President-elect Barack Obama has begun the task of preparing to take the reins of power in Washington. Obama will be inaugurated as the country's 44th president on January 20. But a little more than four years ago, virtually no one outside of the state of Illinois had ever heard of him. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on Barack Obama's meteoric rise to power and what it means for the United States and the world.
Barack Obama had a simple theme for his 21-month quest for the White House - change. But Obama didn't just speak of change. He embodied it.
"Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America," he said.
As the country's first African American bound for the White House, President-elect Obama has written a new chapter in U.S. history and has fulfilled the aspirations laid out in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.
But Barack Obama's path to the White House was unlike any other in American history.
Obama's first and perhaps most important victory came in the Iowa caucuses in January, proof that a black candidate could appeal to white voters.
Along the way, Obama benefited from the political equivalent of a "perfect storm". As the year went on, public opinion polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of President Bush and wanted the country to go in a new direction.
"People really did want change," said Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi. "They were really tired of the eight years of George Bush. And clearly, Barack Obama embodied that."
In early September, Obama trailed his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, in public opinion surveys.
But when the financial crisis hit in mid-September, the economy became the number one issue of concern for voters, and stayed that way through the election.
"Six in 10 voters nationally picked the economy as the most important issue in their vote, and most of those voters chose Obama nationwide," said CBS pollster Fred Backus. "And in the battleground [i.e., competitive] states, that counted."
But it was more than the economy. Senator Obama raised more money than any presidential candidate in history. And many analysts say he put together the best on-the-ground campaign operation ever seen in all of the key states.
Obama broadened the Democratic advantage with women, Hispanic-Americans and younger voters.
"So Obama has reassembled the Democratic coalition," said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. "He has got the women back, he has got the blue-collar workers back and he had a huge African American turnout."
Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, was gracious in defeat and extended a helping hand to the president-elect.
"These are difficult times for our country," he said. "And I pledge to him to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face."
Experts say McCain faced enormous political headwinds in this election, primarily because of the public's desire for change and concern over the economy.
Obama tied McCain to the unpopular President Bush at virtually every turn.
In addition, many experts say that McCain's uneven response to the financial crisis hurt his image with voters.
"It was erratic and he initially mishandled the economic issue," said Jeanne Cummings, who covered the campaign for the Politico.com website. "That was a gigantic mistake by his campaign."
In addition to becoming the first African American to be elected president, Obama is the first northern Democrat to win the White House since John Kennedy in 1960. The last three Democrats who won the presidency were from the South.
Obama's history-making victory touched off waves of emotion around the country, including from this supporter in California.
"I'm speechless," one voter said. "I'm trying not to cry right now. I'm thinking of my great-grandfather, my grandmother. Man, this is amazing."
Voter exit polls indicate that Obama's victory was at least in part due to public repudiation of the Bush administration.
But even President Bush took time to note the historic nature of Obama's achievement in Tuesday's election.
"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 a dream fulfilled," he said.
One man who was intimately involved with that struggle, and who nearly lost his life in the process, is Representative John Lewis of Georgia. On NBC's television program, Today, Lewis predicted that Americans will celebrate the significance of Obama's victory for generations to come.
"It doesn't matter whether you are black or white or Latino or Asian American or Native American, you can grow up in America and be anything that you want to be," he said. "People will be saying for years to come, 'If Barack Obama can do it, you can do it too.'"
At the beginning of the American republic, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. In the 1860s, the United States fought a bloody civil war that focused on the issue of slavery. One-hundred years later, African Americans were among those who demanded their full rights as citizens during the struggle for civil rights.
A new chapter in American history will open on January 20, 2009. That's the day Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president of United States at the U.S. Capitol building.