Six years ago, at a rally in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, I heard Barack Obama speak out against the then-imminent invasion of Iraq. He was only a state senator then, and not the only elected official present nor the most prominent. He was not the keynote speaker, just one of many… but afterward, my girlfriend and I agreed that his speech was the most memorable of the afternoon.

Four years ago, in a banquet hall at the Chicago Hyatt, I attended the victory party for Obama’s U.S. Senate race. He spoke around the theme that has become his enduring mantra—”Yes We Can.” Everyone was enthusiastic, and there were many comments about what an incredible multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition he had put together, the most impressive demographic cross-section since Harold Washington’s mayoral victory two decades earlier. There were perhaps a thousand people in the room.

Tonight, on a beautiful Indian-summer evening, I stood in Grant Park among a crowd that was orders of magnitude larger. My girlfriend and I had been lucky a week earlier, when we both noticed and quickly responded to the e-mailed invitation that went out to donors and volunteers across Illinois, so we each received the much-coveted tickets for the Election Night event. We used our plus-ones to bring along a friend (a schoolteacher, former architect, who had shared a crowd with me before when we both walked in the historic March 2003 anti-war protest that closed down Lake Shore Drive) and his adopted eight-year-old African-American son, who had been following the presidential campaign with a passionate intensity and attention to detail that belied his age. Together with countless thousands of others, we celebrated the history-making moment when…

Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America.

I wasn’t the only person there tonight whose eyes welled up with tears when Obama finally gave his victory speech. Tears of joy, tears of exhilaration. It felt like releasing a breath we’d all been holding.

Holding for ten months… of anxiety and anticipation, since the primaries began.

Holding for eight years… as outrage piled upon outrage until it seemed that our capacity for outrage would be exhausted.

Holding for a lifetime, really… as disappointment followed discouragement in one election cycle after another. Cynicism has worked its way deep into my bones, and this feeling of optimism, of genuine excitement about a presidential election, was and is deeply disorienting. Welcome, but disorienting.

I envied our eight-year-old companion. For him, this is what elections are like. Everyone votes with enthusiasm. Everyone celebrates the outcome. And there’s nothing unusual about the victor being a black man.

This is a turning point, in more ways than any of us can yet know. Certainly, the issue of race in America will never be the same again. Certainly, the electoral map and people’s partisan alignments have shifted dramatically, in ways unseen in a generation. Obama won the highest popular vote percentage of any president in 20 years, the highest of any Democrat in 44 years. He beat McCain two-to-one in electoral votes. But beyond the immediate and obvious results, the deeper ramifications remain to be discovered.

When you’re living through history, you don’t get to know how everything will turn out. But at least we can finally stop holding our breaths. We can finally get the twenty-first century started. We haven’t changed the world, but we’ve won the chance to change it.

Yes, we can.

Tomorrow, and thereafter, I’ll have more typical, analytical posts to offer about what lies ahead, for Obama and for all of us. Thoughts on politics and policy, on how we got here and where we’re going.

Tonight, though… it’s still an emotional mélange, and I’m just waiting for the reality of it all to sink in. It’s been a long time coming.

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6 Responses to “President-elect Barack Obama”
  1. Regular Guy says:

    Obama sold us out.(AGAIN).Its no way any democrat will put this on the people who cannot afford this.These aren’t just numbers these are people’s lives.I was 1 of Obama’s biggest supporters.We need a democrat to represent us not a republican plant.Mr. Bernie Sanders,Mrs. Clinton,Mr. Allen Gracey former congressman from Florida please run for president 2012?OBAMA YOU SOLD US OUT YOU SOLD US OUT YOU SOLD US OUT.

  2. Mike Norton says:

    I’ve been hoping, and responses from around the world appear to bearing it out, that by this act of democracy we’ve at least momentarily regained the good will of most of the world. I remain hopeful that the sympathy and fellowship offered by most of the rest of the globe immediately following 9/11/01, which – as you notes – was slapped and otherwise pissed away by the Bush administration, will be extended to us again as we move to recover from a deeper devastation visited on us by the outgoing administration.

    This was the first election the older of my two sons was eligible to vote, and it was heartening on several levels.

    For one thing, he and his friends were genuinely interested in the election. Those who were old enough to vote did, and those who were months or even just days shy of that critical birthday were lamenting not being able to be part of the process.

    For another, nearly all of them got to see their votes lead to a new direction. (Among their group was one first-time voter who was a single-issue voter, in this case it was as a Pro-Lifer. Had I known this earlier I might have tried to talk to her about it, maybe to help her both see beyond the single issue and to grasp the lengths to which McCain’s running mate in particular was prepared to take the issue.)

    Now we watch with interest as his administration begins to form and priorities are set.

  3. phil from new york says:

    As a 60-year-old white man who grew up in the segregated South, I’m having a hard time articulating what this moment means to me personally. I have seen this whole transformation in my lifetime. I’m too young to remember Brown v. The Board of Education, but I do have a vague memory of President Eisenhower sending the troops to Little Rock to integrate Central High School. And, of course, I have etched in my memory the courage of the freedom riders, the March on Washington and “I Have A Dream,” the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the riots, the Kerner Commission Report and all the rest.

    Along with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement opened my eyes and turned me into the liberal I am today. I never thought I’d live to see a black (or multi-racial) president of the United States in my lifetime.

    My five-year-old grandniece and all her little friends and others like them will grow up thinking it’s no big deal to have a black president. Make no mistake about it, this is a transforming moment in American history. We still have racism and we’ll still have problems, but we have turned a corner and there will be no going back.

    In a larger context, America has come to its senses (at least for a while) after the long nightmare of the last eight years. The world has been watching and waiting to see if the American people would do the right thing and restore sanity to government. The Bush-Cheney regime pissed away all the goodwill we gained after 9/11. Now we’ll be able to try to get some of that back.

  4. I’m just glad I had a chance to be part of it.

  5. michael says:

    Chris, I want to thank you for helping turn Indiana blue. It is a heady experience to see that happen.

  6. Chris, You’re wrong on one thing, and I think you’ll find yourself glad of it when the time comes. It’s this one thing:

    You have changed the world already.

    Don’t stop here.

    Don’t stop now.

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