WASHINGTON – Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, swept to victory by an anxious country eager to change course at home and abroad.
Obama, 47, becomes the first black person to win the presidency and the first from the generation that came of age after the turbulence of the 1960s.
His win suggested a new political order in the making. He drew masses of young people to politics for the first time. His biracial heritage reflected the changing demographics of America. His mastery of the Internet matched the rise of a new information age. And his push into formerly Republican states in the South, Midwest and West marked a new political landscape possibly emerging.
After an epic struggle, the first-term Democratic senator from Illinois defeated Republican John McCain, 72, a hero of the Vietnam War and a four-term senator from Arizona.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” a triumphant Obama told a cheering audience of an estimated 125,000 supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park, alongside Lake Michigan.
To those watching from abroad, he said, “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you.”
He lauded his wife, Michelle, and saluted McCain, calling him a “brave and selfless leader.”
McCain conceded the election in a call to Obama at 8 p.m. Pacific time. Obama responded that he looked forward to working with McCain in the Senate. “I need your help. You’re a leader on so many important issues,” Obama told him.
McCain then faced his disappointed supporters under clear skies outside a Phoenix hotel.
“The American people have spoken and they have spoken clearly,” McCain said, his wife, Cindy, at his side.
McCain saluted Obama for his success and noted his unique triumph as an African-American. “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together,” he said.
He also lauded his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
President Bush also called Obama shortly after 11 p.m. in Washington. “You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life,” Bush told the president-elect. “Congratulations and go enjoy yourself.”
Obama was at the vanguard of Democratic gains across the country that promised him a solid working majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Democratic challengers ousted Republican incumbent Sens. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and John Sununu in New Hampshire. Democrats also picked up open Republican Senate seats in New Mexico and Virginia.
However, they failed to oust Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, apparently dashing their hopes of gaining a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.
Eager for a popular mandate to re-shape the government, Obama appeared well on his way late Tuesday night to become the first Democrat to take a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter won 50.1 percent in 1976.
Obama sealed his victory by holding all the states that went Democratic in 2004, then picking off Republican states including Colorado, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio.
Ohio was particularly important: No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio. No Democrat had won the White House without it since John Kennedy.
There as everywhere, the faltering economy dominated voters’ minds and tilted the political landscape solidly against the Republicans as the party of power – and responsibility – in the White House.
Interest was intense.
More than 40 million Americans already had voted by Tuesday morning, and total turnout was expected to top 130 million. The turnout rate was likely to rival the modern record of 67 percent set in 1960, the highest since women were granted the right to vote in 1920.
The Democratic wins came at a moment of history when the country was unusually anxious, as eight years of a Republican presidency are ending with an economy sinking into recession, markets in turmoil and U.S. troops at war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Bush, whose popularity plummeted following his close re-election four years ago, was all but invisible Tuesday, shunned on the campaign trail and watching the returns in the seclusion of the White House.
He voted earlier by absentee ballot in Texas, where he expects to return after leaving office on Jan. 20.
Bush loomed large over the election as both Obama and McCain vowed to change course.
From the start, Obama ran on the promise of change, both in policy and political style. Unknown outside Chicago just four years ago, he seized the national stage with a keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention that gave voice to a hunger for a less confrontational and divisive politics.
That appealed particularly to a new generation of young Americans, drawn into politics in large numbers, who helped Obama defeat New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in a 50-state marathon that pitted his promise of change against her offer of experience.
Obama vowed to change tax and economic policy to help the working and middle classes, expand health care to the uninsured, withdraw troops from Iraq and rebuild frayed relationships and alliances with countries around the world.
He also promised to raise taxes on the wealthy to help finance his expansion of programs for the poor.
McCain, too, promised change. He urged voters, particularly independents, to consider his long tradition of maverick reform that often challenged his own party. “I am not president Bush,” he insisted.
But it was all but impossible for McCain to shake the Bush legacy – a burden made worse when Vice President Dick Cheney decided to issue a public endorsement of McCain on the final pre-election weekend. It was the subject of one of the final ads of the campaign – aired not by a proud McCain, but by Obama.
Flying home to Phoenix Tuesday afternoon, McCain and his aides sounded a sentimental note about the campaign.
“We’ve had a great ride, a great experience, and it’s full of memories that we will always treasure,” McCain said as he spoke with reporters on his plane.
McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, later told reporters that McCain was already facing a hostile political landscape as the face of the Republican Party when Wall Street collapsed in September and voters grew even angrier.
“We did our absolute best in this campaign in really difficult circumstances,” Schmidt said.
“We did the best we can in historically difficult circumstances from a political climate. It is highly doubtful that anyone will ever have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year.
“The party’s been very unpopular. The president’s approval numbers, you know, were not helpful in the race, but the party as a whole is unpopular with the American people and that was a big albatross.”