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Obama’s Win Earns Emotional Reactions, Turns Page in History

November 5, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The election of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama presents a new chapter in American history. After a look at how Americans across the country are reacting to the news, a panel of historians discusses the significance of the nation's first black president.

JIM LEHRER: And what the election means to individual Americans and to the country. Margaret Warner talks to our historians about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And with me for that is our team of regulars: presidential historians Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Mason University; Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University; and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

But, first, we hear voices from around the country, in Phoenix, Minneapolis, Chicago, Colorado, Orlando and Washington, on what this election meant to them.

D’NESSTAH FIELDS: It was said that it could never be done, it would never happen. It was a long road. There was a phrase someone said, “Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run.” And run he did, and win he did. And that’s — oh, man, it’s so overwhelming.

OLIVIA PARKER: It’s important to me personally, because of the plight that my ancestors have had and my family have had, their right to march and to protest, just so black people one day would have the right to vote.

So it’s been a historical event, an historical moment, and I was just blessed to have been able to have been a part of this history.

This is something that one day I’ll be able to relate to my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren about this day and this moment. I mean, everything, the weather, nothing could have been better, nothing could have gone wrong.

MARIANNE ATKINSON: My husband’s an American, and he was able to vote. We’re really pleased that we got back to America this time so we could vote in this election for the future of our daughter.

You know, 20 years from now — well, four years from now, eight years from now, there could be a woman president. And I really believe that.

PAUL BINSFELD: I’m a registered Republican, but I was really impressed with the level of hope and excitement within the community, the national community, and the world, in terms of the outcome. It’s just an incredible speech, an incredible leader. I just — I hope he can live up to it.

DANA LANGLY: It is an amazing thing. It’s wonderful. I’m very excited. We need a change. This is the change that we needed.

For the country as a whole, we’re getting some new blood in there. He’s going to mix some things up. He’s going to make some things happen. And that’s what we need in this country.

SARAH THORNHOLM, Phoenix: As far as the way our country will be run, actions speak louder than words. And Obama is a great communicator, and I hope he’s not just another actor.

DENNIS FOWLER: I can’t get over the jubilation of America as a whole over this election. The fact that he won in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, it’s just — it’s so enlightening.

JOHN VALENTA: He’s got to unify everything. He’s got to make everybody come together and work as one. No matter who we voted for — and I didn’t vote for him — but we have to support him. He needs the help of everybody to get the economy to where it needs to be.

GAYLE WOODBURY, Minneapolis: It was a very unifying event, because it was such a margin with the electoral votes. And I don’t remember seeing people celebrate the way that they did last night in recent elections, and so that’s pretty exciting.

WILL WELCH: I think personally it’s going to change for me, because I have an African-American son. So, obviously, you know, for him, it’s a great thing, because he was — this was his first election. So he got to vote. And so, for me, that was a sense of pride for me.

He was ecstatic. I mean, you know, I got goosebumps. You know, it was just an amazing thing, just an amazing thing to see.

And, of course, we talked about it, but this being his first election, you know, him being old enough to vote, for him to be able to vote for someone with his ethnicity, it meant a lot. And it meant a lot to me to see that.

An 'evolution' of U.S. democracy

Ellen FitzPatrick
University of New Hampshire
I think it's an incredible moment in the history of this country, one of the more important moments we have seen ever.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, we heard these voters say what this moment means to them. Ellen, what does it say to you about our country?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think it's an incredible moment in the history of this country, one of the more important moments we have seen ever.

And that is because this election has resolved a moral contradiction that runs through the interstices of our history from its very founding.

The founders were not able to deal with the issue of slavery and created a republic based on a set of values and beliefs that were denied to African-Americans through more than two centuries.

And through segregation, after the Civil War, it was followed by segregation, the Jim Crow laws. And that moment -- I think we've put a punctuation mark on a very important and rather shameful chapter.

MARGARET WARNER: Peniel, do you see it that way? I mean, are the voters who were telling our reporters that they think this signals a whole new era not only for African-Americans, but in terms of possibilities for all Americans, are they right?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, certainly I think we all agree at this roundtable that this election shows the evolution of American democracy. As historians, we realize that that evolution is not always a linear progression.

So during the reconstruction era, for instance, we had the first generation of black elected officials, and then that time ended because of Jim Crow segregation. The civil rights movement became a second reconstruction, so to speak.

And now, 40 years later, I think many African-Americans are thinking of this as a potential third reconstruction. But white Americans and Latinos have joined them, as well, so this really speaks to the potential, in terms of democratic progression for the nation.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Richard, does that alone guarantee Barack Obama's place in history, just transcending that barrier?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Gosh, you know, that's a great question. You know, 50 years later, we don't think of John F. Kennedy -- the first thing that comes to mind is not the first Catholic president.

Clearly, it loomed much larger in November 1960 than it does 50 years later. And if 50 years from now, the most important thing about Barack Obama was his race, that would give me real pause, and it would suggest that his presidency, which ultimately is going to be about other things than race, was less than successful.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, your thoughts on that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes, I think that is true. And, you know, in a way, that is what happens when there is success in breaking a barrier.

