Americans, whatever their political persuasion, should pause and consider this historic moment: An African-American, Barack Obama, on Tuesday secured the Democratic nomination for president, and he did so by defeating Hillary Clinton, the first woman to even come close to that prize.
In marking this breakthrough, we should see Obama's victory for what it is — a remarkable political achievement tempered by a reminder that, for too many voters, race still matters. We have not overcome, but we are a little closer to that day than we were before Obama set out, against most odds, on the road to the White House.
Obama won both because of his race and in spite of it. The issue of race, never far under the surface of the campaign, was brought out into the open by Clinton, who spoke of Obama's disconnect with "hardworking, white voters,'' and by the bigoted ravings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor. These issues began to sap Obama's political strength in the final weeks of the campaign, and they could be a drag on his candidacy in the general election.
Obama is not the first African-American to run for president — Shirley Chisholm went first, then Jesse Jackson, who was not taken seriously even after winning several state primary and caucus contests in 1988. But it was clear early on that Obama's candidacy was different. He was young and eloquent and charismatic, and voters, especially new ones, responded to his message of change. He drew huge crowds, and after his victory in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the 2008 primary season, he was hailed as a political phenomenon. But by the time he limped over the finish line Tuesday night, he seemed more like a conventional politician, scars and all.
The choice between a black man and a woman set records for fundraising and voter participation. And perhaps inevitably, it opened up bitter divisions among Democratic voters along lines of class, gender and race that must be closed if Obama is to go all the way.
About the only suspense left is whether Obama will choose Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate, and even on that question, Democrats are angrily divided.
The qualities that served Obama well in the primary campaign may not be enough to take him to the White House. For many voters, he is still a largely undefined charismatic figure, and they will be looking for more substance than they saw in his primary campaign. And yes, some will consider his race.
Even if Obama's quest for the presidency falls short, American politics probably will never be the same after June 3, 2008.