On Tuesday night here in the USA, Senator Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan economist and a white American anthropologist, was elected the 44th President of the United States. In every way, from fund raising to strategy to message, his campaign has defied expectations and torn down walls. He is the first African American to be elected president, an unparalled achievement for this country that, much like Australia, has long struggled to move beyond its history of racism and prejudice. And Obama did it without ever making the election a referendum on race.
He also scoffed at the conventional wisdom that to win an election, one 'microtargets' specific states and districts within states, placing all one of one's campaign efforts there. While Clinton and McCain both ran such campaigns, Obama ran a 50 state strategy, travelling and committing resources not only to places he might be able to win but places where Democrats had not set foot in a generation. His rationale, as his campaign strategist David Axelrod put it early in the evening, was that 'Sen. Obama wanted to be president of all 50 states, even those who disagree with him.'
So in his speech Obama extended his hand to his those who did not support him, saying, 'I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.' In the light of the last eight years, in which one party fundamentally dismissed not only the concerns but the voices of the other, a truly remarkable statement.
Also in the face of the Clinton/McCain, baby boomer generation of politicians who tend to speak in terms of an 'us' battling a 'them' and in some cases use fear as a motivator, Obama spoke to what Abraham Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature,' his main themes social reconciliation, self-sacrifice and the shining 'audacity of hope'. Few of the politicians or pundits of the Clinton/McCain generation seem to appreciate or respect even now the deep reservoirs of yearning Obama's words have tapped into. As someone here said to me recently, 'I'm so tired of war. The war in Iraq, the war on terror, the culture wars – enough with wars.' Lacking that sense of the electorate's frustration with division and nastiness, both the massive Clinton political machine and the McCain campaign foundered.
Obama's campaign ran an astonishing 21 months, some 670 days. 45 debates were held in that time, and $2.5 billion combined was spent by his campaign and all others. In his win he looks to have become the first Democrat to win at least 50% of the popular vote in over 30 years, and the first in even longer to win while his party also gained seats in the House of Representatives. (Estimates suggest the House Democrats will gain upwards of 25 seats, and the Senate Democrats somewhere between 5 and 7.)
Now 2:30am, a few hours after the official announcement and Obama's acceptance speech, the occasional hoot of joy can still be heard on the streets. From the moment the final call was made the streets were filled with people, many of them young, wandering around with broad dazed smiles on their faces and cheering. In Times Square, at the White House and elsewhere around the country thousands of clapping, screaming, roaring people spontaneously poured in. The sense of relief and liberation, of chains being cast off, is palpable. When Obama spoke, all cheered. Some also wept.
It's been terribly hard these last eight years. It's the sense of powerlessness, not simply at world events, but of having been caught in a system that is doing terrible damage to the States, the world and our common future, and seeming to have no power to make it stop. Of watching American ideals abandoned, attacked as naïve, and replaced with a cold, cynical, dehumanising calculus. From a religious perspective, we've been living Good Friday, all our faith and dreams utterly compromised, and we left with nothing we can hope in. We were wrong; it can't get any better than this. Now just shut up and deal with it.
Standing amidst the euphoric crowds in Times Square, it was like we were all in a fairy tale, waking from a horrible dream. The witch is finally dead, the winter freeze is thawing and the world is slowly coming back to life again. Finally, a resurrection.
That's not to say the problems our world faces are no less large or scary because of who was elected president of the United States. But we've been reminded that more is possible than that which meets the eye; that we each can make a difference, and make this world a better place for everyone. Maybe that's the heart of the American dream – as Sen. Obama likes to say, 'Yes, we can.' And that dream is meant for all. As Barack Obama said tonight, speaking explicitly to the world community, 'Though our stories are singular, our destiny is shared.'
Jim McDermott SJ is an associate editor at America Magazine, the weekly review of the US Jesuits. He recently finished a seven month assignment in Australia.
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06 November 2008
beautifully beautifully truly said.
06 November 2008
His vision of hope and inclusiveness and of a joyful shared humanity is inspiring. Thank you for such a fine commentary.
07 November 2008
Thank you. You said it all.
07 November 2008
With regard to US presidential elections I would normally wait until the campaign strategist, in Obama's cae David Axelrod, wrote his definitive history of "How we won the Presidency".
But in this case I must go against my better judgement and draw attention to the huge electoral warchest Obama was able to fill with donations from big corporations and labour organisations.
He was able to outspend McCain threee times in the head to head presidential election itself and more than held his own with Hillary Clinton et al in the primaries.
I'm not asking commentators like Jim McDermott to take an emotional cold shower. Of course the election of an African-American upper-middle class professional Democrat after eight years of the worst kind of Republican as represented by GWBush is a great relief. Like rain it is after years of drought. But let's not forget that 48% did not vote for Obama.
$2.5 billion was spent on the US presidential campaign as Jim says: 75% on some estimates by the Democrats.
Let us not forget in the midst of our euphoria "He who pays the piper calls the tune."
I hope and pray that the sounds I hear coming from America over the next four years will be music to my ears.
But David Axelrod will not be the sole conductor of the Obama Presidential Orchestra. There will be many financial backers wanting to grab the baton.
Well may we pray, pace Gough Whitlam, "God bless America".
13 November 2008
You're ubiquitous, Father Jim. And eloquent, too. (Even at 4 a.m.)