You know, one reason we don't think of John Kennedy so much as a Catholic is because, by breaking the barrier, people didn't notice those things anymore.

The second Catholic on a national ticket after Kennedy was William Miller, on with Barry Goldwater in 1964. No one even mentioned it, you know? And I think that will happen, the same thing with the second African-American on a national ticket after Barack Obama.

Hopes and concerns

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
Barack Obama [...] really did appeal to our sense of possibility. Maybe not optimism, because it's a tough time to be optimistic, but he clearly laid the groundwork for, in effect, a unity government after a period of considerable division.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's talk about another groundbreaking element last night or yesterday, though we don't have the final numbers in, but turnout does appear to be on track to exceed or at least match, if not exceed, the 1960 turnout, 63 percent or higher.

And then we hear the optimism we hear from these people, the yearning. And, Ellen, what do you think the combination of those two elements means potentially?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think what we're seeing is a tremendous feeling on the part of the public that what they responded to was the sense of hope that was being offered.

This was ridiculed at times in the campaign. But every social movement that has amounted to anything in American history was based on that kind of idealism and some powerful leadership, a figure, as well, that the greatest ones have been trans-historical, who were able to capture that mood and articulate it.

And the shifting of generations evokes 1960, as well.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Franklin Roosevelt once said that, since our founding, we have been engaged in a permanent peaceful revolution, a revolution that he defined as being all about, ultimately, democratic inclusiveness. And that's very much a part of the essentially optimistic, hopeful nature of the American people.

I was struck by those comments. And last night, people feel good. People could have been very angry in this campaign, and certainly there was anger.

But, you know, Barack Obama notably did not run as an angry candidate. Reagan-esque style, he really did appeal to our sense of possibility. Maybe not optimism, because it's a tough time to be optimistic, but he clearly laid the groundwork for, in effect, a unity government after a period of considerable division.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's pause for a moment now to hear from around the country again, and this time people are expressing their hopes and concerns for what this new presidency will bring.

JAMES SMITH: My biggest worry is that his plate don't be too full, that he didn't make too many promises that he can't keep, and, you know, those are my biggest worries right now.

I'm definitely filled with hope. I'm positive there's going to be a lot of changes, and I'm definitely filled with hope. It'll help me get a better education. It'll definitely help my children.

You know, I do have two daughters. And hopefully it'll bring change in their life, too, so they can have a better education and stuff as they're growing up.

MARY WALKER: My main concern is schools. The school system lacks a lot. When George Bush said nobody's going to slip between the cracks, that was a lie. There's a lot of kids here in Brighton slipped through the cracks. He didn't care.

MATTHEW FITZGERALD: The fact that the guy we elected, his middle name is Hussein, he grew up in -- I mean, he has a childhood based out of Indonesia. His father was Kenyan. It's just the American dream come true.

You know, there's all sort of policies I'm sure that will change, but I think the way we are perceived in the world, the way we perceive the world, as opposed to in a conflict-type manner, I think we're going to work with the world. I think we have a chance to become leaders again. I just think it's in how we deal with problems and deal with each other.

SHIRLEY LOMERSON: I am fearful of other countries looking at us and saying, "They've elected someone who's not experienced in dealing with other countries." So are they going to now come at us, so to speak, because we have a president who is not experienced and is kind of moving in the dark?

ROSALYN COOK: I think it means a more united place to live. I think there's so much humanity that just poured out of everyone and that we're hoping for. It's hope. It's hope for a better future; it's hope for our children; it's hope for the nation.

KIM ANDERSON: I voted for John McCain reluctantly, but I support President-elect Obama in all of his efforts. It is very inspiring, and it gives me great hope for the future.

I also hope that the office of the presidency will do a lot to soften some of his, let's say, very liberal leanings on tax policies and disincentives to businesses as we see it today.

DIANE: What it meant to our whole family was opportunity. Opportunity was something my husband hasn't had in this country as an Arab-American, and so we're hoping with this change that opportunity will finally come knocking. He's felt held back by the atmosphere created by the Bush administration.

BERNADETTE REID-BENNETT: I don't think change is going to happen overnight. I think -- as a race, I think we're going to have to work for the things that we want.

I think he's going to open doors for us, some opportunities for us, but we as black people, we'll have to work for them things. Nothing is going to be given to us. We have to work for everything that we want. Nothing is given to you free.

Obama's challenges ahead

Peniel Joseph
Brandeis University
In 1960, John Kennedy faced a changing world within the midst of the Cold War, but I think what Obama is facing is unprecedented.

MARGARET WARNER: So hopes and fears. Peniel, has any president faced such a daunting set of challenges, foreign and domestic, as President-elect Obama will?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think domestically we have to go back to FDR. And FDR talked about freedom from fear in 1932, freedom from want, talked about a new social contract with the body politic.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning at the depths of the Great Depression?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Certainly. And by 1940, we were faced on the eve of the Second World War, at least the United States' involvement in that conflict.

Certainly, in 1960, John Kennedy faced a changing world within the midst of the Cold War, but I think what Obama is facing is unprecedented in a way.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, another part of this is that, you know, a political scientist would say we had a lot of the ingredients yesterday for high turnout, high intensity: two candidates with big differences on the major issues; and also an election where we really are at a crossroads on economic policy, social issues, national security.

