The Audacity of America

Obama's victory reflects the best in our nation


Barack Obama's victory Tuesday brought to mind a number of Americans who helped pave the way for this historic moment, from Abraham Lincoln to Jesse Jackson. But it also called up someone whose achievements were of a different kind: George Patton.

Obama may know little about the fabled World War II general, but he is a kindred spirit. It was Patton who said, "In planning any operation, it is vital to remember and constantly repeat to oneself two things: 'In war, nothing is impossible provided you use audacity,' and 'Do not take counsel of your fears.'"

Those could have been the mottos of his campaign. The president-elect has some obvious qualities that recommended him to the electorate. But the trait that has served him best is one that is easy to overlook: fearlessness.

At each stage of his life, he has ventured outside his comfort zone—leaving Hawaii to go to college, moving to the unfamiliar city of Chicago for the thankless job of community organizing, enrolling at Harvard Law School, making a race for Congress against a popular incumbent (and losing), and running for the U.S. Senate against a strong field of opponents—before embarking on a quest for the presidency against very long odds. Obama is not one to play it safe or hedge his bets.

His decision to run last year was revealing, and not just about his ambition. His most vociferous detractors portrayed him as a closet radical with anti-American friends and a socialist agenda. But it would be hard to find anyone who has placed greater confidence in the decency of his fellow citizens and the potency of American democracy.

To imagine that the nation would entrust the most powerful job on Earth to a young black-skinned man with a Kenyan father, a Muslim heritage, and a name that sounds like it comes off a terrorist watch list—that was an act of supreme faith.

Americans assumed they would someday have an African-American president. But when they imagined that person five years ago or 20 years ago, they didn't picture anyone resembling Obama.

The improbability of his rise should help sustain conservatives in their hour of disappointment. This election furnishes irrefutable proof that America is a special country, with possibilities that don't exist elsewhere. It shows that our harshest critics—Jeremiah Wright comes to mind—are missing something essential. No one of good will can look at what happened Tuesday and say, "God damn America."

Anyone watching the crowds celebrating this victory could see they were not motivated by a rigid left-wing ideology but by the principles America has enshrined since its founding: liberty, equality, opportunity, and respect for the individual. They want to purge the original sin of racial oppression. They want to fulfill our ideals, not abandon them.

Applying those principles, of course, is the tricky part. Plenty of Americans distrust the policies Obama has offered, and anyone who favors free markets, budgetary restraint, and a government of limited powers has cause to worry—particularly with Democrats in control of Congress. (Not that those objectives have fared well under the incumbent.)

If they can take any consolation, it's the alternative that he averted. Conservatives should remember that had Obama not emerged, they would most likely be contemplating the inauguration of Hillary Clinton. Would any of them prefer her outlook and style to Obama's?

The notable aspect of John McCain's concession speech Tuesday night was how different it was from everything coming from his campaign in the months before. It was temperate, generous, and noble in spirit, and it made you wonder: Where has this guy been hiding, and why?

The striking thing about Obama's speech, by contrast, was how consistent it was with how he conducted himself from the start. It retained the subtext of his campaign: We are a better, more tolerant, more civil, more unified country than our politics has suggested in recent years. We can overcome our differences, racial and other.

At many points in the last two years, there has been reason to think Obama was wrong. It doesn't look that way now.