ERA OF OBAMA: ’91 Harvard Law School graduate elected first African-American President of U.S.


Spontaneous celebrations erupted in Harvard Square
Obama gives his victory speech to supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park

The Dream has a new home: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 125 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of a nation where men “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Senator Barack Obama ’91 (D-IL) was elected President of the United States of America, the first African-American to attain the nation’s highest office.

Unlike the month-long saga of the 2000 election, the victor was known early on, as Obama’s bold decision to campaign in the former Republican strongholds of the Old Confederacy yielded victories in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. His ground operation, credited with registering hundreds of thousands of new voters, brought the Democrat within striking distance of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in Georgia, Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri. Any fears that Obama’s candidacy would fail to resonate with working-class white voters was washed away by resounding triumphs in the “Rust Belt” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

While victory seemed certain after the networks called Ohio for Obama, the official word that Obama would be the 44th President of the United States came as the clock struck 11 P.M. in the East. At that moment, California’s 55 electoral votes, coupled with dominant victories in Oregon and Washington, catapulted Obama to the White House.

Harvard students, the majority Obama supporters, celebrated late into the night. Roars and chants of “O-Ba-Ma” emanated from the Old Yard as cars sped by on Massachusetts Avenue, horns blaring. The rally moved from the Yard to the “Pit” and finally overwhelmed Massachusetts Avenue in a scene reminiscent of the Red Sox triumph in October 2004. When the early edition of the Boston Globe hit the streets, the crowd erupted once more into chants of “Yes we did.”

However rowdy the campus was as a whole, the Law School retained a certain stoic calm. Some no doubt began incessant machinations about how to finagle a position within Washington’s innermost circles. Others openly wondered whether the binge of hiring by Dean Elena Kagan ’86 would be undone by droves of HLS professors taking leave for positions in Obama’s Administration. Speculation has focused on appointments to positions ranging from the Supreme Court, including Kagan and Obama advisor Cass Sunstein ’78, to the Justice Department, including Professor Charles Ogletree ’78, a close friend of the Obamas. Celebrations spread from Cambridge across the nation and around the world. Kenya, Obama’s father’s homeland, even declared Wednesday a national holiday.

Obama’s victory was an electoral landslide, 364-174. His dominant showing was precipitated by the collapse of global financial markets and the sheer dominance of the Democrat’s ground operations, which were supported by an unprecedented amount of cash. Obama’s decision to forego federal financing, which he had previously stated he would accept and which would have attached limits to the amount of money his campaign could spent, ended up enabling unprecedented spending: $600 million-more than President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) raised combined in 2004.

Tuesday’s election caps a meteoric rise for the 46-year-old Obama, the child of a Kenyan economist (Barack Obama Sr.) and an Kansan rural developer (Ann Dunham), who merely four years ago was a State Senator in the Illinois Legislature. Obama catapulted himself onto the national stage with a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, which emphasized unity and the breaking down of so-called “red state” and “blue state” stereotypes. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America-there’s the United States of America,” Obama said at the time. The Illinois Senator was soon considered a rising star, as his 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, became an international best-seller.

Despite the massive media attention that had swelled in the wake of his keynote address and book release, Obama initially resisted calls from members of the Democratic Party, including Illinois’ senior senator Dick Durbin, to seek the Presidency in 2008. On January 22, 2006, appearing on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Obama ruled out a presidential run in 2008, declaring, “I will serve out my full six year term.” However, by October 2006, Obama had changed his mind, declaring on the same program that he had considered a run for the nation’s highest office and would make a public announcement following the 2006 midterm elections.

However, despite the excitement elicited by Obama in the months leading up to his announcement, few Democrats believed he would be the nominee. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) was widely presumed the frontrunner until Obama’s resounding victory in the Iowa Caucuses, on January 3rd. While Clinton claimed a come-from-behind victory in the New Hampshire primary, the momentum and fundraising power produced by that early victory in the Midwest enabled Obama to amass the requisite number of delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination.

The cult of personality nurtured by the Obama campaign, and displayed worldwide at rallies where hundreds of thousands swarmed the Harvard Law School graduate, had a clear trickle down effect to Congressional races as well. The Democrats extended their cushion in the House of Representatives by picking up at least 19 seats, which would give them a 254-181 majority. While some Democrats had dared dream of cracking 60 seats in the Senate, which would have provided a filibuster-proof majority, the Democrats picked up 5 seats, leaving them with a 56-40 majority, with elections in Minnesota, Oregon, and Alaska still undecided. In the Georgia Senate race, Senator Saby Chambliss failed to win a majority of votes cast, meaning there will be a runoff on December 3rd with Democratic challenger Jim Martin. The Democrats now control the White House and both Houses of Congress for the first time since the 103rd Congress from 1993-1995.

For McCain, 72, the defeat almost certainly signals the end of his national political aspirations. Nevertheless, the Republican was widely credited for running a spirited, albeit erratic, campaign. McCain, like Obama, was not on the electoral landscape when the marathon for the White House began two years ago. Indeed, following the Iowa caucuses, in which McCain came in fourth place, his contributions dwindled and he was forced to cut salaried staff. Ever optimistic, McCain campaigned in New Hampshire, which had given him a rousing come-from-behind victory over then-Governor George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries.

McCain went on to upset Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, catipulting him to decisive victories on “Super Tuesday.”

The end of McCain’s presidential ambitions may signal the beginning of Governor Sarah Palin’s (R-AK). Palin, who was a surprise choice by McCain as his Vice Presidential running mate, drew huge crowds and energized Evangelical voters who have come to define the Republican base. However, Palin has also been criticized as unprepared for the job. General Colin Powell, in endorsing Obama’s candidacy on “Meet the Press” stated, “I don’t believe she’s [Palin] ready to be President of the United States, which is the job of the Vice President.”

Obama’s victory brings another HLS grad to the White House. Michelle Obama ’88 will assume the role of First Lady on January 20, 2009. Obama’s daughters, Malia Ann, 10, and Sasha, 7, will be the youngest children in the White House since Amy Carter in 1980.

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