James Forsyth

Obama has changed the world just by being elected

James Forsyth looks back on an extraordinary contest and the victory of a man who, even before his inauguration, has had a transformative effect upon American politics

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Washington, D.C.

In 1968, as Washington burned in the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination, few would have predicted that in 40 years’ time America would elect a black president. But on Tuesday night, a diverse crowd gathered on the same street where the rioting had reached its height in 1968 to celebrate Obama’s election.

Earlier in the day, in a heavily African-American neighbourhood in DC, I watched people who had been brought up under segregation cast their ballots for Barack Obama, and I thought back to a voter I met in South Carolina on the eve of the primary there. He was an elderly African-American man, a second world war veteran. He described how when he returned from Europe, from fighting — though he didn’t mention it — in a segregated army, he went to register to vote. He was asked to copy out a chunk of the Constitution, something that as a college graduate he was more than capable of. He was failed for supposedly missing a comma. At this point in the story he gripped my arm and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘But a change is coming to South Carolina,’ he said, sotto voce. ‘A change is coming.’ For this man, his opportunity to vote for Obama would right those wrongs.

That change has now come to the nation as a whole. No other president has ever changed America as much as Obama has by just being elected.

America has known for weeks that it was about to make history. But it has shied away from discussing the subject. Obama, above all a cautious politician, did not bring it up. A media that is aware of how pro-Obama it has seemed at times tiptoed around this element of the contest and the McCain campaign nobly steered clear of any last-minute racial dog whistles. At Obama’s final election-eve rally in Virginia he mused about receiving one of his first endorsements from the Governor of Virginia in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, but then quickly changed the subject: aware, perhaps, that this was a conversation that should wait until the votes had been safely counted.

But on the ground you could not avoid it. At the rally, black grandfathers — men who had known life under Jim Crow — lifted their granddaughters on to their shoulders in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Obama. One giddy voice in the crowd declared: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll see him at the inauguration.’

Repetition cannot dull the remarkable nature of Obama’s story. Four and a quarter years ago, as a little-known state senator from Illinois, he addressed the Democratic National Convention. In an era of political slicing and dicing, his emphasis on America’s shared values caught the nation’s imagination and launched the most rapid ascent in the history of the Republic. Even in the giddy moments after the speech, the idea that he might be president in a little over four years seemed like cable news hyperbole. But it has happened and in a way that has seemed almost fated.

This election hasn’t been about tax policy, healthcare or Iraq. It has been about change, about turning the page on a politics that could always find the divide but never the join. For 14 years America has been fought over by partisans intent on eking out any advantage, however narrow, in an evenly divided nation. This politics was effective on its own terms but it took its toll on the state of the country and missed the big issues. It resulted in a situation where 90 per cent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track, the highest number ever recorded. In these circumstances the fact that Obama ‘didn’t look like those other presidents on the dollar bill’ was a positive advantage. He was the change. Indeed, in the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Obama won handsomely among voters who said that race was a factor in their votes.

But perhaps Obama’s greatest advantage is that he scrambles categories. This is the secret of the power of his speeches, which mix together the three forms of American progressive rhetoric. I remember standing in a basketball stadium in St Louis the weekend before Super Tuesday listening to him speak to an audience that was a mix of urban blacks and the women of St Louis county — two groups most politicians would talk to very differently. The speech veered from Kennedyesque new frontier liberalism to Midwestern populism to the preaching cadences of the African-American church. Some in the crowd might have cynically trained themselves to dismiss one type of political talk, but none could ignore the emotional appeal of all three.

But this scrambling extends well beyond his speeches. He is a black urban politician with a classic Midwestern sensibility. He is the candidate of transformative change but has a distinctly conservative temperament. He is part of both the ‘log cabin’ and elite traditions, the son of a single mother and the president of Harvard Law Review. His campaign was the most technologically advanced in history — its text-message-based get-out-the-vote operation and its internet fundraising will be obsessively studied by Labour and the Tories — but it has relied on the most old-fashioned form of political communication to drive its message — set-piece speeches. During the primaries, as the campaign moved from state to state rather than playing across the country as a whole as it has during the general election, one was struck by how different the contest was in each state; how Obama was — through others’ perceptions, not his own actions — a different candidate in different places.

For all Obama’s political skill, he has been aided by events. If it wasn’t for the financial crisis, this election would have been a lot closer. But the chaos in the markets seemed to vindicate Obama’s argument that the real risk was not change but more of the same. It also knocked national security — where even in the final pre-election polls McCain had an edge — out of the national conversation: only 9 per cent of voters said Iraq was the most important issue for them, while more than 60 per cent cited the economy. And if it had not been for Iraq and the Democratic base’s disgust at its leaders for voting for the war, Obama would never have been able to win his party’s nomination as a first-term senator. Napoleon would have been happy to have had Obama as a general.

Obama will have a honeymoon at home and abroad that makes John F. Kennedy’s look like a weekend in Skegness. But no president has faced a more daunting in-tray since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, something the stale and conventional policy positions of both campaigns ignored.

The American people have taken a huge gamble in deciding that Obama is better qualified to deal with these problems than the seasoned McCain. But even those of us who fret about Obama’s lack of experience must acknowledge that this morning America is a more perfect union. The struggle to make the Founders’ promise apply to all citizens has never been closer to fulfilment. The dream has come true.