Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) — Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, opening a new chapter in the country’s history as the first African-American to hold the world’s most important job.
The Illinois senator capped his 21-month quest with a sweeping electoral victory that also enhanced the Democrats’ majority in Congress and marked the end of an era of Republican dominance in Washington.
Obama crossed the requisite threshold of 270 electoral votes to defeat Republican rival John McCain, when television networks declared him the winner in the state of California.
That gave the Democratic nominee at least 275 electoral votes, according to the projections, and his tally is likely to grow as more results come in and states that backed Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 switch sides.
Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in congressional contests, puts him and his party in firm control of the federal government for the first time since the early 1990s. That gives Obama an opportunity to turn his victory into a pivotal moment in the country’s political history.
“He wants to be a transforming leader,” said presidential historian James McGregor Burns in a Bloomberg radio interview. Such a leader, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “knows how to proclaim great goals and summons the people to help him realize those goals,” said Burns, who has written biographies of Roosevelt and other presidents.
Obama swept to victory by promising a change in Washington, inspiring millions of new voters and volunteers along the way. He persuaded the electorate that he could best handle the economic crisis facing the country and raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, overwhelming McCain.
Having based his presidential bid on change and using that theme to create a new electoral coalition, Obama must now follow through or risk alienating those supporters, Burns said.
“He has made that so crucial to his campaign: change, change, change,” Burns said. “This man cannot escape now the responsibilities of trying to bring it about.”
And while Obama will have the opportunity to build on his appeal to young Americans and energize their generation, there is no guarantee of success, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.
“The problems that George W. Bush has had, especially in his second term, have really hurt the Republican Party’s brand,” Keeter said. “There’s no reason to think that couldn’t happen if Obama has problems as well.”
Obama, 47, is scheduled to address supporters tonight in Chicago’s Grant Park. McCain, 72, an Arizona senator, is holding an election-night event in Phoenix.
The racial symbolism of Obama’s campaign was never far from the surface. He formally declared his candidacy in February 2007 in Springfield, Illinois, evoking the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and his call for the nation to overcome the divisions of slavery. Obama ended his campaign Monday night with a rally in Manassas, Virginia, the site of two Confederate Civil War victories.
At the same time, Obama generally avoided overt discussions of racial issues. The one exception was in March, when revelations of inflammatory remarks by his longtime pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, led him to deliver a lengthy address on the subject.
Obama’s victory represents a break with the razor-thin margins in the last two presidential elections.
In 2004, the election was too close to call until the next morning, when Democrat John Kerry conceded after concluding he couldn’t surpass Bush’s vote total in the decisive state of Ohio, which Obama won tonight. Four years earlier, Bush’s victory over Vice President Al Gore was in doubt for more than five weeks while Florida recounted its ballots. The Supreme Court finally halted the recount in December, and Gore capitulated.
Obama comes to the White House promising to pursue universal health-care coverage, alternative sources of energy and middle- class tax cuts. He faces daunting challenges: the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the lingering threat of international terrorism.
Obama will have a Democratic House and Senate behind him after he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. While not all of the races have been decided, the president-elect’s party has clearly made gains in Congress.
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Last Updated: November 4, 2008 23:02 EST
By Ken Fireman and Kristin Jensen