President Obama: A new direction in challenging times, a new dawn in the nation’s long struggle to bridge its racial divide

Wednesday, November 5, 2008; Page A22 (Washington Post)

BARACK OBAMA, 44th president of the United States: Like so many millions of Americans, we savor the phrase, and congratulate the winner, and celebrate the momentousness of the occasion. It is momentous for the generational change it heralds, the geographic realignment it reflects and the racial progress it both acknowledges and promises. Most of all, Mr. Obama’s victory is momentous for the opportunity it presents to put the country on a new and better path, imbued, as he said last night, with a new spirit of patriotism, service and responsibility.

No one should minimize the challenges Mr. Obama will face, including that of reaching out to the millions of Americans who voted for his opponent. He owes his victories in a nearly coast-to-coast band of previously red states, including Virginia, in part to the nation’s unhappiness with George W. Bush and its anxiety about the economy. But his victories in every region of the country also demonstrate voters’ willingness to give the new president a chance to put forward a more responsible economic program than that practiced by Mr. Bush or preached by John McCain. The excitement that Mr. Obama generated among his supporters suggests a capacity to inspire and reassure a worried and divided nation. His efficient, disciplined and, at times, ruthless campaign suggests a capacity to manage a government beset by problems of unimaginable complexity. And his combination of intelligence and eloquence, along with his evident instincts for consensus, offers hope that he can provide the leadership the nation so badly needs.

Mr. Obama cannot erase Mr. Bush’s legacy, but he has a chance to improve America’s standing in the world, ending such noxious practices as torture and indefinite detention with minimal review that have diminished this country in the eyes of its allies. He has the opportunity finally to set the country on a path to help reduce global warming. He has far-reaching plans on energy, health care and education, but also a realistic understanding that the state of the economy will delimit his ambitions.

When we endorsed Mr. Obama for president, we did not mention race, for the simple reason that race played no role in our decision; Mr. Obama was just the better of two good nominees. But race is hugely relevant to this moment. The stain of slavery and discrimination can never be obliterated, and no single day can mark a nation’s progress into some mythical “post-racial” era. Yet how could Americans not be moved by the reality of an African American president? Mr. Obama was born at a time when numerous states would have prohibited the marriage of his white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had outlawed the worst of Jim Crow, when the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools was being fought at every turn. Hardly anyone then — in truth, hardly anyone even a few years ago — would have predicted this day.

The losing candidate last night is one of the political leaders for whom we have the deepest respect, and Mr. McCain’s gracious and eloquent concession speech underscored why. His life story is a testament to his resilience; as he often said on the campaign trail, he has endured far worse than losing the presidency. The Senate to which Mr. McCain returns will play a critical role in determining the shape and success of the Obama administration. Mr. McCain’s call last night for “goodwill and earnest effort to come together,” and his pledge to Mr. Obama “to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face” were in keeping with his history of bipartisanship in the service of his country.

Mr. Obama answered in kind, telling Americans that “I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too.” That was a welcome coda to a tough campaign, and a fitting prelude to a new political era.