Alan Brinkley is the provost and a professor of history at Columbia University, as well as a National Book Award-winning author.
It is nearly irresistible to see the significance of the Obama victory as a landmark event in the history of America's oldest and most intractable problem--the problem of race. And this election is indeed historic for that reason. It is an event that many people of my generation (people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s) never dared even imagine. Race was probably not a decisive issue in the election. There was a Democratic tide this year that probably would have lifted any competent candidate to victory. Still, this election marks a tremendous sea change in how Americans view the role of race. Even a decade ago, I suspect, a presidential candidate of mixed race would have been unelectable. Did Obama cause this change, or was he the beneficiary of changes created by others? Some of both, I suspect.
But I would not want race to seem the only, or even the principal, significance of Obama's success. I believe that what has made Obama possible is his youth, his energy, and most of all his ability to convey a kind of hope and idealism that helped remove some of the cynicism and apathy that has plagued American politics for decades. Ted Sorensen, John Kennedy's speechwriter and special assistant in the1960s, wrote very early in the pre-primary campaign this year that Obama was the first candidate he had seen since Kennedy who is capable of inspiring, as opposed to just persuading, voters. In 1960, Kennedy beckoned Americans, in a period of great optimism and power, to imagine a country that could do more, could do better--a country that should aspire to more than just material success. In 2008, in a period of battered confidence and very little material success, Obama has managed to radiate a kind of optimism and self assurance and discipline that has helped many people believe that things can be better.
Granted, Obama's campaign in the last weeks and even months was a far cry from the dazzling, oratorically powerful campaign of the early primaries--and a far cry as well from the powerful speech he gave in Grant Park on election night. He was trying to appear more serious and presidential and was also trying, perhaps too hard, to play it safe. But the extraordinary character of the election night event in Chicago, and the ecstatic response of so many Americans (and so many people around the world) to the outcome, suggests that his power to inspire has not been much diluted.
What comes next is another matter. No one should envy Obama his task in the coming months. But for now, we should be able to celebrate not only the end of a disastrous presidency but also a return--at least briefly--to a belief that politics can make a difference and that our country might return to its better self.