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Barack Obama, An American Story

Barack Obama's campaign began with lofty appeals to idealism, as he called upon supporters to build a movement that could change the way we relate to each other. It ended with a series of concrete, pedestrian promises, as Obama vowed to deliver jobs, health care, and lower prices at the pump.

But tonight in Chicago, standing before a crowd of cheering throngs in Grant Park, Obama rediscovered his former self. Conjuring up the old language of idealism, and reaching out to his vanquished opponent, Obama renewed his plea for unity and common purpose. "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism," Obama said, "of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." Then Obama invoked Lincoln:

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House–a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.  As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn–I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.  

The heart of the speech--the passage, I suspect, that people will long remember--was a solliloquy that recounted the story of a 106-year-old African American woman named Ann Nixon Cooper. Obama talked about her journey through history--through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Moment, and the Cold War--punctutating each passage with his signature refrain, "Yes we can." 

It was the first time in a long time that Obama had dwelled on the subject of race and the historical significance of his election. He did so delicately, and by proxy, but the meaning was altogether clear: "This year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can."

But I suspect the point of using Cooper as a vehicle for revisiting America's past--and, you might say, the whole point of Obama's candidacy--was not to appropriate the evening for one group of people. It was to suggest that the African-American story was really the American story, one from which all people living here could draw hope and inspiration. As Obama said near the end of his adderss,

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves–if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see?  What progress will we have made?

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.

Throughout this campaign, many of us wondered whether a majority of voters would embrace an African-American for president. At times, I thought, Obama's pleas for healing and common understanding seemed treacly, naive, or both. But as I listen to the news and scan the web tonight, I hear and read people of all races--and all political backgrounds--marvelling at what just transpired.

This is how it should be. Obama's election may be a political victory for one group of partisans. But it is also a historical achievement in which all Americans can take at least some measure of pride.

--Jonathan Cohn