Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory

Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory

Nation Elects Its First African-American President Amid Record Turnout; Turmoil in Economy Dominates Voters' Concerns

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama was elected the nation's first African-American president, defeating Sen. John McCain decisively Tuesday as citizens surged to the polls in a presidential race that climaxed amid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

"Change has come," Sen. Obama told a huge throng of cheering supporters in Chicago at a midnight rally.

In his first speech as victor, Sen. Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. "The greatest of a lifetime," he said, "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century." (See the full text of Obama's speech.)

He added, "There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.''

Click to see an interactive map of election results.

The culmination of the epic two-year campaign marks a historic moment in a nation that since its founding has struggled with racial divisions. It also ushers in a period of dominance for Democrats in Washington for the first time since the early years of President Bill Clinton's first term. With Tuesday's elections, Sen. Obama's party will control both houses of Congress as well as the White House, setting the scene for Democrats to push an ambitious agenda from health care to financial regulation to ending the war in Iraq.

In becoming the U.S.'s 44th president, Illinois Sen. Obama, 47 years old, defeated Arizona Sen. McCain, 72, a veteran lawmaker and Vietnam War hero. Despite a reputation for bucking his own party, Sen. McCain could not overcome a Democratic tide, which spurred voters to take a risk on a candidate with less than four years of national political experience. Sen. Obama is the first northern Democrat elected president since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Sen. McCain conceded the election to Sen. Obama, congratulating him and pledging to help bring unity to the country. Speaking from outside the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Sen. McCain told his supporters: "It's natural tonight to feel some disappointment. Though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours." (Read more on McCain's concession.)

Sen. McCain was defeated in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and New Hampshire, swing states he was hoping to secure for the Republican column.

According to a preliminary tally, Sen. Obama led the race with 349 electoral votes versus 162 for Sen. McCain; 270 were needed to win.

Also elected, as vice president: Joe Biden, the veteran senator from Delaware who has promised to help Sen. Obama steer his agenda through Congress.

Sen. Obama's victory was built on record fund raising and a vast national campaign network. It remade the electoral map that had held fast for eight years. He overwhelmed reliable Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and West Coast. He won big in the industrial Midwest and contested fiercely in areas of traditional Republican strength. He won Virginia, the first time a Democratic candidate had taken the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And he finally wrested Florida and Ohio from the GOP, two states that had bedeviled his party in the last two elections.

Watershed Moment

The president-elect will enter office with a long policy wish list that includes ending the war in Iraq, implementing a near-universal health-insurance plan and finding alternatives to Middle Eastern oil. All this will have to be carried out amid record budget deficits, a looming crisis in Social Security and Medicare spending as the baby-boom generation retires and fears that the nation is on the edge of a deep recession.

Democrats have touted the prospect of a big sweep not just as a partisan conquest but as an ideological turning point, one that could reverse the last great shift in 1980, when Ronald Reagan ushered in a period dominated by tax-cutting conservatism and muscular foreign policy.

It's a startling turnaround from just four years ago, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, and benefited from a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The party's intellectual leaders spoke of a permanent Republican majority in Washington.

What remains unclear, however, is whether Tuesday's results represent a vote for liberalism or against the failures of the Bush administration, including the early war years in Iraq, the calamity of Hurricane Katrina and the current economic slump.

The transition to an Obama administration could begin almost immediately. A shadow Treasury team could be in place by the end of the week, aides say. In many ways, the transition has already started. John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, has been leading quiet conversations about key positions, especially those relating to the economy.

National exit-poll results found Sen. Obama increasing his vote percentages across the board, with particular success coming from the youth and black votes, as many in his campaign had predicted. Although a preliminary figure, his 52% of the popular vote marks the first time since Mr. Johnson that a Democrat had clearly won more than half the nation's vote.

Sen. Obama scored with 96% of black voters, who increased their share of the electorate to 13% from 11%. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won 88% of the black vote in 2004. Sen. Obama won two-thirds of Hispanics and more than two-thirds of voters aged 18 to 29.

One important swing was the Roman Catholic vote, which went 47% to Sen. Kerry in 2004, compared with 53% for Sen. Obama.

Sen. Obama won among independents but divided the suburban vote. And among voters in families earning over $200,000 a year, Sen. Obama improved over Sen. Kerry by 17 points.

Helping Sen. Obama: Democrats made up a larger share of the electorate this year than they did four years ago, when equal numbers of voters identified as Democrats and as Republicans. This time, 40% said they were Democrats and just 32% said they were Republicans.

Sen. Obama's campaign organization reached corners of the country largely untouched by previous Democratic candidates, from Boise, Idaho, to Biloxi, Miss. It didn't work out everywhere -- he lost North Dakota and Georgia. But he put long-standing Republican territory into play, a tactic that put Sen. McCain on the defensive.

