Barack Obama won the presidency Tuesday, the first African-American to claim the highest office in the land, an improbable candidate fulfilling a once-impossible dream.
A nation that in living memory struggled violently over racial equality will have as its next president a 47-year-old, one-term U.S. senator born of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother. He is the first president elected from Chicago and the first to rise from a career in Illinois politics since Abraham Lincoln emerged from frontier obscurity to lead the nation through the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Obama's resounding victory over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repudiates an unpopular incumbent and an ongoing war, shifts national leadership to a new generation and provides dramatic proof to the world of the American ideal of opportunity for all.
The Illinois senator won a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He redrew the electoral map, sweeping nearly all the traditional battleground states—including Ohio and Florida—and winning some longtime Republican strongholds, such as Virginia.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama declared at a victory rally at Grant Park.
A crowd of 125,000 gathered at the downtown park, and thousands more spilled out onto nearby streets.
Obama supporters, many of them holding flags, watched returns roll in on giant television screens and roared every time another state was called for their candidate. When networks called the election at 10 p.m., tears streamed down the faces of supporters and aides.
Celebrations erupted from the South Side to East Africa. In Obama's home neighborhood of Kenwood, sounds of music, screaming and crying floated in the air. Cheering crowds gathered at the gates of the White House in Washington, at Martin Luther King Jr.'s home church in Atlanta, and in Harlem and in Times Square in New York. In Kogelo, Kenya, the village where Obama's stepgrandmother and extended family live, hundreds of people stayed up all night awaiting word, erupting into cheers and chants shortly after 7 a.m. local time when Obama won the required electoral votes.
President George W. Bush congratulated his successor-elect shortly after the race was called. Soon after, McCain took the stage to concede.
"Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it," McCain told supporters gathered in Phoenix.
Voters turned out in extraordinary numbers, sensing a historic moment and stung by economic crisis. Lines to vote formed before sunrise in many states, and despite heavy use of early balloting this year, some people waited for hours. Exit polls suggested African-American turnout increased as a share of the total vote.
National exit polls for The Associated Press and television networks showed Obama winning handily among women, minorities and new voters. And for all the discussion of race as a factor in the election, those polls showed Obama winning more white voters than John Kerry or Al Gore, the two most recent Democratic nominees.
The new administration comes into office committed to far-reaching changes: a swift withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a national health-care plan, a shift in the tax burden away from the middle class toward the wealthy, and an ambitious alternative-energy program designed in part to counter global climate change.
Obama will have a strengthened Democratic majority in Congress, with the party picking up at least five seats in the Senate and potentially as many as eight—which would be one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority.
The vote Tuesday clearly reflected a deep-seated public desire for Obama's one-word mantra: change. In large numbers and for a long time, the public has told pollsters that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The discontent only increased in the final month of the election, amid a crisis in the global financial system that sealed Obama's victory.
Obama alters the international image of the United States by virtue of his skin color and life story.
At a time when America is challenged abroad by Islamic fundamentalism and an international backlash against the Bush administration's often-unilateral foreign policy and prisoner-abuse scandals, the new president will have personal ties to the developing world. He has family members in Africa, a middle name—Hussein—from the Arab world and early childhood experience in Asia, where he lived with his mother and his Indonesian stepfather.
His appeal on the global stage was vividly displayed over the summer at a rally in Berlin that drew 200,000 cheering Europeans.
At home, the election sidelines conservatives in both elected branches of government for the first time in 14 years.
It also may close a chapter in America's culture wars: Obama is the first president to come of age after the Vietnam War era, following two Baby Boomer presidents whose political identities were shaped in large part by their opposite responses to the bitter turmoil of the 1960s.
Obama has experienced one of the most stunning rises in modern American politics, first emerging on the national political scene only four years ago while a candidate for the U.S. Senate with a soaring call for national unity that he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
He waged his groundbreaking campaign in transcendent terms, on themes of hope, change and common purpose, calling on the nation to rise above racial and partisan divisions. He styled his bid as a popular movement, tapping the power of the Internet to mobilize voters on an unprecedented scale and raise more money than any candidate in American history.
That effort appeared to broaden his appeal well past the traditional core states and supporters of the Democratic Party. In the battlegrounds of Ohio and Virginia, exit polls showed Obama winning among several key blocs, including independents, moderates, white working-class voters and those earning $100,000 or less per year. In Pennsylvania, where McCain campaigned repeatedly over the past week in a last stand of sorts, Obama all but swept every major demographic group, exit polls showed.
Obama plans to spend the next several days meeting with advisers and move rapidly to announce a transition leadership team and a White House chief of staff, a source in the campaign said. Chicago's Rep. Rahm Emanuel and former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle are leading candidates for chief of staff.
Among the top items on the agenda will be determining what role Obama should play in forging an economic stimulus package with the lame-duck Congress.
During the transition, Chicago will be the seat of power for the incoming government, and security around Obama's Kenwood neighborhood will be stepped up even further. In August, when he became the Democratic nominee, steel barricades were installed near his home, new parking restrictions were imposed and a bus stop was moved.
The Obama presidency will elevate a circle of advisers and allies from his home political base to new levels of influence inside and outside his administration. Early allies such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and senior advisers such as Chicago-based political strategist David Axelrod and former top mayoral aide Valerie Jarrett will have the ear of the president. A number of Illinois political figures have been mentioned for potential positions in the administration.
Perhaps more significantly, Obama comes to the Oval Office with life experience as a community organizer on the South Side, a career in Illinois politics and lengthy residence in Chicago's urban neighborhoods.
Closing his victory speech, the next president returned to the shared experience of a people who toiled so long to see the dream come true.
"This is our moment," he said. "This is our time—to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth—that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can."
Tribune correspondents Jill Zuckman in Phoenix, Laurie Goering in Kenya and John McCormick, Christi Parsons and Lolly Bowean in Chicago contributed to this report.