CHICAGO, Nov. 4—Barack Obama, CC '83, was elected President of the United States on Tuesday—the first Columbia College graduate and black person in history to win the office.
The Illinois senator won in a landslide with at least 349 electoral votes, carrying swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida for a decisive victory over Republican opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America," Obama said in his acceptance speech.
Obama celebrated his win in Chicago Tuesday evening before a vast crowd of 125,000 giddy supporters who flooded downtown's Grant Park. They shouted "Yes we can! Yes we can!" repeatedly in an ecstatic tenor. Spells of sentimentality overwhelmed the excitement at times—there were bursts of cheer, and then, gaps to breathe, to process, and allow their eyes to swell with tears.
"A new dawn of American leadership is at hand," the president-elect told the enraptured crowd.
Obama is not the first Columbia affiliate to be elected president—Dwight Eisenhower served as president of the University and Franklin Roosevelt attended the law school—but he is the first graduate of Columbia College. He played down his Columbia connection during his presidential campaign, appearing on campus only once on Sept. 11 for a forum on service along with McCain. However, his election has sparked hopes among some students that an Obama presidency will cast a favorable light on the school—for example, some students celebrating Obama's victory on campus Tuesday night launched a cheer of "That's our school" in front of Lerner Hall.
Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Aug. 4, 1961. His father—also named Barack—immigrated to the U.S. from a small village in Kenya. His mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in Kansas. Obama's parents met at the University of Hawaii, and their marriage lasted six years before his father left to return to Kenya. After that, Obama lived with his mother and stepfather for four years in Indonesia, and then moved back to Hawaii to stay with his maternal grandparents. His grandmother, who, according to Obama, played a large role in his upbringing, passed away Sunday evening.
After graduating from high school, Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years before transferring to Columbia College in the fall of 1981. The political science major lived off-campus, and he is reported by his classmates to have often arrived to class early, donning a red backpack.
His senior seminar professor, Michael Barron, GSAS '80, said of Obama: "'He was a very bright student. Articulate, as many were in the class ... I'd say he was one of the best one or two students in the class. But everyone in the class was oriented to doing something more with their lives."
Though the president-elect has spoken little of his college days, he has described his time at Columbia as a period of intense study. "When I transferred, I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn't socialize that much. I was like a monk," he told Columbia College Today in 2005.
Michael Ackerman, CC '84, took a political science course with Obama and recalls a similar persona. He was "almost chameleon-like, spy-like, slipped in and out. He tried to keep to himself," Ackerman said.
Ackerman added that Obama never stood out to him as a man destined for the White House. "I don't know that I would have put any money on it," he said. Years later, though, he would come support the fellow alum's candidacy.
Before Obama could step out of his Hamilton classroom into the Oval Office, he experienced a transformative rise to power. In 1985, he moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer with a church-based group. Obama migrated to the East Coast to pursue his law degree at Harvard in 1991, and then returned to Chicago to become a civil-rights lawyer. In 1992, he became a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and in 1996 he was promoted to senior lecturer.
Obama's life as an elected official began in 1996, when he won a seat in the Illinois State Senate—a body in which he would serve for the next eight years. Following an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, he ran for U.S. Senate in 2003. Upon his election in 2004, he became the third black person to garner a Senate seat since Reconstruction.
His debut in the national spotlight occurred that same year, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Though the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), did not beat U.S. President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, Obama came out of the convention victorious. That speech set the stage for his candidacy in 2008, giving his name awareness among a community of fans that was to expand at a rapid pace.
On Feb. 20, 2007, Obama announced his presidential bid and soon after won the first national primary in Iowa.
"I think we're going to see ... a tremendous increase in people believing that Obama is the one," said New York State Sen. Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) following the initial yet decisive victory over U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Edwards, the former Democratic U.S. senator from North Carolina.
Through a long and grueling primary season that kept Americans enraptured by the political process as many had not been in past elections, Barack Obama came out the Democratic nominee. His message of "hope" and "change" struck a chord with supporters—some unlikely—who expressed dissatisfaction with the trends of the past eight years of Republican power in the White House.
In his address Tuesday evening, the president-elect said, "This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope."
Obama also recognized the unprecedented youth vote turnout in this election, which served decisively in his favor. The number of young voters ages 18 to 29 appears to have surged since 2004. In addition, the disparity in their candidate preference—68 percent for Obama versus 30 percent for McCain—was greater than ever since the 26th Amendment gave young people the right to vote in 1972.
He said of his campaign, "It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy, who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep."
The first black person to be elected president noted the historic import of his breaking a racial barrier. He evoked the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he spoke forward through the country's history to his own moment in it—in the eyes of 106-year-old Atlanta voter Ann Nixon Cooper. "She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome.' Yes we can."
Senator McCain echoed Obama's sentiment in his Phoenix concession speech, saying, "This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight," and added, "We both realize that we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation's reputation."
After the speech ended, the Chicago streets rang with merriment. Strangers embraced, and sang together. A group of friends chanted "Oh-bama!" loudly out into the unseasonably balmy evening air—and more voices chimed in, and more. Vendors sold "First Family T-shirts." It was Obama country—and spirits were high.
The jubilation extended to Harlem and Times Square, where New Yorkers took to the street in celebration, as well as to Obama's father's home village in Kenya, where Kenyans awaited the election results in broad daylight there.
Obama acknowledged, however, that the challenge of reconciliation remains after a prolonged and divisive campaign. Still, said the president-elect, "to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."
For the Spectator's full coverage from Chicago, check out http://specblogs.com/chicago/, complete with updates, photos, and multimedia pieces posted over the past few days.