Election 2008: 'At This Defining Moment, Change Has Come to America'
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. Our subject this week is the election of two thousand eight.
And this is Shep O’Neal. On January twentieth, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the forty-fourth president of the United States.
He won fifty-three percent of the popular vote and far more of the electoral votes than he needed to become president. His decisive victory over John McCain brought down the last racial barrier in American politics. It also followed two presidential elections that were narrowly decided.
Yet until a few years ago, almost no one outside of Illinois had ever heard of Barack Hussein Obama. The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas had a simple theme for his campaign for the White House. It was about change. And he came back to it in his acceptance speech Tuesday night.
BARACK OBAMA: "Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."
Barack Obama is forty-seven years old. He was elected a United States senator from Illinois four years ago.
His campaign for the White House lasted twenty-one months. Unlike John McCain, he decided against public campaign financing. More than three million people donated to the Obama campaign, often in small amounts over the Internet. He raised more than six hundred million dollars, more money than any presidential candidate ever has.
His victory was built on an aggressive campaign in states that for many years have voted Republican for president. He won Virginia and Indiana -- two states that last voted for a Democrat in nineteen sixty-four.
Population changes have helped the Democrats make gains in some states, including Virginia, in recent years. Still, many political observers say the Obama campaign organized the best operation they have ever seen.
Yet the first and possibly most important victory came in the Iowa caucuses in January. That was where he first defeated Senator Hillary Clinton and proved that a black candidate could appeal to white voters. More than ninety percent of Iowa’s population is white. He carried Iowa again in the general election on Tuesday, with fifty-four percent of the vote.
An estimated one hundred thirty-five million Americans voted in the election. Final totals may not be known for several weeks, but experts said this year's turnout rate could be the highest since nineteen sixty. Almost sixty-three percent of the voting age population voted that year.
Two out of three voters under the age of thirty chose Barack Obama and Joe Biden. John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, won the majority of Americans age sixty-five and older.
And they won the support of fifty-five percent of white voters. No Democrat has won a majority of the white vote since at least nineteen seventy-two. That was the year public opinion researchers started asking such questions on Election Day.
Barack Obama carried the support of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. He also won independent voters and about one-fifth of people who voted for George Bush four years ago. And he captured almost all of the so-called swing states, where the election was most competitive. These included Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa.
Elections are always emotional events, but this one was especially so.
CALIFORNIA VOTER: "I’m speechless. I’m trying not to cry right now. I’m thinking of my great-grandfather, my grandmother. Man, this is amazing."That was a voter in California. In Chicago, where Mr. Obama and his family live, more than one hundred thousand people gathered in Grant Park. They came to await the election results, and then celebrated his victory.
BARACK OBAMA: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that Americais a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
Race is generally a difficult subject for Americans to talk about. Political observers point out that Barack Obama never campaigned as a black candidate so much as a candidate who is black. He talked mostly about issues affecting all Americans -- especially the most important issue, the economy.
His victory comes fifty years after the start of the civil rights movement. And it was just one hundred forty-five years ago when Abraham Lincoln freed blacks from slavery.
But African-Americans could not freely exercise their right to vote in the South until nineteen sixty-five. That was when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Blacks had gained the right to vote in eighteen seventy but violence and state laws kept many from doing so.
One man who took part in the civil rights struggle, and was almost killed, is Representative John Lewis of Georgia.
JOHN LEWIS: "It does not matter whether you are black or white or Latino or Asian American or Native American, you can grow up in America and be anything you want to be. People will be saying for years to come, ‘If Barack Obama can do it, you can do it too.’”
John McCain accepted defeat shortly after voting ended Tuesday night. The Arizona Senator promised to support Barack Obama.
JOHN McCAIN: "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, to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”
Now Barack Obama must work to deliver on his promises. These include middle class tax cuts, new energy programs and a withdrawal from Iraq. Expectations are extra high. He will lead a nation fighting two wars and experiencing what he calls the "greatest economic challenge of our lifetime."
Another big issue in the election was health care. An estimated forty-six million Americans, or fifteen percent, did not have health insurance coverage last year. Barack Obama wants to require large employers to either offer insurance or pay into a government plan to cover uninsured people. He also proposes a health tax credit for small businesses. And he wants to require insurance companies to offer coverage even to people who already have health problems.
In his victory speech, President-elect Obama said solving America’s problems will not be easy.
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.”
In Tuesday's elections, the Democrats not only won the presidency but also expanded their majorities in both houses of Congress. Alan Lichtman is a political science professor at American University in Washington. He says there is evidence that much can get done when one party controls the Congress and White House. He says this is true especially if a president has big plans. For example, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected in nineteen thirty-two, also at a time of economic crisis. He got a Democratic Congress to pass fifteen major bills in his first one hundred days.
Still, experts say congressional Democrats will not approve everything Mr. Obama proposes just because he proposes it. Also, they say that even with increased majorities in Congress, the Democrats may at times have to look to Republicans for support.
The Democrats will also have to see whether last week's results were a sign of a big change in American politics or just a rejection of George Bush. The first big test will come with the midterm congressional elections in two years.
Republican losses in two thousand six and again now have led to internal criticism and calls for fresh leadership. Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution says the Republicans could have a third or fourth rough election before -- in his words -- "they get themselves straightened out."
Americans also voted on ballot measures in thirty-six states. In California, the most populous state, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Opponents immediately filed legal action. They say the passage of Proposition Eight will deny equal rights for all Californians. In May the California Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution protected marriage between homosexuals.
The measure passed with strong support among blacks and Latinos. Similar ballot measures restricting marriage to a man and a woman also passed in Florida and Arizona.
But proposals that would have limited the right to abortion failed in California, South Dakota and Colorado.
Our program was written by Brianna Blake, Nancy Steinbach and Caty Weaver. For the latest news, go to voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.
And this is Shep O’Neal. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
Correction: This story said John McCain conceded defeat on election night after voting had ended. Voting stations were still open in Alaska.