Democrats also bolstered their majorities on Capitol Hill. The party secured a number of Senate victories, bringing it teasingly close to a filibuster-proof margin. Party leaders will likely be able to make up the one or two additional votes with moderate Republicans. The party picked up at least 10 House seats, a number expected to grow significantly.

Working Together

In Arizona, Sen. McCain offered congratulations to his opponent and spoke of the historic moment and the importance of the day to African-Americans. A century ago, he recalled, there was outrage in many quarters when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to visit the White House.

"America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time," Sen. McCain said during a gracious concession speech. "There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."

The Arizona senator also pledged to put the bitterness of the campaign aside and to work with the new president through the difficult times facing the nation.

Sen. McCain phoned Sen. Obama to concede the race and both men pledged to work together. President George W. Bush also phoned the victor and promised a smooth transition. "You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations and go enjoy yourself," the president told his successor.

Sen. Obama declared victory in Chicago's Grant Park in front of an audience of 125,000 people, saying, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders are alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

The 2008 election, the longest and most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history, was a watershed in many ways. It featured the first woman -- New York Sen. Hillary Clinton -- to seriously contend for a party nomination. Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska became the first woman to appear on the Republican ticket. And Sen. Obama broke ground as the first black party nominee for president.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama watched the results roll in on a television screen in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday evening.

"Obama is documentation of America's moral progress, the moral evolution we have gone through in the past 40 years," said Shelby Steele, a black writer and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, who voted for Sen. McCain. "Whites don't get credit for it. But having grown up myself in segregation -- America has changed enormously."

The candidates spent about $1.6 billion on the election, double the 2004 presidential race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. When all is tallied, Sen. Obama is expected to have raised around $700 million, a sum made possible when he opted to forgo public financing, the first candidate to do so since the system was implemented in the wake of the Watergate scandal. That decision, and the resulting bonanza, is likely to change how future campaigns are funded.

Indications from early voting and lengthy lines at the polls point to the biggest voter turnout since women got the vote in 1920. In total, voter registration numbers were up 7.3% compared with the last presidential election, for a total of 153 million eligible voters.

The race also featured the most extensive use yet of the Internet. Online social networks spread the campaign to corners of the country that had never before experienced such intense electioneering.

"I wanted to be part of this historic day in our country and watch people in this community exercise their God-given right," said Earl Simms, a 65-year-old former city safety manager standing at the head of the line at his Jacksonville, Fla., precinct.

By tradition, the first ballots were cast just after midnight in tiny Dixville Notch, N.H. Sen. Obama got 15 votes and Sen. McCain six.

Many African-Americans were celebrating how far a black man had come.

"It's a feeling we feel all the way inside -- Lord, we're finally overcoming," said Willie Smiley, 65, a retired government worker from Detroit.

Benjamin T. Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil-rights group, said his 92-year-old grandmother, whose grandfather was a slave, is "giddy" at the prospect of seeing young black girls holding pajama parties at the White House.

"At this moment, it feels as if anything is possible, and that is the way it needs to be in this country," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Sen. Obama launched his candidacy on the statehouse steps of Springfield, Ill., nearly two years ago. He was a freshman senator, largely unknown, noted mostly for a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and a best-selling book. The son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan immigrant who once herded goats, the relative newcomer came with a foreign-sounding name and associations that would prove to be liabilities.

His spiritual adviser, the Rev, Jeremiah Wright, had issued incendiary sermons from the pulpit of Sen. Obama's church. A convicted felon, Tony Rezko, helped him purchase a Chicago home. And Republicans tried to tie Sen. Obama to an associate and neighbor, William Ayers, a member of a domestic terrorist organization in the 1960s.

With that baggage, he took on one of the most powerful names in Democratic politics, Sen. Hillary Clinton, defeating her after an epic primary fight. Sen. Obama's campaign beat the formidable Clinton machine by going where she was not, racking up victories in states such as Idaho, Kansas and Wyoming.

In the general election campaign, Sen. Obama held the lead for most of the summer. Following back-to-back conventions, Sen. McCain briefly pulled ahead after he energized his party by choosing Gov. Palin as his running mate. When the financial crisis hit, causing stocks to plummet and the government to embark on a series of unprecedented interventions in markets, voters were reminded of their economic concerns and Sen. Obama pulled ahead again. He never lost the lead.

"I've been in denial for too long," said Jennifer Cresent, a Macomb County, Mich., Republican who voted for President Bush four years ago and Sen. Obama Tuesday. "I thought we were really fine and people complained too much. Then every other house on my street became vacant. And so many people are out of work. Now I really worry about crime."

During the primaries, Sen. McCain's campaign was large and expensive and nearly collapsed. He began again with a bare-bones operation, running as a promoter of the war in Iraq at a time when it was deeply unpopular. He pushed for and then backed the early 2007 surge in troops that turned out to be an important factor in the country's turnaround.

