The Straightaway

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A New America

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A New America

Twenty-two months ago, on the very steps on which one great president and Illinois legislator announced his candidacy, another Illinois legislator – the audacious first-term United States senator from Chicago – turned some heads and drew some laughter by announcing his own bid for the presidency of the United States of America. On November 4, 2008, what started as a distant dream in Springfield, Illinois has become veritable fact. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill) will become the 44th president of the United States of America.

Obama’s victory, which was once unthinkable but seemingly inevitable as the campaign drew to a close, sent shockwaves throughout the world. People in places as far removed as Hong Kong, Sydney, and a little village in Kenya rejoiced when the news broke. World leaders as diverse as French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Iranian leader Mahmoud Amhadinejad sent words of congratulations.

The joy felt around the world was ten-fold in the United States. When the major news networks delivered the projection of Obama’s victory, men, women, and children across the land burst into exuberant celebration. Tears fell from even the eyes of grown men – the image of civil rights champion, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with tears streaming down his face will endure as one of the most touching images of the 21st century.

Politics is by its very nature melodramatic – a political victory usually means much less than it made out to. The election of Barack Obama is an exception, like the election of Nelson Mandela as the president of South Africa (and the future election of a female American president). Any way you slice it, electing an African American to the most powerful office in a land where they were once legally enslaved is significant. The tears of the Rev. Jesse Jackson said it all.

But the great thing about Barack Obama is that he cannot simply be pegged as the black candidate. A greater percentage of white voters chose Obama than the white Democratic nominees in past years, such as Al Gore, John Kerry, and even Bill Clinton in 1992. Being black helped Obama win, but it was not the main reason, and it will not define his presidency.

Obama didn’t win because of the color of his skin, or because of where he is from; honestly, he didn’t entirely win because of the issues. His charisma and oratorical skills certainly helped, as did the false steps of the McCain campaign, including the unconscionable blunder of choosing Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee. These reasons, however, do not tell the whole story.

Obama won because Americans of all ideologies – liberal, moderate, conservative, apathetic – saw something in Obama they yearned to find within themselves again: hope. They saw in Obama the promise of a better tomorrow, a better America.

Perhaps such cliché sentiments should not decide the outcome of political contests. But they did. The conditions of the American political and economic atmosphere were ideal for someone like Obama – an unpopular president, a long overseas conflict, a sagging economy, historically low political efficacy.

Now, an inexperienced, untested chief executive inhabits the most powerful office in the land. Obama remains an enigma, despite almost two years in the political spotlight – no one really knows what to expect from the Obama presidency. America has chosen a leader it seems to know little about.

Despite this, it is clear that Barack Obama has the capacity to become a great president. Only a leader of great potential can enthrall a nation as he has. One of the most important qualities of a leader is their ability to inspire those they seek to lead. It is impossible to say that Obama has not inspired America. People from all walks of life – old, young, rich, poor – have fought for Obama in perhaps the most massive political campaign in the history of mankind, in terms of organization, manpower, and money. People believe in Obama more than any politician of our generation.

Obama has promised to lead America wisely. His promise to exercise tact before tactical missiles will be a welcome change from the imprudently aggressive foreign policy of past Republican and Democratic presidents. His promise to promote diplomacy will help restore America’s image in the world arena. His promise to help the poor and disenfranchised, as he did when he was a community organizer in the slums of Chicago, will restore the faith in government of the average American. If Obama keeps his promises to America, great things will happen.

However, promises are just promises. The truth is that the difficult situation at home and abroad, the unpopularity of the Bush administration, and the high rhetoric of the campaign has leveled unbelievable amounts of expectation on the shoulders of President-elect Barack Obama. Everyone expects everything of him – it will be difficult for him to live up to the expectations. Obama will sometimes say the wrong thing, make errors, or fail. Such is the life of any person, whether they are a president or a store clerk.

Expectations and conditions have crushed leaders of great hope in the past. The ouster of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the democratic election of President Corazon Aquino was a time of great hope for the Filipino people. Filipinos around the world flocked home, hoping that their new leader would turn the Philippines into a first-class country. Despite her best efforts, Aquino failed. More than twenty years after her election, the Philippines is still impoverished and corrupt.

The true test for Obama will be whether he can overcome the adversity he will surely face and continue to lead efficiently and virtuously. Obama has the skills necessary to succeed – the charisma of Kennedy, the eloquence of Lincoln, a strong intellect and seemingly sound judgment. He also has a brilliant, experienced second-in-command in Vice President-elect Joe Biden who will be a great asset for him.

What is audacious about hope is the fact that hope is considered audacious at all. Hundreds of millions of hopeful Americans have elected a young President who represents the hope they wish to feel, the change they wish to make. The election of President Barack Obama is not an end, but simply a means. As Obama said in his acceptance speech, “this victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance to make that change.” The capacity for change, and greatness, is there, but the result remains unseen. President Obama has so much yet to prove.

The only certainty is that from this moment on, for better or for worse, this is a new America.