Obama: Change has come to America

Hebrew-speaking congressman Rahm Emanuel, son of an Israeli, offered White House chief of staff.

November 5, 2008 23:08
Obama: Change has come to America

rahm emanuel obama 248 88. (photo credit: AP [file])

President-elect Barack Obama promised "a new dawn of American leadership" to the world as he stood before thousands of euphoric supporters and millions of international onlookers Tuesday night after vanquishing John McCain to claim his place in the history books as America's 44th president. Obama began to make good on that pledge the moment he took the stage before 125,000 overjoyed supporters in Chicago as the country's first-ever African American to be elected president. The son of a white woman from Kansas and a student from Kenya, he inspired myriads of new voters across America to brave long lines and bad weather to break racial barriers and rewrite the electoral map of a nation. But, as Obama himself also noted, the journey was beginning rather than ending. His victory offered promise and hope, but promises can go unfulfilled and hopes can be dashed. "We know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime," he told the nation and the international community, referring to two ongoing wars and a devastating economic crisis. He issued a warning to America's enemies as well as encouragement to moderates: "To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you." Yet the first Democratic president in eight years, who won in part because of discontent with US President George W. Bush and actions such as the Iraq War, didn't spell out policy objectives or positions on pressing international issues such as Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has spoken of the need for more aggressive diplomacy on both of these fronts, which has awakened hopes in Israel that improved relations and outreach to the international community can bring a united, reinvigorated front on Iran sanctions, at the same time that his approach has sparked concerns that talks with Iran won't stop its nuclear activity and will be seen as weakness. But former statesman and military leader Colin Powell took to the airwaves Wednesday and rejected the notion that American allies should be worried about Obama's ability to handle national security threats. "He knows the challenges we face. He know our potential enemies," Powell said in a television interview following Obama's victory. "He's as committed to the security of this nation as anybody else, and those fears are unfounded," he said. Powell, a Republican, had crossed party lines to endorse Obama. Both he and his successor as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, reflected Wednesday on the personal significance of having a black man elected president. "As an African-American, I am especially proud because this is a country that's been through a long journey in terms of overcoming wounds and making race not the factor in our lives," she told reporters. "That work is not done," she added, "But yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward." The streets of black neighborhoods around the country were filled with people dancing in the streets, honking car horns and shedding tears of joy at the historic moment. Obama, who was only four years old when the Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure that Americans of every race could vote, noted that it was from Illinois that another American leader - Abraham Lincoln - had set out to end slavery and make a more perfect union. Bush, too, pointed to that legacy during a brief statement in the Rose Garden of the White House following a "warm conversation" congratulating Obama on Tuesday night. "All Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday," he said. "Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day. This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes - and four decades later see that dream fulfilled." But race wasn't the only change ushered in by Obama's win. During a television appearance, Time columnist Joe Klein pointed to Obama's international origins and his middle name as a sign of America's wide welcome and the corollary welcome that now might be extended by others. "We can say this with tremendous pride - we elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama," he said, adding that Afghans were now expressing hope that an Obama administration would negotiate with the Taliban to improve life there. While Obama has given no indication that he would negotiate with the Taliban, there have been suggestions that he might retain some of the current officials handling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to smooth the transition between the administrations. Chief among the names being floated is that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has overseen a period in which violence has dropped markedly in Iraq. Obama announced the formation of his transitional team Wednesday to oversee the process of assembling a cabinet and appointing other staff ahead of his January 20, 2009 inauguration. There are also already reports that fellow Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel has been approached to be chief of staff. Emanuel, who served in the Clinton White House, has Israeli family and spent significant amounts of time in Israel. Emanuel, who now serves as the fourth-highest member of the House of Representatives, is known as a skilled political operator who helped engineer the gains the Democrats made in Congress in 2006. Those wins were dwarfed by the outcome of this year's election, however, as Democrats grabbed onto Obama's coat tails to capitalize on voters' rejection of the Bush legacy and concerns about the economy. Changing demographics - which put reliably Republican states in areas such as the southwest in the Democratic column - also helped Democrats build on their congressional majority with more than a dozen additional seats in the House, and were closing in on the 60 votes needed to end filibusters in the 100-member Senate. Though four races have yet to be called, the Democrats have already built on a razor-thin majority that had hinged on Independent Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's willingness to caucus with the Democrats. There are questions now about his political future, as he angered many in his former party when he endorsed McCain and campaigned heavily on his behalf, due largely to the latter's stance on Middle East and national security issues. Lieberman, who was the vice presidential nominee in 2000, issued a statement Wednesday congratulating Obama for his "historic and impressive victory" and declaring that "it is time to put partisan considerations aside and come together as a nation to solve the difficult challenges we face and make our blessed land stronger and safer." Bush fully embraced the election of Obama as his successor on Wednesday, paying stirring tribute to the election of the first black US president-elect and hailing the campaign of change that led Obama to victory. Bush promised Obama his "complete cooperation" during the Democrat's 76-day transition to the White House. The president said he would keep Obama informed on all his decisions between now and January 20, and said he looked forward to the day - soon, he hoped - that Obama and his family would take him up on his offer of a pre-inauguration White House visit. But perhaps most striking about the Republican's brief remarks was the stream of compliments he paid to Obama and the repeated nods to the history-making aspect of his ascension. He called Obama's win an "impressive victory," said it represented strides "toward a more perfect union" and said the choice of Obama was "a triumph of the American story, a testament to hard work, optimism and faith in the enduring promise of our nation." The defeated leader of his own party, John McCain, won accolades not nearly so glowing. "The American people will always be grateful for the lifetime of service John McCain has devoted to this nation, and I know he'll continue to make tremendous contributions to our country," Bush said. To a country with monumental civil rights battles in its past, Bush said: "All Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday." He recalled the millions of blacks who turned out to vote for one of their own, saying he realized many had never fully believed they would live to see this day. But he also hinted that he had personal feelings of high emotion at this moment, representing the end of a controversial eight years in the Oval Office during which he tried, but failed, to attract more blacks to his party. "It will be a stirring sight to see President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House," the president said. "I know millions of Americans will be overcome with pride at this inspiring moment that so many have waited [for] so long." AP contributed to this report.

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