After winning the nomination, Sen. McCain still had work to do with the conservative base of his party. Many in the base were angered by his push to change the nation's immigration laws and campaign-finance rules, his support for embryonic stem cell research and his opposition to the Bush tax cuts.

He struggled to find a message that would resonate, running at various times as the experienced insider, a maverick who would shake up Washington, a bipartisan conciliator, a tax-cutting conservative and a tough-minded "Country First" war hero.

The choice of Gov. Palin thrilled conservatives but turned off other voters, especially independents. Early exit polls Tuesday found that six in 10 voters said she isn't qualified to be president. Those voters overwhelmingly favored Sen. Obama.

Sen. McCain's campaign received a jolt in October when taxes became a hot issue, but it was never enough to overcome Sen. Obama's optimistic, though vague, slogan of hope, which appealed to an electorate angry over war, the economy and President Bush, who has one of the lowest approval ratings on record.

According to early exit poll data, 62% of voters said the economy was their top concern. All other issues, including terrorism and the war in Iraq, were far behind. In 2004, terrorism and the economy were tied at about 20%.

Sen. Obama's promises will be challenges to keep in the face of a likely recession, two wars and record budget deficits.

He has promised to end the war in Iraq and reduce troop levels quickly. He has also vowed to redouble efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, beef up the U.S. military presence there and to reinvigorate efforts against al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He promised to create a new government-organized health care marketplace and cut taxes for every family earning less than $200,000 and raise them for families over $250,000.

He has vowed to wean the country of Middle Eastern oil over 10 years, dedicating $150 billion to alternative and renewable energy research and development, likening the challenge to that of putting a man on the moon. He has said he will cap greenhouse-gas emissions and force polluters to begin paying for emission permits in order to tackle global warming.

He has also promised billions of federal dollars for education, teacher training and recruitment. College applicants would be given tax incentives to offset tuition in exchange for national service.

In the short run, Sen. Obama has promised to prime the flagging economy with billions of dollars for infrastructure, unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Banks would have to temporarily halt home foreclosures in exchange for government assistance.

The incoming president will have some advantages, including the apparent enthusiastic backing of voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Monday found that 81% of Obama supporters said their vote was for him, not against Sen. McCain. Exit polls found 56% of voters were either optimistic or excited about what Sen. Obama would do as president.

And two-thirds of voters in the Journal poll said they understand Sen. Obama's message and know what he will do as president, just shy of the 72% who said that about President Bush when he stood for re-election in 2004.

With strong majorities in Congress, President-elect Obama is likely to start fast, with a large economic-stimulus package, legislation to fund embryonic stem-cell research and an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a government insurance program which will be financed with a rise in the tobacco tax.

After that, Democrats are divided over how to proceed. Old-guard liberals want to move as fast as possible while they have solid majorities and an electoral mandate. Conservative Democrats want more attention paid to a federal budget deficit that could approach $1 trillion this fiscal year.

Democratic leaders in Congress, mindful of Bill Clinton's health-care debacle of 1993 and the Republican resurgence that swept them from power the next year, counsel a cautious approach that builds bipartisan and voter support before moving on the president-elect's big-ticket items.

The president-elect will not have much time to decide. By early February, he will have to produce a budget that lays out his spending and tax priorities at least over the next five years and hints at what he will do to confront the looming costs of Social Security and Medicare.

Possibly in Barack Obama's Cabinet

PositionPotential Appointees
Attorney General:Arizona Gov. Janet NapolitanoFormer deputy attorney general Eric HolderMass. Gov. Deval Patrick
Chief of Staff:Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D., Ill.)Sen. Tom Daschle (D., S.D.)Clinton Commerce Secretary, J.P. Morgan exec Bill Daley
Defense Secretary:Current Defense Secretary Robert GatesSen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.)Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.)
Press Secretary:Aide Robert GibbsAides Linda Douglass, Bill Burton, Stephanie Cutter
Secretary of State:New Mexico Gov. Bill RichardsonSen. John Kerry (D., Mass.)Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.)
Secretary of Agriculture:Former Iowa Gov. Tom VilsackRep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.)
Secretary of Education:Kansas Gov. Kathleen SebeliusU. of Oklahoma president David BorenFormer New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean
Secretary of Energy or Transportation:Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell
Secretary of Health and Human Services:Kansas Gov. Kathleen SebeliusSen. Tom Daschle (D., S.D.)Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean
Senior adviser/political posts:Aide David PlouffeAide David AxelrodAide Steve Hildebrand
Treasury Secretary:Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence SummersFederal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy GeithnerFormer Fed Chairman Paul Volcker
Secretary of Commerce:Kansas Gov. Kathleen SebeliusFundraiser Penny PritzkerSen. Olympia Snowe (D., Maine)
—Elizabeth Holmes, Amy Chozick, Stephanie Simon, Paulo Prada and Christopher Cooper contributed to this article.

Write to Laura Meckler at and Jonathan Weisman