Seventy-five days from this Thursday, America's long nightmare will have ended.
The reign of the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney junta will be over. Dubya will be winging his way to Crawford, Texas. There, he can comfortably adapt himself to history's probable judgment that he was the worst president in the United States' history. His henchman, Cheney, will have the leisure to prepare for what we hope will be a lifetime of defending himself against lawsuits for the torture he sponsored and the assault on civil liberties he engineered.
Democrat Barack Obama's decisive win over Republican John McCain in Tuesday's election is truly a triumph of hope. For some voters, McCain was no doubt more horrifying than Obama was appealing. But for legions of Obama supporters, his victory offers the transcendent promise of a new national beginning.
When Obama takes the oath of office in January, he will face the greatest battery of challenges any president has had to contend with since 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt crossed the threshold of the White House during the Great Depression.
The Cold War presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all had to face the menace of an aggressive Russia, then known as the USSR. The Soviet threat, however, was singular. And the foundation of our security was a robust economy that exhibited resilience seemingly beyond strain.
The facts today are very different. America is in an economic retreat that promises to be far graver than a periodic downtick. Compounding this domestic anxiety, the nation is mired in two unsuccessful wars, the prosecution of which has led to more — not less — international instability.
This is the reality Obama inherits. But while the political and policy challenges he faces are daunting by any measure, they are at least tangible, concrete — even if solutions today appear elusive.
As Obama himself has defined it, his true test, his greatest challenge, will be nothing less than spiritual: to restore a modicum of comity to national debate, to dial down the rhetoric of division, and to promote a sense of common purpose. If Obama can renew America's faith in itself, he will be on the road to re-energizing and re-defining a sense of national purpose appropriate to the 21st century.
The "Yes, we can" message of hope preached by Obama on the campaign trail was the seed of his electoral success. It is a message that will be fortified and nourished by the pride so many feel for the achievement of an African-American being elected president, and is the ultimate realization of the refrain "Rosa sat so Martin could walk, and Martin walked so that Barack could run."
Almost 221 years after the Constitution institutionalized the abomination of slavery, 145 years after the blood of the Civil War purged (at least in theory) that stain, a generation after the death of Jim Crow's lynch law finally allowed black Americans to begin to enjoy the fruits of citizenship (thanks to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society), history was made by Barack Obama.
But that sense of hope, that notion that as a nation we can overcome our communal adversity, will be sorely strained and severely tested in the days, weeks, and months to come. As so many applaud Obama's historic achievement, candor compels the recognition that a minority does not share in that applause. The great racial barrier has been bridged, maybe even narrowed, but it still exists.
And the anxiety that prohibits us from considering that Obama might be assassinated — as were Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, and as others attempted to kill Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Ford, and Reagan — should not be sublimated, even in this moment of celebration.
Joy need not be muted by hard possibilities. But frightful contingencies should not be ignored.
At a time when the United States is viewed with suspicion, if not scorn, around the world, Obama's election is a ringing reminder that hope is real, hope is vital, hope lives. It is a refreshing sense.