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History in the making: It’s U.S. President Barack Obama

05 Nov

History in the making: It’s U.S. President Barack Obama
WASHINGTON – Barack Obama was swept to the White House on Tuesday by enraptured Americans who embraced his message of hope and turned their backs on centuries of racial division by electing their first black president.

Lee-Anne Goodman, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Image: Obama family

 

    

The Illinois senator, born to a white mother and an African father 47 years ago, was elected in a momentous day that many black Americans believed they would never see. It came some 232 years after the country was founded on the ideal that all men were created equal.
News of his win prompted jubilant celebrations across the United States, as millions of weeping and exhilarated Americans took to the streets. It seemed less an election and more a coronation of a man who inspired Americans from every walk of life with his consistent message of hope and pledge to end the divisive politics of President George W. Bush.

"What we are witnessing in America is a non-violent revolution," Congressman John Lewis, an iconic figure of the civil rights movement, said Tuesday night as the results came in.

"It is a revolution of values. It is a revolution of ideas."

In Obama’s hometown of Chicago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a city park to celebrate their native son’s entry into the history books on an unseasonably warm night. Thousands of cheering people also assembled in New York’s Times Square in a scene more reminiscent of New Year’s Eve than election night. It’s considered a watershed moment in American history.

The U.S. economy is in a shambles. America’s prestige abroad has been battered. Victory in two wars in far-flung Iraq and Afghanistan remains elusive. Obama’s popularity among voters reflected the fervent desire of millions of Americans to chart a new course for a country that many believe has lost its way in the past eight years.

But it wasn’t just Obama who promised change. McCain, a moderate Republican distrusted by his party’s social conservatives, won the nomination on the pledge of a new direction for America.

The Vietnam war hero represented a repudiation of those very socially conservative ideals that had been the bedrock of his party for decades. He effectively ran his campaign against the Republicans. Nonetheless, polls had suggested for weeks that Obama was about to become the first African-American to be elected president.

Election day was the culmination of almost two years of politicking by McCain and Obama, who both fought tough battles during the primary season to win their respective party’s nominations. Their showdown against one another was bare-knuckled, but the economic crisis benefited Obama, who dealt with it with assured calm, compared to McCain’s erratic responses to the financial meltdown.

He continued to climb in the polls throughout the campaign. Some suggest the widespread acceptance of him as a viable presidential candidate represents the passing of a torch to a new generation, one that’s racially diverse, accepting of minorities, socially progressive and weary of old-style politics.

Obama was adored by major blocs of voters, including young Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 who favoured him almost 3-1 over McCain, and African-Americans, millions of whom registered to vote for the first time in order to cast their ballots for him. Women and Hispanic voters also flocked to him. At a Washington, D.C., subway station on Tuesday, one black man stood in tears on the platform as he spoke of how he’d voted earlier that day.

"I never thought I’d see this day," Sam Richardson, 65, said as he wiped tears from his face. "I just would never have believed it could happen in my lifetime."

McCain, a moderate Republican distrusted by his party’s social conservatives, won the party’s nomination on the promise of a new direction for the United States. The Vietnam war hero represented a repudiation of those very socially conservative ideals that had been the bedrock of his party for decades. He effectively ran his campaign against the Republicans. Nonetheless, polls had suggested for weeks that Obama was poised to become the first African-American to be elected president.

Election day was the culmination of almost two years of politicking by McCain and Obama, who both fought tough battles during the primary season to win their respective party’s nominations. Their showdown against one another was bare-knuckled, but the economic crisis benefited Obama, who dealt with it with assured calm, compared to McCain’s erratic responses to the financial meltdown.

McCain also faced relentless criticism for his choice of the much-maligned Sarah Palin as his running mate. After causing a brief bump in the polls for the Arizona senator soon after he chose her, the self-styled hockey mom and social conservative was a consistent drag on the Republican ticket.

Many Americans, including lifelong and prominent Republicans, said they could not vote for McCain because of Palin and would cast their ballots for Obama instead. Palin was emotional during McCain’s concession speech, her eyes welling with tears on occasion.

"My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," Barack Obama began.

"I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story … and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible."

It was the speech that launched him. Obama was an Illinois assembly member seeking his first term in the U.S. Senate, given a shot at the national stage when John Kerry asked him to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

He had those in the crowd on their feet, cheering wildly, even as many of them – even as many of us – wondered: Who is this guy?

