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The Man and His Moment
Barack Obama takes his place in history with expectations high, a new generation energized—and the eyes of the world on him By Paul West
Obama’s success is a quintessential American story, one that resonates around the globe. Photograph by Larry Smith/epa/Corbis
Comments () | Published January 1, 2009

When he lifts his hand to take the oath of office, Barack Hussein Obama will set himself apart from every president who came before. His breakthrough, more profound than John F. Kennedy’s overcoming religious bigotry in 1960, was removing the whites only sign from the Oval Office.

His achievement resonates not only in this country but around the globe. Americans like to think of their president as the leader of the free world, and Washington now is the political capital of a planet drawn ever more tightly together by the same revolutionary web that helped propel Obama to the White House. As a result, he is a cultural phenomenon on a worldwide scale.

“Obama has Day-Gloed the entire world,” says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He’s telling the whole world it doesn’t matter if you grew up poor or had dark skin. You can be a world leader. That translates not just to Kenya or Indonesia but to Pakistan and Colombia and beyond.”

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, the latest in a long line of shrewd visitors to Washington from that country, remarked that in 2008 Americans held “a world election.”

At the same time, the President-elect, shaped by international forces in his personal life, has a quintessential American story, one of hard work and self-made success and the nation’s eternal lure to strivers from other lands.

By electing a member of a minority group president—something that would be out of the question in many other countries—Americans lived up to their political values in a highly visible way.

Obama had argued that such a basic yet big step would enhance America’s image in the battle for hearts and minds around the globe. And he now has the opportunity to capitalize on the good will unleashed by his election.

Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, his secretary of State, will be America’s new faces to the world. The “new dawn of American leadership” that Obama is promising includes an intention to reach out to longtime adversaries such as Iran. “The music’s going to change. The process is going to change. The faces attached to American diplomacy will change. And people in other countries are going to be falling all over one another to give us the benefit of the doubt,” says Aaron David Miller, a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of State. “The fact that Barack Obama knows the world is a complicated place, that he can be empathetic and has a sense of nuance and context, is all very important.” He also cautions that the new administration will face a major challenge in meeting extraordinary expectations.

Obama’s rise was in large part the work of a generation of young voters whose lives were stamped by the September 11 attacks, much as the Kennedy assassination altered their parents’ universe.

Young adults, many still in their teens, ran Obama’s campaign at the grassroots. Their generation turned out in record numbers and will be at the center of much of what he does as president. They are the people, as the Pew Research Center has noted, who have “grown up with personal computers, cell phones, and the Internet and are now taking their place in a world where the only constant is rapid change.”

Generation Next, as Pew called them, sees that world very differently from the way their parents and grandparents do. In what Democratic pollster Peter Hart called a transformational election, they went for Obama by an unprecedented margin. Those under 30—the most diverse voters in US history—preferred Obama by better than 2 to 1, and they were the only age group of whites to give him a majority of its votes. Just as JFK’s New Frontier marked the passing of the torch to the generation that came of age in World War II, Barack Obama’s Next Frontier belongs to them.

At home, the Obama generation is strongly inclined toward public service. The onetime community organizer headed for the White House promises to make volunteerism “a cause of my presidency.” He envisions big increases in government-sponsored volunteer agencies. But the real measure of his impact may be felt in years to come, as those who cut their teeth on politics in his campaign become the political leaders of tomorrow.

He’s already inspired a legion of young people, from Tobacco Road in North Carolina to remote reaches of the Far East. News of his election was cheered not only in the Jakarta elementary school he once attended and the Kenyan village where his relatives live but also in streets and cafes on every continent.

A 16-year-old girl from a provincial Chinese city more than 1,000 miles from Beijing e-mailed an American friend: “We like his energy, enthusiasm, youth, and his speech! We watched his speech when he won the presidential election, it’s moving and encouraging!”

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles