WASHINGTON — Audacity won.
Now Barack Obama must validate the hope and deliver the change he promised.
He's already changed America by becoming the first black man to win the White House. His challenge is to change the course of its government and guide it through hard times and past the financial crisis he inherits as he takes office.
"The Audacity of Hope," the title of his book, could also have been the title of his campaign. It certainly was audacious for a fledgling senator from Illinois to run for president, challenging conventional Democratic wisdom and a field of rivals dominated by the supposedly unstoppable Sen. Hillary Clinton. He stopped her with an incredible campaign built from the ground up, raised more money than any presidential candidate in history — about $700 million over two years — and beat veteran Republican Sen. John McCain in an electoral college landslide.
Obama is the first Democrat in 32 years to win election with a popular vote majority, and Jimmy Carter barely got past 50 percent in 1976. Obama gained 52.3 percent to 46.5 percent with 94 percent of all U.S. precincts tallied. In electoral votes, at 4 a.m. CST, it wasn't even close — 349 to 147.
At 47, after a scant four years as a senator, Obama overcame the inexperience argument and a barrage of McCain attack ads. Obama drew remarkable crowds as a campaigner, and 125,000 jammed into Chicago's Grant Park on election night, not only to rejoice in victory, he said, but to join in facing the rigors ahead.
"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know that the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest in our lifetime," Obama said. "Two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."
While the campaigning Obama hewed to his hope and change theme start to finish, with detours to take the offensive amid the Republican attacks, McCain tried an assortment of messages before settling in the closing days on his own claim to be an agent of change, and his assertion that the Democrat was a tax-and-spend socialist.
It didn't work. "I don't know - I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election," McCain said in Phoenix, after calling Obama with his congratulations. He did more, commending Obama for "inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans," saying he had achieved a great thing for himself and his country.
It was a grace note to end a contest short of such notes. He said the disappointment of defeat was natural, "but tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again."
And Obama, in triumph, warned against a return to "the partisanship and pettiness" he said has poisoned politics for too long. And he told Americans who voted against him that he hears their voices. "I need your help," he said. "And I will be your president, too."
Such fine vows are traditional when a new president is elected. Delivering on them after an often bitter campaign is the work ahead.
In exit polls, based on interviews with voters who had just cast their ballots, six in 10 said the economy was the most important issue facing the nation. And that was Obama territory. Eight people in 10 said they were worried about what will happen economically in the next year. And now that is Obama territory, too, because as president, he inherits the problem and the demand for solutions.
No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has faced economic and financial market crises so dire and so urgent as Obama confronts now. And Obama also must deal with wars in Iraq, which he has promised to end, and in Afghanistan, where he plans to send U.S. reinforcements. He may have headaches with his own Democrats on war issues. Liberal Democrats want immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and may balk at sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama is a liberal and a change agent, but he also tends to be cautious and analytical. The Democrats who want headlong change may well be dissatisfied. For them, Obama's celebration speech included a note of caution. "The road ahead will be long," Obama said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But America ... we will get there."
With election-reinforced majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Democrats are in full command of the government.
They will have an effective Senate majority of at least 56 seats, counting two independents who have sided with them.
Democrats were gaining at least 20 seats to widen their House command.
They have been hobbled by President George W. Bush and his vetoes, threatened or exercised. And Democratic measures have been stalled or stopped in the Senate because it takes 60 votes to end debate and force action. That will remain an obstacle.
In the exit polls, about 80 percent of voters said they disapproved of the job Congress is doing. That was a rating about as bad as Bush got. He was the invisible incumbent during the campaign, but Obama made him an issue and the link hurt McCain, much as he tried to disown the connection.
Bush is the past. Obama is the future, and it begins now, in troubled times, for a president-elect with a costly agenda of promises that would be difficult to deliver in far better economic circumstances.
"This victory alone is not the change we seek," Obama said. "It is only the chance for us to make that change."
Walter R. Mears has reported on presidential elections for The Associated Press since 1964.