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Gary Younge
Journey of generations that passed in a moment

There are times when the usually glacial pace of social progress accelerates to such a degree that you feel you are experiencing it in real time. Stand in the present and history comes rushing towards you, making you feel lightheaded.

The second that Ohio fell to Barack Obama on Tuesday evening, effectively handing him the keys to the White House, was one of those dizzying moments. A man born three years before African-Americans had secured their right to vote had risen by popular acclaim to the highest office in the land before he reached 50.

A political journey that should take generations felt as though it had occurred in a moment.

At the President's Lounge, a bar in Chicago's black southside, the soundtrack to that moment gave voice to decades of thwarted dreams. First they crooned soulfully to Sam Cooke's Change is Gonna Come. Then they bellowed boisterously to McFadden and Whitehead's Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now: "If you've ever been held down before, I know that you refuse to be held down any more."

Outside car horns beeped and Chicago police shouted Obama's name at passers by through loudspeakers. They were cheering for their native son, but the festivities were not bound by geography or race. Tens of thousands across the country took to the streets to celebrate. In Harlem, subway trains erupted into spontaneous applause. In Detroit, the home of Motown, they danced in the street.

Like Joe Louis's defeat of Max Schmeling back in the 30s, this was black America's gift to a grateful if not always gracious nation. "It was vindication," wrote Maya Angelou of Louis's win. "Some black mother's son, some black father's son, was the strongest man in the world."

Now Obama is the most powerful man in the world. Only he is the son of some white Kansan mother and some black Kenyan father - a biracial man with a Muslim name in a country at war in the Gulf. No matter how long one pores over the electoral map, his victory still seems unlikely if not implausible.

But the very things Republicans hoped would alienate him from the average American apparently made him appealing to some.

As the campaign gathered pace, it seemed as though there was a little bit of Obama for everyone: the immigrant, the midwesterner, the Hawaiian, the black, the white single mother, the Christian faith, the foreign schooling, the Ivy League education and the middle-class upbringing.

In a period where many Americans were concerned with their insularity, racial tension, social mobility and regional divisions, he embodied a crude form of resolution.

According to exit polls, most of those who said race was a factor in how they voted backed Obama.

But if race provides the historic marker for Tuesday's result, it does little to explain its future meaning. This election was not about a change of colour but a change of direction. Of the three-quarters of the country who disapprove of President George Bush's performance, 67% went for Obama. As such, his victory represents an emphatic repudiation of the Bush legacy.

In a fundamental realignment of American politics and discourse, he reintroduced the notions of equality, justice, inclusivity and diplomacy to the national conversation at a time when many feared their extinction. To that extent there were always two constituencies for this election.

The first was strictly local. On Tuesday night America slayed its demons of the past eight years. Geographically, demographically, racially and politically, Obama gained the presidency with the broadest of coalitions with the narrowest of agendas - change. In so doing he has transformed the nation's electoral landscape with wins in Congress as well as both the mountain west, the upper south and traditional Democratic strongholds.

In order to achieve this he has reinvigorated the liberal and progressive base, mobilising millions of people to donate money and time. Having invested so heavily in him, they now feel ownership in his victory.

They were driven by a long-held and urgent desire to reclaim their country from the clutches of organised religion and big business. After so many disappointments, the results on Tuesday drove many to tears.

The second constituency was global. The world was watching. And they liked what they saw. Obama has emerged as America's more considered, less cavalier response to the post 9/11 world.

Engaged where Bush was antagonistic, nuanced where Bush was brash, he regards international dialogue and cooperation as potential strengths rather than weaknesses and is one of the few members of America's political class who does not bear the stain of the Iraq invasion. Yesterday morning, for the first time in a long time, liberal Americans smiled and the world smiled with them.

While the fact of this transformation, from both below and above, cannot be denied, the scale and scope of it can be overstated. While Obama has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq, he also seeks to escalate the war in Afghanistan. For all the talk of unity, two of the states that backed Obama (Florida and California) also elected to ban gay marriage. For all his financial and organisational advantage and the perils of the economic crisis he still only won 52% of the vote against McCain's 47%. The most decisive Democratic win in more than 30 years, but nonetheless evidence that deep-seated division still lingers. Obama's room for manoeuvre, at home and abroad, is severely hampered by the economic chaos bequeathed by his predecessor.

These details are important. Yet they belong to the future. And Tuesday night belongs to history. The day when fear was defeated even in the privacy of the polling booths. The night when progress looked like a black family taking a stroll on to the world stage and into the corridors of power. The moment when the patrons of the President's Lounge raised a glass and sang a song to history as it raced to greet them and made us all giddy.

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