There is a tide that is surging across America. It carries a new reality that the most pressing divide today is not between red and blue states, or rich and poor, or even black and white. It is the struggle between generosity and selfishness, between transparency and secrecy, between inclusiveness and alienation. That was a central message in Barack Obama’s campaign. It will now be a force in the way the 44th President governs.
Today, in the land that invented modern ideas of representative government, Americans engaged in the largest single act of citizenship ever experienced in that country and perhaps the most significant event of its kind ever in the world. Sometime tonight, the expressions of record millions of voters from every part of the country, at every age level, from every ethnic and racial background, across a landscape where snows have already begun to fall to a hot Gulf coast where palm trees mock the winter, a page will have turned and a defining new one will be embarked upon in the great American experiment known as democracy.
Much about that future is unclear, but what is not is that the name Barack Obama will appear in the first lines of that new page. Before the dawn rises again, someone will turn to the young man who defied all the odds, and address him for the first time as “Mr. President-Elect.” And with those three words, his life, and the history of the nation he will lead for the next four years, will be forever changed.
Great presidents are the ones who have transformed America and raised it to something better than it was before. They are the ones who summon up in ordinary people the capacity to accomplish extraordinary feats they never knew possible. Washington, Jefferson and Adams freed a land from the shackles of distant princely tyranny. Lincoln freed one of its founding peoples from slavery. Roosevelt freed men and women from economic calamity and, later, from the march of fascism across Europe and Asia.
Barack Obama has freed countless young people from the cold gulag of cynicism and restored in them a confidence that what they do in public affairs can make a difference. And he has freed others of every age from the barriers of race and geography that for too long appealed to the darker instincts of men and women.
There is a tide that is surging across America and raising with it a spirit of hope and optimism that has not been seen in generations. It comes not a moment too soon, with an economic crisis worse than at any time since the 1930s, and a distant and costly war that has hurt America’s moral leadership abroad more than anytime since Vietnam.
But transformative leadership has always had the power to rise above setback and disaster. Mr. Obama appears to have that rare kind of leadership gift. The fact that people have recognized this reality on an almost unimagined scale is a testament to his character and ability, of course. Chief among his uncommon skills was the understanding that the most pressing divide today is not between red and blue states, or rich and poor, or even black and white. It is the struggle between generosity and selfishness, between transparency and secrecy, between inclusiveness and alienation. Most of all, it is the challenge to make the ethics and values we teach our children the driving character of how our governments, corporations and great institutions are run.
Mr. Obama’s victory is also a testament to the fact that governance matters, and what can happen when ordinary people decide to take charge of their lives and the instruments of power to reset the moral compass of government.
What new destinations of discovery and accomplishment history will record for an Obama administration are yet to be written. The task of maintaining the confidence of so many with such high expectations will not be easy. But if a young president can set a goal to free humans from the laws of physics and place man on the moon and safely return him to earth within a decade, if he can lay the groundwork in civil rights that helped overcome racial bigotry which in many ways was more intractable than gravity itself, as John F. Kennedy did, it is not inconceivable that his modern day successor can raise the torch that has been passed to him high enough to overcome the forces of arrogance and cynicism, selfishness and duplicity that for too long have managed to dim the embers of hope when it comes to matters of politics and national governance.
In many ways, much of the world, whose admiration of America may momentarily flag but never falter for long, cast its ballot for Barack Obama today as well. It was a vote for all the things it has found best in America over centuries: the spirit of innovation and unyielding optimism; freedom for each man and women to worship, to speak and to hold their governments to account; faith in the family and in God, and an irrepressible conviction on the part of every American -rich and poor, black and white- that tomorrow will be better than today.
Each generation needs its own new frontier where it is challenged to be defined more by what it gives back than what it takes away. President Kennedy articulated that ideal for his generation of leaders and citizens. A President Obama will speak with that voice for his. It is in the face of such responsibilities that leaders are wise to pray for wisdom in the hope that if that is not granted, perhaps at least common sense will be sent in consolation.
As this year began, we noted on these pages the gathering prospects of a young man whom we said had the improbably presidential name of Barack Obama. That changes today. The amazing thing about America is that the improbable can become the reality, which is why in America tonight there is an African-American who has inspired a nation to reach higher and beyond the barriers of the past, and why the nation he inspired now calls him Mr. President-Elect.