But I must say I must have been too jaded, because I would have said probably -- and I would have been wrong 48 hours ago -- that, you know, people have a sense that the system isn't working and they won't turn out in those numbers, numbers that approach 1908, 1960, years of very high turnout.

But the other thing is that, you know, look at Obama. You were talking about optimism and hope. Look what kind of a leader he is.

There was a potential in the last two months for a demagogue of the kind of Huey Long of Louisiana, to just start an angry campaign, "These horrible people on Wall Street are stealing your money, and the government is paying them off, and why are oil prices so high, and arms merchants got us into a war in Iraq, and oil, and all this stuff."

A leader could have gone very far with that kind of an angry appeal; none of that with Obama.

So the result is that, elected as he is by a decent margin, he's coming in with an appeal that is almost entirely positive. And I think that says very good things about this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And other parallels, Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, not only positive, but almost post-ideological. I mean, the really remarkable thing, here is someone who in many ways -- let's face it -- is a product of the civil rights revolution, who is a product of the '60s.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Or a beneficiary.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Certainly a beneficiary, absolutely, but who was very much a product of those times, and yet who's been very explicit in making clear his desire to turn the page on our unhealthy, cultural obsession with the 1960s. And in a sense, he's almost a post-boomer president.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ellen, we heard that from a couple of those voters, this yearning for unity. I mean, does that have precedent? And how long does that last?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, we hope that it will -- he will have the skill to be able to reach across the groups that -- continue to reach across the lines that have divided the country in the last many years. We've had an extraordinarily divisive political culture.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, historically, have there been other situations like this, where the country was sort of on its back or felt it was and there was a yearning for unity?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I hesitate to even raise the example, but in 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected, look at what he was facing. We had an extraordinarily divisive war; we had two terrible assassinations in the spring and summer of 1968.

The country was greatly divided, and Richard Nixon walked into that situation as a unifying candidate, believe it or not, then.

History's lessons on expectations

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
Obama benefits from having read history. In that speech last night, he said, 'You know, I may not do everything in my first year or even my first term.' You sort of think that he may have read John Kennedy's inaugural.

MARGARET WARNER: What I want to close on, really, are the expectations we heard. We heard fears and expectations. What does history tell us again about how a president manages, what it takes to manage those expectations, Peniel?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think the Obama campaign has talked about the first 100 days and reading books about FDR's first 100 days to see how he would respond if he gets into the White House.

I think when we look at somebody like Bill Clinton, there were high expectations, and the first year was kind of rocky. He got caught up in gays in the military and Whitewater instead of policy implications.

So in terms of managing expectations, I think it's going to be difficult, based on the 63 million votes -- this is the most in American history -- but based on the campaign and the discipline of his campaign, I think he'll be able to manage it.

MARGARET WARNER: You meant the 130-plus-million turnout, I imagine?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, the 63 million for a Democrat. This is the most a victor has gotten in American history.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, what is your sense about whether these high expectations are a blessing or a burden for a president and how a president handles it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: A blessing because he can call on those people and say, "You elected me to do A, and B, and C. I'm asking you for sacrifices that may be required to achieve those things. You people have to come among with me on that."

But, you know, here, again, Obama benefits from having read history. In that speech last night, he said, "You know, I may not do everything in my first year or even my first term." You sort of think that he may have read John Kennedy's inaugural, where he said, "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days, 1,000 days, life of this administration."

Occasionally it does really help when a president has read some history.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And echoes of Dr. King. "We may not get there."

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But we as a people -- we as a people will get there.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Richard, when has a president succeeded and when has a president failed to sustain public momentum for these expectations or for his program to meet the expectations?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I mean, the classic -- I mean, Herbert Hoover went into office the most popular man in the country, deemed to be an economic wizard.

MARGARET WARNER: Little known fact.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That didn't -- that didn't sustain itself.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Can't resist mentioning Hoover.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But what I believe, the inauguration, this is going to be the most exciting inauguration since Andrew Jackson. And the irony is, you know, Jackson ushered in a new era of, quote, "democracy," very limited. It included basically white men.

But, nevertheless, it was a profound shift from the well-bred and well-read who had governed the nation before Jackson.

They had enormous expectations. They formed an army, a new politically potent army, and he sustained that, and he transformed the party, and he transformed the country.

That's a tall order. But, clearly, there was that same sense of excitement. And I think, in this case, it transcends narrowly partisan loyalties.

As I say, there's a real feeling in this country today of almost universal pride.

MARGARET WARNER: Last thought from you on this, on sustaining the momentum to meet the expectations?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think that every president has a difficult job sustaining the momentum and meeting the expectations. But the great presidents rise to their historical moment.

It may be a terrible moment. It may be a war; it may be a horrible depression. But the public, I think, is chastened. They understand what we're up against, and they're looking for leadership.

If they provide leadership, even if they don't have all the answers and the solutions, that will carry them.

MARGARET WARNER: Ellen, Richard, Michael, Peniel, thank you all.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Margaret.