Election night, Washington, D.C. — After the astonishingly close presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, when it was necessary for most of us to go without sleep for many hours after midnight, tonight’s election has been relatively boring to watch. While the victory of Obama was not declared in the first hour or two, as some had thought possible, by 9:30 P.M. it was clear that McCain was not making a last-minute breakthrough. Obama won New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio–all states that any surprise by McCain depended on. Two hours later, the race has not yet been definitely called. But the television networks are projecting that Obama has won Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and New Mexico–all states that George W. Bush had won in 2004. Clearly, although McCain came close to winning these battleground states, he in the end lost them.
So what does the election of Sen. Barack Obama as the new president of the United States mean?
I will never forget the moment in January 1961, when John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. I was watching his inaugural address in the cafeteria of the Harvard Law School, when I was startled by feeling warm tears streak down my cheeks. I was caught by surprise; I had not expected that. Yet it was so astonishing to witness a Roman Catholic becoming the public face of our nation, as presidents always do. It had seemed impossible to imagine, in this very Protestant country. In the Harvard graduate schools, a Catholic felt like a man with green hair–an oddity. But not any more, not after John F. Kennedy became president.
Thus, it is easy for me to imagine the immense jubilation in the hearts of America’s African-American population. Many eyes will be shining with joy tomorrow. Many will feel arise in their breasts a great new sense of pride, accomplishment, and public dignity. They will feel validated as never before.
That is one great blessing of this election.
What will the Obama presidency mean for U.S. foreign policy? A great nation is like a large aircraft carrier. It can change course only very slowly, a degree or two at a time. Thus, I doubt whether President Obama’s overseas actions will match some of his flights of rhetoric during the election.
Obama won the Democratic primaries by getting to the left of Sen. Hillary Clinton and all the others on foreign policy. The most activist part of the Democratic party is its most passionate left wing. Winning their hearts, Obama then gradually moved toward the center–making his views on the war in Iraq barely distinguishable in practical fact from those of Senator McCain. In any case, the foreign-policy issues that dominated the primary season dropped speedily out of sight, as it began to become clear that violence was dropping very quickly in Iraq, and something like “normalcy” came ever closer. The press virtually stopped covering Iraq. (Their passion had been to humiliate Bush; and when things turned better, they seemed no longer interested.)