On Wednesday 5 November those who had not stayed up to watch the results come in live woke up to find that Barack Obama had been elected the 44th president of the United States of America. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief and the image of America as a land of opportunity and equality was restored. The historic significance of this election is difficult to overstate. For many voters who cast their ballots on 4 November the days of segregation and the struggle for civil rights is within living memory, for these men and women the political an emotional significance of seeing an African American president elected in their life time is hard to express with words. The election of Obama also puts an end to the ‘Republican Era’ which began with Reagan in 1981 and challenges the assumption that America is fundamentally a centre right nation.
The historic significance of the election was not lost on the QUB students who gathered at Elms to watch the results come in through the night. The crowd, a mixture of American and local students, was overwhelmingly in support of Obama. In most cases those who chose to lend their voices in support of Republican candidate John McCain did so in order to get a reaction from the Obama supporters rather than out of true political conviction. The genuine Republicans in the room were subdued; they knew this was not their night, they knew they were on the wrong side of the crowd and on the wrong side of history.
As the first results came in at around midnight giving an early lead to McCain a notable tension intruded on the festive atmosphere as everybody asked themselves if the substantial leads to Obama in the opinion polls were simply too good to be true, whether public sentiment had matched private action in the poll booths. This symbolic victory of taking an early lead was the only victory McCain would see. As the polls closed in the next block of states and the results came in, Obama surged ahead and took a lead he would hold for the rest of the night. However, the Obama supporters continued to use the conditional tense until a projected Democrat victory in Ohio affectively closed the deal. For many the most significant moment came when the notoriously partisan Fox News predicted a victory for Obama.
When the key state of California went blue and the Democrats retained Washington, taking the Democrats over the crucial 270 electoral collages needed for victory, it was as though the final whistle had been blown on a World Cup final. The physical and emotional reaction was overwhelming. People jumped from their seats cheering and hugging complete strangers. The moment was illuminated by the flashes of digital cameras. Chants of “yes, we can” gave way to “Yes, we did” and were mixed with” O-Ba-Ma”, “USA” and “Fuck George Bush”. The feeling was one of incredulous relief and euphoria. Americans spoke of being able to feel pride in their nation once again. To many across the world this was a redemption of the United States; the eight years of the Bush administration were absolved by the election of a candidate who based his campaign on a need for change. These were scenes repeated across America and across the world as people celebrated the election of a president they could believe in, I wander how many babies were conceived on that night.
Most stayed until 6.00am to watch Barack Obama’s acceptance speech to 250,000 supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. The speech was watched in reverential silence. Some chose to video the screen on their mobile phones. Obama opened his speech by saying his victory affirmed the principals of American democracy. From any other politician this may have seemed like a political cliché but from the “skinny kid with the funny name” addressing a diverse crowd of passionate supporters, including the veteran civil rights campaigner Rev Jessie Jackson crying tears of joy and relief, it felt like an undeniable truth. Obama reiterated much of the rhetoric of the campaign in the style that has already established him as one of the great orators of American political history but warned of the difficulties ahead. Obama placed his victory within the context of American history by referring to the life of 106 year old Anne Dixon Cooper and the changes she has seen in her century in America and by considering the changes his young daughters may see in their life times. The exhausted but ecstatic crowd watching in Elms were appreciative of Obama’s acknowledgment of “those watching from beyond our shores”, underlying the importance of this result to people around the world.
The concession speech of John McCain delivered prior to Obama’s speech was just as well received. This gracious and eloquent speech (clearly the product of several days work) revealed McCain as the politician of honour that he is; a fact obscured at times over recent months by a largly negative campaign by the Republican Party. The speed with which McCain silenced his supporters as they began to boo Obama’s victory demonstrated his integrity. Meanwhile vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in many ways the comic relief in a campaign of operatic intensity, could barley contain her fury; both at defeat and the inevitability with which responsibility for that defeat will be attributed to her. It was a marked contrast to the composure of McCain.
As I write this a small American flag hangs above my desk, a souvenir from that momentous night. I feel it now symbolises something new. In recent days many have spoken of the ‘American Dream’ with a sincerity unthinkable in the recent past. The unpopularity of the Bush administration both in America and around the world had led to apathy and cynicism. Obama ran a campaign based on hope and the need for change and in doing so politicised a generation. The change is seismic. That an African American named Barack Husain Obama could rise from relative obscurity to leader of the free world in only four years has challenged many assumptions about the nature of politics. When Obama assumes the presidency on 20 January 2009 he will do so with perhaps greater expectations than any other political leader in history. A great many people have placed a massive emotional investment in Mr Obama and if he fails to live up to his promise the grassroots movement created by his meteoric rise will hold him to account. Though there will inevitably be disappointments ahead, Obama cannot be all things to all people and he faces the difficult task of assuming leadership in a time of recession, the presidency of Obama will be infinitely better for both America and the world than the McCain Palin alternative. Also, a whole generation has learned that their democratic voice matters and can bring about radical change. The political landscape may never be the same again.