President-elect Barack Obama. Few thought it was possible when the self-described skinny, freshman senator from Illinois with a funny name announced his candidacy for the White House nearly two years ago. Now, he stands on the threshold of the most powerful office in the world after shattering the myth that a nation built in part on the shameful history of slavery and segregation was not ready to elect a black man as its leader. But on Election Day, Americans voted massively for change and a historic fresh start. They swept out the Republicans, who have held the White House for the past eight years, and gave the Democrats not only the presidency but also expanded majorities in Congress that will guarantee a new era of activist government. "It certainly has the feel of a watershed election," says presidential scholar Robert Dallek. And it's clear, Dallek adds, that "the pressure on Obama to deliver instantly is going to be enormous. People want this to be a time of unity, of coming together, and of consensus."
Whether he will succeed remains to be seen. But Obama's achievements so far are impressive. The middle-class son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, he came from far behind to capture the Democratic nomination from the powerful political machine of Hillary Clinton. He raised more money than any candidate in history, about $700 million. He eased doubts that at 47 he was too young and inexperienced to do the job and won the public's trust. He ran an extremely disciplined, methodical, and tech-savvy campaign—an indication of how he would preside over the White House—and, with charisma and eloquence, stayed true to his message of change and conciliation and the relentless defense of Middle America. In winning 52 percent of the vast popular vote of 133 million, he became the first Democratic president to break though 50 percent since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Through it all, Obama seemed preternaturally calm and confident—traits that will be invaluable as he prepares for his inauguration on January 20, when he takes office with Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as vice president. For starters, there is the global financial crisis to deal with. There is also the burgeoning federal deficit, which will limit his ability to spend money, a healthcare system in distress, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing threats from terrorists, crumbling roads and bridges, and a nation unsure about its future.
Trying times. Historians compare the situation to the one faced by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he took office amid the Depression and rising national-security threats in 1933. FDR focused above all on restoring America's confidence, and that will be Obama's approach, too. The president-elect said as much in his stirring victory speech on Election Night before tens of thousands of jubilant supporters in Chicago's Grant Park. "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 declared.
One thing that the two-year campaign revealed about Obama is that he is "capable of learning," says political scientist William Galston, a former White House adviser to Bill Clinton. Month after month, he became a better candidate, more nimble, more pragmatic, but always committed to helping the middle class, says Galston, adding that "he hit his stride at exactly the right time."
What put him over the top, in the view of political strategists of both parties, was his steadiness during the economic meltdown that started September 15 and resulted in a tidal wave of concern and anger over the troubled economy. Voters tended to blame the incumbent president's party for the mess, which was bad news for Republican nominee John McCain. And voters were impressed with Obama's calm and common sense during the crisis, while McCain seemed erratic and impulsive. That's when McCain lost his advantage as a tested commodity and a "safe choice," and Obama got beyond concern that he was too inexperienced and a risky choice, according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
McCain also made a huge mistake when he de-emphasized Obama's inexperience and argued that he, not Obama, would be the real candidate of change. This premise seemed to lack credibility, given that Obama was the first serious black presidential candidate in history and had made "change" his mantra for nearly two years.
Experience. The idea of Obama as a national-security neophyte remained worrisome for voters to the end, but McCain further muddied his message when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. She was popular with conservatives on social issues but she lacked national security experience, making it much more difficult for McCain to criticize Obama credibly on this score. "They walked away from their brand and their strength," Greenberg says. "That was a colossal error."