So it begins. After 16 months, more than 35 million votes, and 54 hard-fought contests, Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, has reached a historic plateau. As the first African-American to become the presumptive presidential nominee of a major party, he has a good chance to win the highest office of a land that once condoned slavery and for many years kept blacks segregated from the white population, forcing them to live as second-class citizens or worse. A generation or two ago, in fact, he would have been consigned to the back of the bus in many communities. But last week, Obama reflected happily on how times have changed, telling ABC News's Charles Gibson that his success is a "testament to this country's urge to live up to its ideals, as imperfectly as that is sometimes."
The historic nature of Obama's ascent is becoming clearer with each passing day. "He has become one of the great orators in American history, and he is the African-American politician who has gone furthest in American life," says historian Doug Brinkley. "He's already claimed an important part in our racial history. He's this generation's Horatio Alger story, whether or not he takes it to another level."
Obama came from nowhere as a first-term senator from Illinois to defeat Hillary Clinton, the favorite of the Democratic Establishment and a universally known former first lady who had full use of the powerful political machine developed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Six months ago, Hillary Clinton led Obama by about 20 points in national polls. But Obama's message of hope and healing carried great resonance, and he scored one of the biggest upsets in political history.
No sooner had Obama locked up the nomination on June 3 than he and Republican candidate John McCain began trying to frame the general election. And the contrasts couldn't be more dramatic. McCain, 71, a white-haired conservative with a maverick streak, is a former POW in Vietnam who still bears the scars of his injuries and the torture he endured in captivity. He would be the oldest person to be sworn in for a first term as president.
New leader. Obama, 46, a silver-tongued liberal with a gift for oratory and a commitment to sweeping change, not only would be the first black to hold the presidency but offers a strong generational contrast to McCain. Obama's multicultural background, not only from his parents but from his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives him a unique basis to understand the diversity that is at America's core and to serve as a new type of leader who could break down barriers in international affairs. At least, that is his promise.
But McCain pegs Obama as too inexperienced to be commander in chief and too liberal for mainstream America. "The perception of Obama is a cultural leftist. He disses religion, and there's a chasm between his world experience" and that of Middle Americans, says a McCain adviser, referring to the flap over Obama's comments about Pennsylvania voters being "bitter."
For his part, Obama paints McCain as a man of the past who would continue the status quo, is out of touch with the problems of everyday Americans, and would offer a continuation of the policies of the unpopular George W. Bush, not the sweeping change that Americans are looking for. In a deft bit of gamesmanship, Obama gave his victory address to 17,000 cheering supporters in the same St. Paul, Minn., arena where the Republicans will nominate McCain in September.
Most pressing for Obama now is not to frame the general election debate but to figure out how to deal with Hillary Clinton. Typical of their close race, the two rivals split the last two primaries on June 3, with Obama winning Montana and Clinton taking South Dakota. It was the superdelegates—elected officials and party activists who aren't bound by primaries or caucuses—who put Obama over the top.
Obama used his victory speech to extend an olive branch to Clinton, praising her as a tenacious, public-spirited leader "who inspires millions" and who demonstrated "an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans." A former adviser to Bill Clinton says Obama's graciousness and unflappability are two of his most appealing traits. "Obama is steady," he says. "He can amend his views and consider new things, be flexible. He has a suitable temperament for the presidency."
Complicating Obama's efforts at reaching out, Clinton and her aides floated the idea publicly that she was willing to accept the vice presidential slot on Obama's ticket. This frustrated and miffed some Democratic strategists, who felt that she was overstepping her bounds. Obama advisers said privately that their candidate wouldn't be strong-armed or maneuvered into choosing her. Obama said he would bide his time before making his selection, and he quickly announced the formation of a panel of supporters, including Caroline Kennedy, who will create a list of possible running mates. This served notice that he would wait until emotions cooled before making his decision and took a bit of the pressure off.
Clinton is under consideration. But some Obama loyalists said he might strengthen his chances of defeating McCain if he named someone with more national security or military experience than Clinton has to compensate for one of Obama's vulnerabilities as a foreign-policy neophyte. This could argue for picking Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former United Nations ambassador who is also Hispanic.
Obama's campaign has been ground-breaking in several ways beyond moving across a racial divide. He raised more money than any candidate in history, an estimated $265 million from 1.5 million people, including many small donors on the Internet. His message of conciliation and change mobilized young voters and African-Americans in record numbers. Even Republican strategists admit that Obama could assemble an unusual winning coalition this fall of traditional Democrats, the young, the affluent, African-Americans, antiwar activists, independents, and millions of others yearning for change.
But Obama also faces some big challenges. McCain is harshly criticizing his lack of national security credentials—a big concern among voters. Stung, Obama plans trips to Iraq and possibly Europe in a few weeks.
Town hall. In addition, McCain and his team are eager to outmaneuver him politically. The day after Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, McCain challenged Obama to join him for at least 10 joint town hall meetings around the country, with questions asked by citizens and no moderator or panel of reporters.
At first blush, this proposal seemed an interesting way to debate the issues, but it also plays to McCain's strength. He enjoys the town-hall format more than any other form of public communication, and he isn't nearly as effective as Obama in formal debates or in giving speeches. Further, joint town-hall meetings would give McCain extensive visibility and might reduce the advantage Obama would have in paid TV advertising because of his enormous ability to raise money. Obama said he would participate in at least three formal debates with McCain but didn't commit to the town-hall format. But his aides said the idea is interesting and Obama could eventually agree to it.
And, despite the strides the country has made, Obama's racial background still could be a significant drawback. Some voters have told pollsters that they won't vote for a black man. In addition, many working-class whites and seniors tell pollsters it's not race that bothers them but the perception that Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School who is given to elegant suits and high-flown turns of phrase, seems to be an elitist who doesn't understand their everyday lives.
Advisers to McCain say he will make an unrelenting push to court such voters, particularly moderate and conservative Democrats who backed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and are again disaffected with their party. "If we're going to win this election, it will be because we won Reagan Democrats," says a key McCain strategist. He adds that, since the economy isn't doing well, the argument probably will have to be based on "values issues," such as patriotism, religious faith, and opposition to gay marriage and abortion, in addition to supporting troops and winning the war in Iraq.
Obama is taking steps to address those concerns and plans to talk more frequently about how he was raised by a white mother and white grandparents after his father left the family when he was 2 years old. As part of that effort, he dedicated his nomination victory to his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who still lives in the two-bedroom Honolulu apartment where he was raised during his adolescence. He will also focus on courting swing states that he lost to Clinton in the primaries, including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Obama has an advantage because of the country's mood. Polls show the country is unhappy with Republican policies on the economy and Iraq, which benefits the Democrats. Many voters are upset about soaring gasoline prices and corruption in Washington. Recent polls show 8 of 10 Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, and a similar percentage disapprove of President Bush's job performance. Says historian Robert Dallek: "We're looking at a new upsurge of progressivism, a desire for federal activism, a desire for integrity at the White House."
All this represents a ready-made formula for a Democratic victory. But there were similar predictions in 2000 and 2004, and the Democrats failed to seize the moments.