Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) — Barack Obama claimed the White House, saying his election as the first African-American president of the United States sent a message that “change has come” to a troubled nation.
“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,” Obama, 47, told more than 125,000 cheering supporters in Chicago.
A wave of discontent with Republican rule and the nation’s direction powered the Illinois senator to a sweeping electoral victory over Republican rival John McCain that won him at least 349 electoral votes, far more than the 270 needed for a majority and the most for a winner since former President Bill Clinton got 379 electoral votes in 1996.
The results should encourage “those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” Obama said.
Americans spilled out on the streets in cities across the country to celebrate. Almost four hours after television networks called the race for Obama, people were still cheering and honking non-stop in Washington as thousands gathered by the White House, shouting Obama’s name and his campaign slogan of “Yes we can.” Some simply chanted “U-S-A.”
Before speaking to supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama took congratulatory phone calls from McCain and President George W. Bush, who will leave office upon Obama’s inauguration, set for Jan. 20.
Arizona Senator McCain, 72, conceding the race in Phoenix, told his supporters that Obama “has achieved a great thing for himself and his country.”
“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” he said. He pledged to do “all in my power” to assist Obama and urged his backers “to find ways to come together” for the good of the country.
Obama’s victory at the end of a 21-month quest, combined with Democratic victories that enhanced the party’s majority in Congress, marked the end of an era of Republican dominance in Washington. He won a host of states that Bush had carried in 2000 and 2004, including Florida, Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico.
Obama also won Indiana and Virginia, which hadn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. With counting still incomplete, Obama had a total in the popular vote of 56.7 million to McCain’s 51.5 million across the country. He is the first Democratic candidate to get a majority of the popular vote since 1976.
The election put Democrats 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 he raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, overwhelming McCain.
`Change, Change, Change’
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.”
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 victories in the Civil War.
At the same time, Obama generally avoided overt discussions of racial issues. An 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.
In the nation’s capital, thousands of supporters in a city that gave 93 percent of its votes to Obama poured through the streets and jammed into the pedestrian plaza in front of the White House to celebrate the victory and sing “Hey Hey, Goodbye” to Bush.
Chanting and Singing
They chanted slogans, waved American flags and hoisted red, white and blue signs declaring, “Yes we did,” a play on Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can.”
“This is the logical place to be for such a momentous victory,” said Lizzie Sam, 23, a Washington resident who arrived on the plaza on the north front of the White House, next to the U.S. Treasury building.
Similar celebrations broke out in Seattle, San Francisco, New York and other cities.
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.