On the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream'' speech, Barack Obama created a new chapter in the political and social history of this nation. The 47-year-old Illinois senator became the first African-American to accept a major political party's nomination for president, an accomplishment that not so many years ago seemed unimaginable. Obama closed the Democratic National Convention Thursday night in spectacular fashion, delivering a soaring speech about change in America before more than 84,000 cheering supporters in a Denver football stadium. You did not have to squint to see the mountaintops.
This is a moment to remember, before the fall campaign battles over energy policy and health care and the Iraq war and the economy. Obama has talked about a campaign that transcends race. The reality is that racial issues have not disappeared from this election or from society. After all, much of this convention week was spent reassuring voters that the Obama family shares their values and their love of this country. Yet all Americans who have lived through less enlightened eras can appreciate the social progress that has made it possible for the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya to be a step away from the presidency. In a gracious television ad, Sen. John McCain, who will accept the Republican nomination for president next week, called it "truly a good day for America.''
Obama became the first presidential candidate to accept the nomination in a large outdoor stadium since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The elaborate staging fueled new criticism that he is more rock star than well-grounded public servant. But those who listened to Obama's words heard a message that should resonate in the living rooms and kitchens of middle-class Americans nervous about their jobs, their mortgages and the futures of their children.
He summed up a nation at war and in economic turmoil, then spoke directly to voters: "More Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can't afford to drive, credit card bills you can't afford to pay and tuition that is beyond your reach.'' He blamed Washington and the Bush administration for failing to respond and declared, "America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this."
Who can disagree?
There were no surprises or bold initiatives in Obama's acceptance speech. He laid out his proposals on taxes and energy and sought to rebut Republican charges that Democrats are weak on national security.
"We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country,'' he said. "As commander in chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.''
Obama praised John McCain for the "bravery and distinction'' of his military service but pressed his central line of attack against his Republican rival — that McCain offers little more than four more years of George W. Bush's failed domestic and foreign policies. Despite McCain's record as a maverick, Obama said his opponent had voted Bush's position 90 percent of the time.
"Sen. McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?'' Obama said. "I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change.''
There were some special moments in Denver. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, passionately connecting the historical lines between King and Obama. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the old liberal lion recovering from brain surgery, roaring "there is a new wave of change all around us'' and linking the legacies of his late brothers to the Democratic nominee. A gracious, upbeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton urging those Democrats who supported her own historic campaign for the presidency to embrace Obama as the candidate who could carry on the fight for the issues they most care about, from health care to education. If it turns out the former first lady did not convince them all, it will not be for a lack of trying.
"We are on the same team,'' she said, "and none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. … Barack Obama is my candidate, and he must be our president.''
But there were mixed signals and missed opportunities as well. The first two days of the convention felt like the last gasps of a long, difficult primary season. A convention devoted to change featured many of the familiar Democratic interest groups, from union bosses to abortion rights activists. Former President Clinton won points for delivery but delivered a mishmash of economic and foreign policy that would have been more powerful if it had been more focused. Speaker after speaker linked McCain to President Bush, but beyond running mate Joe Biden, few drew clear contrasts between McCain and Obama. Another round of opinion polls will have to gauge whether the Clintons closed the divide between some of their most ardent supporters and the party nominee's.
Most of those maneuverings will be political footnotes. Barack Obama's rise to the Democratic nomination for president, regardless of the outcome of the November election, will be forever linked to the dreams the Rev. King spoke of so long ago and a historic milestone in American politics.