ByDaniel Politi Posted Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008, at 6:44 AM ET
The polls were right. Barack Hussein Obama easily cruised to victory last night and made history by becoming the country’s first African-American president. The first-term senator from Illinois was elected the 44th president by beating John McCain in the key states that the candidates had spent months battling over, including Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which voted for a Democrat for the first time since 1964. A few states are still too close to call, but a preliminary tally gave Obama 349 electoral votes to McCain’s 144, far more than the 270 needed to win the White House. Democrats also won big in the congressional races, even as they appeared to fall short of the dream 60-vote majority in the Senate. In all, Democrats picked up five Senate seats with four key races still undecided and were on the path to pick up as many as 20 House seats.
All the papers mention the historic aspect of Obama’s candidacy in their banner headlines. USA Today points out that a mere “four decades ago, when Obama was 4 years old, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to ensure blacks can vote.” The Los Angeles Times calls Obama’s victory “a leap in the march toward equality.” The Washington Post points out that Obama is the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. The Wall Street Journal notes Obama is the first northern Democrat to be elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The New York Times says the election amounted to “a national catharsis—a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies, and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for a change in the direction and the tone of the country.”
When Obama strode onto the stage at Chicago’s Grant Park in front of tens of thousands of supporters (the LAT says 240,000; the WP and WSJ go with 125,000) he acknowledged his accomplishment and continued to espouse the main themes that have dominated his campaign over the past two years. “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,” he said. McCain also acknowledged the historic moment in the “gracious” (WP) concession speech he gave in Phoenix. “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” McCain said.
In the end, Obama won every state that the Democrats carried in 2004 and managed to grab several of the swing states that went for Bush last time. How did he do it? Although he lost among white voters, he won more of their support than John Kerry did in 2004. Obama won a majority of women and received huge support from black and Hispanic voters. The Democrat also won among independent and Roman Catholic voters. McCain did poorly among young people, getting around 30 percent of 18 to 29 voters, compared with the 45 percent that Bush won. The exact turnout figures won’t be known until all the votes are counted, but by all accounts a huge number of people participated in the election, and voters often had to wait in line for hours to cast a ballot. The WSJ says that all evidence seems to “point to the biggest voter turnout in the period since women got the vote in 1920.”
The WP‘s David Broder points out that while history books will rightly focus on Obama’s historic victory, the fact that the Democrats managed to strengthen their majorities in Congress “will be almost as significant for the governing of this country.” It marks the first time since the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency that Democrats will control both houses of Congress and the White House, “setting the scene for Democrats to push an ambitious agenda from health care to financial regulation to ending the war in Iraq,” says the WSJ.
Democrat Kay Hagan managed to beat Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, and in New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen defeated Sen. John Sununu. In the race for open seats, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner easily cruised to victory, and Tom Udall picked up a seat in New Mexico while his cousin, Mark Udall, won in Colorado. A little piece of good news for the Republicans could be found in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to beat back a strong opponent. The race in Minnesota that pitted Sen. Norm Coleman against Al Franken is still too close to call, and there’s also no word yet on whether Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska managed to hold on to his seat. In the House, Democrats also made strong gains, although it seems they will fall short of the 30 additional seats that many were predicting.
USAT points out that some analysts “see a turning point in American politics like what occurred in 1980” when Ronald Reagan’s victory ushered in a new conservative era. But many also caution that it all depends on how the Democrats govern and it could all end up being “a one-time repudiation of a Republican president” at a time of high economic uncertainty.
The LAT fronts the early returns from the measure to write a prohibition of marriage among same-sex couples into California’s Constitution. It’s still too close to call, but support for the measure is winning, 52 percent to 48 percent.
The WSJ and WP both front extensive post-mortems that look at how Obama actually won the race. They both start by highlighting how Obama’s calm and measured response to the financial crisis helped him, which is hardly news, but then go on to publish some interesting insider tidbits from the campaigns. The WSJ points out that McCain’s staffers realized they had a problem when they were moving to the general election campaign and in a strategy session five top advisers couldn’t reach a consensus on the basic question of why McCain should be president. “Without an overriding rationale, our campaign necessarily turned tactical rather than strategic,” one adviser said. “We focused more on why Obama should not be president, but much less on why McCain should be.” The WP notes the Obama camp was uniquely prepared for the general election after the hard-fought primaries and goes on to note that while much of the Democratic establishment started freaking out when McCain chose Sarah Palin, Obama’s camp saw it as a gift. Not only did the pick undercut McCain’s main argument that experience matters, but one of Obama’s top advisers knew the Alaska governor better than most since she had run a campaign against Palin two years earlier and was convinced she wouldn’t pass the vetting test.
There will be plenty of looking back in the weeks ahead, but now that Obama has been elected, it’s up to a leader with almost no executive experience to take on some of the biggest challenges a new president has encountered since Franklin Roosevelt. Suffice it to say, everyone agrees he’ll now have little time to rest as he has to quickly begin work on the transition. The WSJ, which goes the farthest in exploring Obama’s options by even listing his possible Cabinet choices, says that a shadow Treasury Department could be set up by the end of the week. The NYT says Obama will name the three leaders of his transition team today and might announce some top appointees by Friday.
Most importantly though, Obama will now have to decide how he will run his administration. As the LAT puts it: “Which Barack Obama will dominate as he begins to govern?” During the campaign he espoused twin ideals of setting out to change Washington while also remaining calm and collected during stressful times. Now, he could use his political capital to push legislation through Congress, but that would undoubtedly cause partisan bickering. By the same token, if he emphasizes compromise and bipartisanship, he would risk angering the people who elected him if he’s seen as too cautious and slow to make decisions. Ultimately, can Obama “fulfill his promise to govern in a unifying and inclusive way yet also push an ambitious progressive agenda?” asks the WP.
The NYT talks to Obama advisers who insist “he would not be passive and would move quickly to demonstrate leadership.” Of course, dealing with the economy will be his first priority, but it could be risky for Obama to try to espouse too much power before the inauguration. The LAT highlights that Obama is likely to “seek early, high-profile legislative victories with bipartisan support” and leave the more controversial measures for later. That means some of his more ambitious goals, such as health care and energy, would likely be either delayed or broken up into pieces.
The NYT‘s Thomas Friedman says the American Civil War officially ended last night. “The struggle for equal rights is far from over, but we start afresh now from a whole new baseline,” writes Friedman. “Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward everything really is possible in America.” In the end though, there is so much work to be done that breaking the racial barrier may “turn out to be the least” of the changes an Obama presidency will bring. “The Civil War is over. Let reconstruction begin.”