@thenational.ae