By Scott Helman and Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
CHICAGO — Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was elected the 44th president of the United States and the nation’s first black commander in chief Tuesday, his triumph ushering in an era of profound political and social realignment in America.
Obama’s decisive victory over Republican John McCain is a landmark in the country’s 232-year history, especially for the millions of African-Americans around the country energized and inspired by his improbable candidacy. It gives Democrats control of Congress and the White House for the first time in 16 years and it led to impromptu celebrations around the country.
Making good on his promise to draw his own electoral map, Obama captured Virginia, which last voted for a Democrat in 1964, and he beat McCain in key battlegrounds, including Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, while holding on to Democratic-leaning states. He won in part on the support of new voters, African-Americans, and Hispanics, and as of early today he had 338 electoral votes, far more than the 270 needed to win the presidency, while McCain had 142.
In a grand celebration on a balmy fall night in Chicago’s Grant Park, 125,000 supporters gathered to toast the president-elect. When the networks called the race shortly after 10 p.m. local time, tears flowed, flashbulbs lighted up the night, fists pumped in the air, and the lakefront erupted into roars of relief and disbelief — ‘‘We did it!’’ and ‘‘Oh my God.’’
‘‘I am so proud to be black, so proud to be American,’’ said Alicia Thompson, a 45-year-old financial analyst from Chicago, tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘‘Anything is possible. Anything is possible.’’
Obama, the weight of his achievement reflected on his face, walked out on stage with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, to thunderous applause.
"Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment," he said, "change has come to America."
Obama said his victory proved the bottom-up power of American democracy, citing the hours-long lines to get into polling places. "This is your victory," he said.
Obama also sought to warn the country of the challenges ahead, saying his election was not, by itself, the "change we seek."
"It is only the chance for us to make that change," he said, adding: "There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."
A much smaller and more muted crowd awaited the results at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix with McCain, the veteran senator from Arizona.
In conceding the election with a gracious and conciliatory speech, McCain recognized the historic significance of Obama’s achievement and offered his help. ‘‘Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country,’’ McCain said.
McCain quieted some supporters who booed when he announced that he had offered his congratulations to Obama. ‘‘The American people have spoken and they have spoken clearly,’’ the Republican said, while expressing his admiration of the way Obama inspired ‘‘the hopes of so many millions of Americans.’’ He urged his supporters to ‘‘find ways to come together’’ for the good of the country.
Obama’s win, which comes as Democrats also picked up seats in the House and Senate, sets the stage for significant shifts in the country’s domestic and foreign policy in the years ahead. It was a fitting final bend of the arc of a presidential race Obama has run largely on his own terms since winning the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
He set the fund-raising pace, bringing in a record $639 million through last month. He set out early to play offense by competing in ‘‘red states’’ such as Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, a strategy helped by independent demographic trends that favored the Democrats. The general election battle was fought almost exclusively over change, terrain that Obama seized early and never relinquished.
And his compelling narrative — his half-Kansan, half-Kenyan heritage, binational upbringing, and rousing call for a new dawn of politics — often sucked oxygen away from his opponents. Even McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate was designed in part to give the GOP ticket its own rising young, telegenic star with a unique story who could compete for the public imagination.
The election — the longest and most expensive presidential race in history and likely to attract a record turnout — came at a pivotal juncture for the country, which is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the president’s approval rating at 26 percent, and only one in 10 Americans saying the country is moving in the right direction, the landscape favored Obama considerably.
Though the race was tight after the Republican convention and the initial enthusiasm for Palin, Obama began to pull away in national polls once the economic crisis exploded in mid-September, as voters came to see him as the more capable economic steward. In nationwide exit polls of voters yesterday, 62 percent said the economy was the top issue, compared with 10 percent who cited Iraq — a sweeping change from last year when McCain’s campaign believed that the election would center on foreign policy, his strong suit.
Obama, 47, first gained national exposure with his stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, in which he issued his now-famous call for the country to move beyond the political and cultural divisions that had split America into ‘‘red states’’ and ‘‘blue states.’’ At the time he was a little-known state senator from Illinois, but that fall he was elected to the US Senate, becoming just the third African-American senator since Reconstruction.
Obama’s star only gained intensity once he arrived in Washington, and he began to seriously consider the entreaties from many Democrats to run this year. He formally launched his candidacy on a frigid day in Springfield, Ill. on Feb. 10, 2007, casting his unfamiliarity with Washington as a political benefit.
‘‘I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,’’ Obama said in his announcement speech. ‘‘But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.’’
Obama went on to build his candidacy on that one simple word — change — while eventually fleshing out his soaring rhetoric with detailed proposals based on helping the middle class. He drew millions of new voters hungry for a new direction and fresh leadership, including record numbers of young people. Since defeating Hillary Clinton, who had the backing of much of the Democratic establishment, he expanded his coalition to include other party constituencies as well as independents and moderate Republicans.
Obama also built an unmatched grass-roots army of supporters and volunteers, in part through novel Internet networking and fund-raising tools that may have changed forever the way presidential campaigns will be run. Obama became the first presidential candidate to reject public financing, choosing instead to rely on his millions of donors — many of them giving $5 or $10 online.
He had financial dominance in both the primaries and in the general election, allowing him to open hundreds of campaign offices across the country, blanket television nationwide with ads, and put resources wherever he wanted, including many traditionally Republican states.
McCain, 72, whose father and grandfather were Navy admirals, was held for 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, an experience that brought him to national prominence.
McCain served in the US House for four years and then, in 1986, was elected to the US Senate. After becoming embroiled in the ‘‘Keating Five’’ savings and loan scandal, in which he was found to have used ‘‘poor judgment’’ for trying to help a major campaign donor, McCain cast himself as a maverick and a reformer, a role that often put him at odds with his party.
In 2000, McCain lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush, and last year, pundits declared his second bid all but dead as he fired his top advisers and struggled to raise money. But a victory in the New Hampshire primary in January revived his campaign, and he outlasted well-financed opponents despite the misgiving of many conservatives.
McCain sought to separate himself from Bush, who mostly stayed on the sidelines during the campaign, and also tried to find his footing on the economy, which he admitted was not his strength.
In his victory speech, Obama issued a call for bipartisanship, speaking to the millions of voters who did not support him.
"I may not have won your vote tonight," he said. "But I hear your voices. I need your help. I will be your president, too."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.