As far as epochal moments of a nation are concerned, the election of to be the forty-fourth President of the United States is virtually certain to rank near the very top. While the historical, sociological and political meaning of campaign 2008 will be written about and analyzed for a generation or more, the immediate impact of the election results is this: A sweeping mandate for Obama's campaign mantra of change.
Indeed, Obama's election arguably represents the most dramatic break from the status quo ever in presidential politics. The first black president, one with a less-than-familiar name, is in so many ways a complete repudiation of everything about the presidency of George W. Bush.
The once-improbable Democratic candidate has ridden the twin themes of "hope" and "change" into the White House, and that, combined with his juggernaut of a campaign operation fueled by unprecedented fundraising, has helped his party extend its advantages in Congress to the point where there is a real possibility of sweeping changes in the country's direction. The sheer size of the victory would be mandate enough, but Obama's is a promise of fundamental, radical change, not incremental adjustments, giving even more impetus to his agenda.
Throughout the course of the election, Obama became a symbol for the frustrations, anxiety and concerns of a country in the midst of economic crisis and war. He systematically sought to connect himself to transformational leaders and moments from the nation's past - Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights movement were among those most commonly referenced - he even spoke kindly of Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
Now, with an election victory the size of which has been unseen in presidential election in decades, this young President-elect has the expectations of that lineage to fulfill.
"All of us running for president will travel around the country offering ten-point plans and making grand speeches," Obama said in his announcement speech in February of 2007. "But too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own."
Democrats would be smart to listen to the warning issued by their new leader at a time when his election appeared an outside shot at best. There is a great deal of pent-up frustration among many segments of the party after eight years of the Bush Administration, most of which saw Republicans with control of both houses of Congress. There will be pressure to not just reverse Bush policies but to exact a measure of revenge along the way.
Such an approach would not just be unwise; it would run completely counter to Obama's promise to reach across the aisle for Republican support for his agenda and to end politics as we know it all together.
"Part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits," Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination. "What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose - our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we have to restore."
Cynicism about politics and the governing process was a constant target for Obama throughout the campaign. Destroying that and inserting confidence in government won't be easy, as candidate Obama often acknowledged throughout the campaign.
Americans have voiced their displeasure with the direction of the country on a number of levels. In the beginning of this, the longest presidential campaign ever, the unpopularity of the war in Iraq provided Obama his initial lift. His early opposition to the war contrasted with Hillary Clinton's vote to authorize it - and her refusal to apologize for that vote.
As the campaign wore on and the war faded as the issue driving the campaign, the economy became the dominant question. The crisis that hit Wall Street in the midst of the campaign combined with the edge Democrats traditionally hold on the issue put Obama in a commanding lead heading into the election homestretch.
The very dynamics which propelled the Illinois senator into office threaten to undermine him as president, however. Obama has made a lot of promises in this campaign that don't necessarily square with reality. Whether it's on foreign policy, the economy, jobs or health care, Americans come out of this election with a heightened set of expectations of ending war, enlarging the economic pie for all and expanding the social safety nets provided by the government. He'll have precious few resources with which to do it all.
Those lofty aspirations were set and encouraged by the candidate himself, leading to criticism by his opponents that Obama was merely a celebrity, given to sometimes over-reaching rhetoric. Rather than shy away from the hype, Obama methodically used it, telling supporters on the campaign trail that, together, they would change the world.
Even before he takes office in January, Obama will begin to learn more about the situation he has inherited, both at home and abroad. Then he will have to begin making the hard choices about which of his promises can be pursued and which will have to take a spot on the shelf. Massive federal deficits, a two-front war, increased government intervention into free markets and huge guaranteed outlays for programs like Social Security hang around the government's neck like so many anchors.
How he will square his promises without breaking others, particularly the promise to avoid tax hikes for 95 percent of Americans, will be a difficult proposition. Doing so with a Democratic congress with its own ideas, will make it even more difficult.
As for his pledge to change the politics of the nation and bring Americans of all stripes together will likewise be a trying challenge. Politics by its very definition is about the airing of differences on issues where both sides often have deeply-held beliefs. While John McCain and other Republican leaders sounded conciliatory notes when the results came in on Election night, there remains a full plate of issues where real differences exist.
"There will be setbacks and false starts," Obama cautioned in his victory speech early Wednesday morning. "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. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand."
Obama will have time. Americans traditionally afford their new presidents a honeymoon period. Considering the massive problems his new administration will face, it can't possibly be enough. And after all the confetti is swept away, Americans will not let the promises Obama made fade. They elected him to fulfill those promises, and they are many and big. But he has a mandate to try.