Election 2008

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President-elect Barack Obama walks on
stage with his daughter Sasha, 7, to
deliver his victory speech, Nov. 4, 2008.

Barack Obama, the First African-American President

November 05, 2008 07:53 AM
by Liz Colville
Democratic candidate wins landslide victory, becoming the first African-American to hold the country’s highest office. Here’s how he got there.

Obama’s Historic Achievements

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In a win over Sen. John McCain, the naval veteran and senator from Arizona now serving his fourth term, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama has become the first African-American elected president, defying speculation that a one-term senator who first joined the Illinois State Senate in 1996 was not experienced enough to capture the presidency.

November 5 tallies by the New York Times give Obama a 338-161 victory in the Electoral College, including wins in key states like Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Iowa, as well as narrow wins in Florida and Ohio. Obama won more than 62.5 million votes to McCain's 55.5 million, according to the Times.

Sen. Obama’s victory came as several polls in the final week of the presidential campaign narrowed, suggesting Sen. McCain could clinch the presidency. Key states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia seemed increasingly up for grabs as Nov. 4 approached, with RealClearPolitics’ “Battleground States” polling aggregator adjusting several of the swing states from the “leaning Obama” category to the “toss-up” category.

But Sen. Obama, who raised tens of millions more in campaign funds than Sen. McCain, opting out of the capped public financing system established in 1972, may have been able to win these states by a get-out-the-vote effort that saw many new Democrats added to the registrar. In September, the Huffington Post reported that the Democrats “have a lead of 11 million registered voters over Republicans,” although both parties accelerated their efforts as registration deadlines approached.

The candidates’ tax plans made up the brunt of discussion at rallies and debates in the final weeks of the election. Sen. Obama’s promise to bring tax relief to the middle class is considered to have been a factor in boosting his poll performance and votes he obtained in industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In his concession speech, delivered just minutes after television networks declared Obama the winner at 11 pm EST, Sen. McCain said, "This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life. And my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend Senator Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years."

Background: Obama’s Path to the Presidency

Sen. Obama burst onto the national scene in 2004 after a moving keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, where the party nominated Mass. Sen. John Kerry. In the speech, titled “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama, then a candidate for U.S. Senate, revealed his political platform, which he fleshed out further in a book of the same name. (The title was derived from a sermon by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)

Obama’s “politics of hope” proposed a government that would reject “cynicism.” He concluded his speech with phrases that would be echoed during his presidential campaign: “I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs for the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair.”

Although there had been black politicians before the civil rights movement reached its greatest achievements, Martin Luther King is certainly credited with bringing the civil rights movement from the street to the White House, following in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps as an advocate of nonviolent protest.

During his Senate race in 2004, Obama ran against Republican Jack Ryan, who was then mired in a personal scandal and eventually left office. The party’s replacement: the African-American Alan Keyes, a “perennial presidential candidate” of the “Clarence Thomas mold,” writes CBS’s Dean Reynolds, and someone who “could also give one heckuva speech.” As it turned out, so could Obama. Reynolds dubbed Obama “something of a political rockstar” after his 2004 DNC address, but argued that the Senate race did not give the presidential candidate a real competition.

Recalling Roy Wilkins and King’s work during a July speech to the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, Obama seemed to express a desire to use a new breed of politics to keep working for racial equality. He told his audience that “we have more work to do” in order to “break the cycle of poverty and violence gripping this country.”

Opinion & Analysis: America Ready for Black President

In The Wall Street Journal, Charles R. Kesler writes that Obama’s term “politics of cynicism,” established early in his political career, serves as an “all-purpose explanation for the ‘gridlock and polarization’ that characterize our small politics today, that rob Americans of “our sense of common purpose—our sense of higher purpose.” (The quotes are derived from Obama’s DNC address).

In early 2008, Dennis Haysbert, the African-American actor who portrayed President David Palmer on “24,” suggested that his six-season role had helped pave the way for Obama’s presidential candidacy. Salon’s Louis Bayard, running through numerous media portrayals of black presidents, agreed. “[I]t’s hard to deny that six years of the Palmer brothers have inured a whole segment of Fox America to the sight of black faces in the Oval Office. But, in fact, the Palmers are just the latest milepost in a long road of acculturation that has taken several curious detours along the way.”

San Francisco Chronicle blogger Willie Brown compares Obama to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to play in the Major Leagues. Obama “hardly brought up race at all” during the campaign, Brown says, arguing that his candidacy had nothing to do with being black. “Jackie Robinson didn’t get into the majors because he was black—he got there because he was a great ballplayer. Barack Obama won’t get elected president because he is black—he’ll get elected because he is a brilliant politician.”

Key Player: Barack Obama (1961– )

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a Kenyan goat herder-turned-economist father and a mother from Kansas; they divorced when Obama was 2 years old. Raised in Hawaii by his mother and maternal grandparents, Obama attended Occidental College and Columbia University and then worked as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. After working for Project Vote, at a law firm and as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, Obama joined the Illinois Senate in 1996 and the U.S. Senate in 2004, defeating Republican and fellow African-American Alan Keyes.
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