We are a different country now.
When millions of Americans went to the polls on the morning of Nov. 4, we didn't know whether a black man could be elected president of the United States. Pundits and pollsters said Barack Obama was almost certain to win, but history and experience told us we couldn't be sure until it really happened.
Nov. 4 changed that, and more.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," the president-elect said that night, ". . . . tonight is your answer."
American children had new reason to believe the old promise that anyone can grow up to be president. "This gives us hope," Darius Turner, a senior at Dorsey High School in South L.A., told The Times. "Kobe doesn't have to be everybody's role model anymore."
The presidential election of 2008 wasn't a landslide, but it was surely an earthquake. Obama won a convincing 53% of the popular vote and an impressive swath of states including Virginia and Indiana -- places no Democrat had won for nearly half a century. And it was not only African Americans who gave him that majority; it was a broad coalition from every demographic group, including an impressive number of the blue-collar white voters whose readiness to support a black man had been questioned all year long.
How did a 47-year-old with a foreign-sounding name, only four years out of the Illinois Legislature, win the greatest prize in American politics?
The short version is familiar by now: This was, according to the conventional wisdom, a Democratic year. After eight years of increasingly unpopular Republican rule, any Democrat would probably have won. The near-collapse of the nation's financial markets in September -- the month in which many voters make their decisions -- sealed an outcome that was almost inevitable.
But Barack Obama was not just any Democrat, and his opponent, John McCain, was not just any Republican; he was a war hero, a sometime maverick whom most voters liked and admired.
Obama first had to wrest the Democratic nomination from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who was once thought unbeatable. A little more than a year ago, Obama trailed Clinton among black voters in a CNN poll, 57% to 33%. But the Illinois senator led a campaign as steely and smooth as any in modern times, devoted to a simple message -- "Change" -- that scarcely varied over 21 months.
By Nov. 4, improbably, Obama had convinced most voters that he was a safer, more reassuring choice than his 72-year-old opponent.
Obama's full effect on American politics cannot yet be measured. His campaign showed how savvy use of the Internet can magnify the power of a winning message -- and, not incidentally, persuade millions of people to donate millions of dollars. But the greater test will come during the presidency that begins Jan. 20. Can Obama forge his onetime coalition of voters into a realignment that lasts a generation? Will President Obama govern as a big-city liberal Democrat, empowered by solid majorities in the House and Senate to seek sweeping changes in healthcare, energy and tax policy? Or will he govern as the cautious, bipartisan coalition-builder he says he wants to be, tempering his ambitions for change according to what the nation will bear?
History has given him a difficult time to take the job. The deepest financial crisis in decades has blown a gaping hole in the federal budget, and that alone will constrain his choices. (His aides are already warning that a comprehensive healthcare overhaul, the domestic centerpiece of every Democratic campaign since 1992, may have to wait.) Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will demand the new president's attention no matter what he wants to do. (His aides are already warning that his 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the clarion call that gave his campaign its initial boost into viability in 2007, may need to be adjusted.)
For now, Obama has to manage a transition -- and a huge amount of symbolism.
"The election of Barack Obama is going to be the occasion for an enormous interpretive debate: What does it mean for the country?" said William A. Galston, a White House aide in the Clinton administration. "To what extent has the promise 'We shall overcome' been translated into the performance: 'We have overcome?' If there's a path that connects those two sentences, how far, in fact, have we walked down that path?
"There will be a battle of perceptions and symbols. The great hope is that this will bring us closer as a nation. Obama has demonstrated that he's the kind of person who will do that. The question is whether the rest of the country will cooperate."