A "skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too," he told us then.

He talked about hope and brighter days and standing at a crossroads in our nation’s history – themes that would become the bedrock of his own unprecedented run for the White House. And he touched on the many chapters of his life, as familiar to us now as his rallying cry for change.

There was the black father, also named Barack, who grew up herding goats in Kenya. He travelled on scholarship to attend the University of Hawaii and there, in a Russian language class, met 18-year-old Stanley Ann Dunham, the white daughter of Kansas-bred parents, christened after the father who worked on oil rigs and farms and served in the Second World War.

Barack ("blessed" in Arabic) was born on Aug. 4, 1961. But his parents’ marriage didn’t last, and his father would be absent for all but a month of the boy’s life. His mother, a free-spirited anthropologist passionate about helping women, raised him. Of her, Obama once wrote: "What is best in me I owe to her."

We would learn of the international upbringing, four years spent living in Indonesia after his mother remarried and brought her son to a Third World country, at once exotic and enlightening. Young Barack had a pet monkey, but he also saw poverty and disease, and his eyes were opened to a new world view.

That world view didn’t ease Obama’s own struggle with his biracial identity. He was among the few black students at his Honolulu high school, where he was known as "Barry" and met with others for a weekly "ethnic corner" discussion. He lived then with his maternal grandparents, including Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother he called "Toot."

In a remarkable dissertation on race earlier this year, a speech intended to rebuke Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks regarding the racial divide, Obama referred to his "white grandmother" as the woman who helped raise him, sacrificed for him and loved him, but who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her on the street and "who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Dunham died Sunday at age 86. His father died in a car crash in 1982, his mother of ovarian cancer in 1995. His half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, lives in Honolulu and teaches history.

The compelling life story that helped propel Obama from community organizer to celebrity politician emerged initially in 1990, after he was elected the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He was 28, a second-year student with a political science degree from Columbia University who had spent several years working the streets of Chicago mobilizing South Side residents to fight for themselves after steal mill closings left them struggling.

His election made headlines, even landing him his first book deal and, in a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, he professed a desire to stay "engaged in what I think are the core issues of the society." He mentioned poverty and race, saying, "I really hope to be part of a transformation of this country."

After Harvard, Obama rejected high-powered job offers, joining a small civil rights firm back in Chicago. He ran a voter registration drive and lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

He also married Michelle Robinson, a fellow Harvard Law School grad who served as his adviser during a summer internship at a Chicago law firm. The couple have two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

The jump into politics came in 1996, when Obama won an Illinois Senate seat representing Hyde Park, the South Side neighbourhood that encompasses the prestigious university as well as pockets of deep inner-city poverty.

Obama helped change laws governing the death penalty, ethics and racial profiling, and he won tax credits for the working poor. But he failed in his campaign for universal health care. He failed, too, in a 2000 bid for a U.S. House seat.

Then came 2004 and the opportunity to run for U.S. Senate – and to introduce himself to his fellow Americans.

He won the election, becoming only the third black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. But it was "The Speech" that made him a rock star. Talk of a presidential run began even before his first day in Washington. At first, he demurred.

But on a blustery February day last year, Obama returned to Illinois to the steps of the Old Capitol to announce his candidacy for presidency.

These past 21 months, he has drawn colossal crowds, spurring comparisons to the Kennedys (both John and Bobby). He took on race. He overcame rumours about whether he was a Muslim when, in fact, he is a Christian, as well as accusations of consorting with a 1960s antiwar radical.

He toppled the anointed Democratic front-runner, a historic candidate in her own right whose political acclaim and eight years spent as first lady weren’t enough to win her party’s nomination. He deflected repeated condemnation of his lack of experience.

And he crossed party lines, earning the backing of former Republican governors and senators and retired general Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state who, echoing the young Obama of Harvard days, called the Democrat a "transformational figure" who displays "a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems."

"I think that he has a definitive way of doing business," Powell concluded, "that would serve us well."

"Yes, we can!" all those legions of supporters chanted throughout the campaign.

And somehow, he did.

On Jan. 20, 47-year-old Barack Obama will take to another stage, the west front of the U.S. Capitol, to recite the oath of the country’s highest office.

The rock star will be known the world over as Mr. President.

And the skinny kid will take his place in history, proving that unlikely as it may have all been – it was, indeed, possible.

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Posted by on November 5, 2008 in News and politics

 

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