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Obama Pushes Past Race Barriers, Wins White House

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Obama Pushes Past Race Barriers, Wins White House

Election 2008

Obama Pushes Past Race Barriers, Wins White House

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Here's a listener favorite from 2008.

(Soundbite of NPR's News & Notes, November 5, 2008)

Illinois Senator Barack Obama woke up today as the first African-American president-elect of the United States. The historic presidential race between Obama and Senator John McCain ended last night when Senator Obama captured 349 electoral votes. He will become the 44th president of the United States.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we, as a people, will get there.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CHIDEYA: Before Senator Obama gave his acceptance speech, Senator John McCain took the stage to officially and graciously concede.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Obama and my old friend, Senator Joe Biden, should have the honor of leading us for the next four years.

(Soundbite of booing)

CHIDEYA: This race was one of the longest and most contentious in modern U.S. history. Both candidates worked tirelessly to convince voters they were the best equipped to lead the country into a new and uniquely challenging era. From the beginning, Senator Obama focused his message on hope and change.

President-elect OBAMA: You have shown what history teaches us. That at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington; change comes to Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: Senator McCain declared himself a maverick within his Republican Party and reminded voters that he spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Senator MCCAIN: Then, I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me.

CHIDEYA: In the end, the collapsing economy, combined with Senator Obama's core message of change, resonated with the majority of the electorate. A record number of Americans came out to vote on Election Day, with an estimated 136.6 million people casting ballots. Few question that race and gender affected the presidential contest, including the marked increase in the black vote, with an African-American on the ballot for the first time.

This election also marked only the second time in American history that a woman, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, was on the ballot for a major party.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Gov. PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

CHIDEYA: Last night was the culmination of a formal contest that began 21 months ago.

President-elect OBAMA: I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.

CHIDEYA: Obama was considered an underdog at the beginning of his campaign. He shocked even his own party when he won the Iowa caucuses.

President-elect OBAMA: In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and in big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to stand up and say that we are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CHIDEYA: Obama's victory in Iowa shook his Democratic primary rivals, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. The Democratic primary intensified as it moved south. Former President Bill Clinton found himself defending remarks he'd made about Senator Obama that some African-Americans felt were patronizing and racist. His wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, was forced to respond during a debate.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Republican, New York): You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.

President-elect OBAMA: Your husband did.

Senator CLINTON: Well, I'm here. He's not.

President-elect OBAMA: OK, well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes, though.

Senator CLINTON: I don't know. Well...

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: Senator Obama went on to win the South Carolina primary. Then, he had to face a new controversy. Critics confronted the senator with questions about his relationship with his controversial former church pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama responded by delivering a landmark speech on race.

President-elect OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

CHIDEYA: But in fact, the senator did later disown his former pastor, after Reverend Wright made increasingly controversial public comments. As Obama bested his chief rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, some female Democratic voters expressed their dismay that the woman they'd hoped would be the first in the White House was not even offered the vice presidential spot on the ticket. Senator Clinton suspended her campaign. A few months later, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, Senator Obama officially accepted his party's nomination.

President-elect OBAMA: I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don't fit the typical pedigree, and I haven't spent my career in the halls of Washington. But I stand before you tonight because all across America, something is stirring. What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's about you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: Senator Obama now faced Senator John McCain in the general election in what some voters saw as a battle between new ideas and experience. Obama held a steady lead as the two made their case. Shortly before the first debate, the failure of major financial institutions and the plunge in the stock market shook the country's economy to its core. In the final analysis, most American voters felt that the economy was the most important issue in their vote and that Senator Obama was the best equipped to deal with the financial crisis.

To add to the mix, the Obama campaign proved adept at registering and organizing scores of new voters, and his candidacy brought African-Americans to the polls in record numbers.

Unidentified Man: Yes, it actually is my first time voting.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

Unidentified Man: And I'm waiting on the line to vote. It's around the corner. This is a good day.

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