WASHINGTON – Barack Hussein 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.
“Change has come,” he told a jubilant hometown Chicago crowd estimated at 125,000 people.
Obama becomes the first black person in the country’s 232-year history 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, the Midwest and the West marked a new political landscape possibly emerging.
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The 47-year-old Democrat walked out onto the stage in Chicago with his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to thunderous applause.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is 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,” Obama told tens of thousands of supporters during a victory celebration in the city’s Grant Park.
He added: “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 is coming to America.”
Shortly after 10 p.m. PST, The Associated Press count showed Obama with 338 electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory. Republican John McCain had 127 after winning states that comprised the normal Republican base.
The nationwide popular vote was remarkably close. Totals from 73 percent of all U.S. precincts tallied showed Obama with 51.3 percent to McCain’s 47.5 percent.
In his first speech as victor, Obama cataloged the challenges ahead: “the greatest of a lifetime,” he said, “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.”
He added, “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.”
Obama invoked the words of Lincoln and seemed to echo John F. Kennedy.
“So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder,” he said.
As usual in American presidential politics, the losing candidate was gracious in defeat. McCain called Obama to offer his congratulations.
Later, at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, the veteran senator from Arizona 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, 72, quieted some supporters who booed when he announced that he’d 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 became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to receive more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and he made good on his pledge to transform the electoral map.
He captured Virginia, which last voted for a Democrat in 1964, and he beat McCain in key battleground states, including Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania, while holding on to Democratic-leaning states.
Democrats now have control of Congress and the White House for the first time in 16 years. The party fell short of the 60 votes needed for a veto-proof majority in the Senate. In the House, Democrats made major gains, adding to their already sizable advantage and returning them to a position of power that predates the 1994 Republican revolution.
Supporters gathered on a balmy fall night in Chicago.
“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.”
McCain styled himself as a maverick but ran a largely traditional Republican campaign that eroded his brand among independents, the majority of whom voted for Obama. Obama won 60 percent of self-described moderates, who had once formed the core of McCain’s support.
Obama also captured a majority of both men and women, a rarity for a Democrat in a presidential campaign.
President Bush congratulated Obama.
“Mr. President-elect, congratulations to you,” Bush told Obama, according to a White House account of the call. “What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters.
“I promise to make this a smooth transition,” Bush told Obama at 8:12 p.m. PST, shortly after the Illinois senator captured enough electoral votes to cement his status as president-elect. “You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations and go enjoy yourself.”
Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, said: “We are celebrating an historic victory for the American people. This was a long and hard-fought campaign, but the result was well worth the wait.”
Voters flocked to the polls in record numbers Tuesday, continuing a pattern of electoral exuberance that started in the primary season. Lines began forming across the country before the sun had risen, with queues starting at 4 a.m. in New York City.
“I needed to cast my own ballot today, not just because it’s my duty as a citizen but because for once it feels like it counts,” said Eric Schwartz, 36, a computer specialist on New York’s Upper West Side. “It’s a more global feeling. Like I needed to make a mark on a day when things matter. Today, everyone matters.”
Obama was little known just four years ago. A widely praised speech at the Democratic National Convention, delivered when he was merely a candidate for the Senate, changed that.
His star only gained intensity once he arrived in Washington. 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.
Obama also built an unmatched grass-roots army of supporters and volunteers, in part through novel Internet networking and fundraising tools that might 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 put resources wherever he wanted, including many traditionally Republican states.
Republicans watched Tuesday as the electoral map turned blue in places where they’ve labored for a decade to cultivate a permanent, conservative voter base.
Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, will take their oaths of office as president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2009.
The Obamas will bring a new family member with them to the White House.
“I love you both so much,” Obama told Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, during his victory speech, “and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”
The Boston Globe, The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times contributed to this report.