Tuesday, November 4, 2008

America 2.0: The United States of a miracle

8:01 P.M. PT. Bells are ringing tonight. Car alarms whooping and car horns wailing. In Seattle they’re shooting off fireworks in the cold air. Somebody just screamed. Somewhere, servers are crashing from the sudden traffic, cell phone lines are briefly jammed.

And somewhere, everywhere, people are laughing. And people are crying. Tonight, against all odds and truly, undeniably resetting the baseline of American possibility, Barack Hussein Obama, son of Kenya and Kansas, has been elected the 44th President of the United States of America.

The President-elect of the United States spoke after his victory, in Chicago's Grant Park before at least 250,000 people. "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.

"It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

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The election of Barack Obama resets that baseline to what we as a nation have told ourselves — in story and song and national lore, in our education and our popular culture, from the first moment we put our hands over our hearts — this nation stands for. The very concept of a “level playing field” has never meant more, has never been closer to being an absolute American reality, than it does and is today.

For the first time at this nation’s highest elective level, the Idea of America has fully become Praxis and become so in a way that is, more by intent than by coincidence, the single greatest act of bridging the racial divide in the history of this nation. And there's a more enduring sweetness of the moment: this was not achieved through some sudden exercise of the powers of succession, not through blind accident or extraconstitutional emergency, but through a regular, orderly canvass of the American people's desires in a national election. He won the gift outright.

The people of this brilliant, fractious, sentimental, argumentative, utterly unpredictable country chose someone to lead them and represent them to the world, and they chose a black man.

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There are few words to really express the power of what happened tonight. Nov. 4, 2008 is a new national ground-zero date, a soft ground zero. 11/4 is the day when black and minority Americans moved through the ceiling of our presumptive aspirations.

Not all the way through it, to be sure, but with head and shoulders clear, getting a glimpse of what, for all purposes, is a new world. From today, generations of black and minority children will never know a world without a black American president. The old threshold of what’s truly possible will not exist for them. This is terra incognita, and is an existential liberation the likes of which we’ve never known before as a people.

And this election invites the rest of us, the ones with a perspective of life B.O. (before Obama) and A.O. (after Obama), to a serious reevaluation of the balance of our own lives, and how — with a change at the very top — they might be put to the best and highest use. Something to Shoot For. Unlike before, something completely attainable. For a people hobbled historically and today by an unending series of social and economic woes, and the vacancy of spirit that follows in their wake, that is huge beyond measure.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s pursuit for the presidency was a 50-state journey, conducted at a breathless, relentless pace that raises the bar on what successful campaigns will require in the future. Expect a new Rule #1 for campaigning to emerge: No more conceding states to the enemy. If you presume to run all of the United States, you’ve got to run in all of the United States.

Obama’s campaign has rebranded the American political dynamic, and done it with a lean and vivid African American face. Is there a more telling symbol of this nation than the young eager politician, chock-full of the drive and energy that typify us, the campaigner relishing the sheer physicality of American politics?

Historically the visual symbols of that kind of politics, and the beneficiaries of their templatizing effect on popular expectations, have been white men. FDR. Truman. Three of the Kennedys. Reagan. Clinton. The Bushes. These are what highly successful presidential candidates look like. It’s always been this way.

Well, not no more. Obama crashed through that old iconography. The white male stranglehold on the perception of political dynamism, endangered when he began his quest, formally ended tonight.

That fact need not be an obituary so much as a birth announcement. The idea of a successful American politician has a different look tonight than it did yesterday. A look more like all of America. That’s more of a cause for celebration than anything else.

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It’s pleasantly ironic that the first president of the Internet age comes from an American demographic that has, until fairly recently, been behind the curve of Internet access and knowledge. Leave it to the African American way with the drum, and adaptability.

It was that adaptability that sprang from Obama’s earliest public incarnation that makes his victory at the polls tonight such a transforming thing.

Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ran down Obama on the campaign trail, more than once belittling his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. In doing that, they and the Republican Party missed the move Obama made to the hole — missed the bigger, broader, deeper truth of his organizing experience and what could be done with it in the age of the Internet.

McCain and the Republicans generally articulated the notion of a community organizer in outdated, stereotypical, central-casting terms: the scruffy kid in a peacoat and jeans sticking photocopied leaflets under windshield wipers before retreating to the storefront headquarters for coffee and face time with the hot new help.

They failed to see (right along with most of the country) the genius of Obama’s uncanny way with the new drum of the Internet, and his adaptation of the principles of community organizing — an embrace of the grassroots; developing an agenda among like-minded people; accessibility by the public; a populist approach to fundraising; an unwavering sense of the objective — in the service of a national presidential campaign.

They failed to see it all until the end: For Barack Obama, community organizer, the United States was another necessary and doable undertaking. A bigger community to be better, more perfectly organized.

◊ ◊ ◊

Bells will ring tomorrow. Car alarms’ll go off. And somewhere, everywhere, people will laugh and cry like every other day in life. But make no mistake, this nation has changed tonight, has shifted in its moorings to a different place.

The old equations of race and society are being changed, if not discarded. One of the social obstacles that have defined us and divided us for generations has been called into question, and set aside at the highest level, for the first time in our history. And we are better tonight as a nation than we’ve ever been before.

Briefly in some ways, forever in others, we’re witness to life in the United States of a miracle.
Image credit: Top: Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, August 2008. All due props to Jeff Riedel of GQ Magazine for what may be the best campaign photograph of 2008. Lower Obama, Obama and Biden: Obama campaign Web site. Sun-Times front page © 2008 Chicago Sun-Times.


  1. I ran errands this morning after a night of too much prosecco and just the right amount of history. I took my watch to get a new battery and band. A woman behind the counter, I believe the wife of the owner, said to me, "Your friend won." I replied that I did not know the president-elect, but was pleased with the outcome. She went to say she didn't Obama was that good a speaker and that Bush and McCain were better, plsu he would raise capital gains taxes etc. I nodded a lot and offered little in response. However, this was just the reminder I needed that the hard work is still with us. And so are the racial attitudes that make this still feel like a fever dream.

  2. We are truly witnessing a historic moment, and no one can doubt that a new American voice has spoken. I think a lot of Americans are still coming to terms with the transformation that has manifested - some of us are pinching ourselves, and others are in somewhat of a stupor at seeing their idea of America come crashing down... Obama's election represents many things, on many levels. As I see it, it seems that Obama is a president-elect who can potentially bring America back to its ideals, a truly inclusive vision of the Founding Fathers.

  3. Terrific commentary on this most amazing, wonderful, transformative election. Greetings and thanks for the post, from your canvassing partner of a couple of weeks ago.


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