It took a while before the results were clear, before hope became reality and the power of these moments had seeped into the consciousness of millions of Americans, after the long months of doubts, setbacks and the queasy feeling that it was all too good to be true.
For Jennifer Head, the moment did not come until later in the evening of Nov. 4, as she walked along South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It came after an evening spent in Grant Park, where the Democrats celebrated their election night victory, an evening spent watching a giant screen that showed the Democratic candidate for president winning one state after another. It even came after the television networks had declared Obama the winner, after Obama had stepped onto the stage to give his first, forceful speech as president-elect, bringing tears to the eyes of tens of thousands of people.
Only as she was walking to the subway did Head, a 59-year-old black woman, finally realize what had happened on this Nov. 4. She began to sob, sat down on the curb and mumbled something about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and her grandmother, who died before she would have been allowed to vote.
"Oh, oh, oh!" Head wailed, her hands squeezed tightly around a T-shirt she had brought along before knowing how the night would end. The words on the T-shirt read: "A New Hope. I was there on Nov. 4, when change happened."
This change will have far-reaching effects at many levels. It is, indeed, a new chapter, the dawning of a new era, not just for people like Jennifer Head, but for all of America.
"My kids will learn about this moment in school," stammered Keisha Ward, a college student, hugging her friend.
The 44th president of the United States is an African-America. An intellectual. An un-cowboy. He is a 47-year-old man named Barack Hussein Obama, a man who was not even admitted to the Democratic National Convention eight years ago, and who was elected junior senator from Illinois only four years ago.
It was less of a vote against something (the Bush years) than for something (a new era). When former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, gave his important endorsement to the Democrat, he called Obama a "transformational figure."
The New York Times described the election of Obama as a "national catharsis," a return to the American dream that was destroyed -- politically, economically and socially -- under Bush.
And now the country hopes to rediscover its belief in itself.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," Obama said unequivocally in his acceptance speech, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
A powerful movement was consummated on that balmy, historic night in Chicago. Obama called it "putting their hands on the arc of history."
American voters have given Obama a clear double mandate. First, he won an overwhelming majority of the electoral votes and 52 percent of the national popular vote -- more than former presidents Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Obama won all of the key swing states in this election, tearing down one Republican stronghold after another. Second, the Democrats captured a decisive majority in Congress.
But Obama also made it clear that the work has only just begun. No president in generations has been faced with such a daunting legacy: two wars, a recession, a climate crisis and fears of terrorism.
The only reasonable comparison in American history is Abraham Lincoln, the other president from Illinois, a Republican whose unifying force Obama invoked in his speech. "We know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime," he said. "This victory alone is not the change we seek -- it is only the chance for us to make that change."
The crowd, a quarter million in Grant Park alone and tens of thousands more in the streets, had even spread into nearby skyscrapers brightly lit in the colors of the American flag, red, white and blue. During the day, they had stood in long lines at polling places, and now it was time to reap the fruits of their efforts. It was a crowd of white, black, Latino and Asian faces, a crowd that represented Obama's base, his greatest strength and asset.
It was the new face of America.
Those anonymous and at the same time familiar-seeming faces included those of many celebrities, who were suddenly sobbing and embracing strangers. There was Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, a presidential candidate in 2004 who lost in the primaries, and whose Internet strategy served as the model for Obama's colossal online campaign that brought in the unprecedented sum of more than $600 million (€472 million) in donations.
And there was film director Spike Lee, whose great-grandmother was born as a slave and who was now having trouble maintaining his composure; civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who had paved the way in 1984 and 1988; and talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, who supported Obama early on, despite protests from her fans and the resulting decline in her show's ratings. Winfrey, wiping tears from her eyes, said: "Never in our lives did we expect something like this to happen. Now everything is possible."
Despite the fact that the polls had predicted an Obama win, his victory did not become certainty until the evening of Nov. 4. The doubts that had plagued Obama's team and his supporters ever since his bitter battle against Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries were still palpable in Grant Park for hours. That too was a symbol of how uncertain the United States has become about itself. After the first few states had been called for Obama, some began chanting his campaign slogan, "Yes, we can!," but hesitantly, not yet confident enough to shout it from the rooftops. Even some within Obama's innermost circle harbored doubts until the very end. "It's hard to believe," Obama's otherwise supremely cool chief strategist David Axelrod said early in the evening, as hopes of an Obama victory began to grow. "Everything we are seeing at this point seems to be positive."
Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, all went to Obama, but that was expected. Then came New Hampshire, originally one of the battleground states, after that Pennsylvania, and finally Ohio. By then it was clear that Republican candidate John McCain's candidacy was over.
By 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, when the polls closed on the West coast, there was no longer any doubt left in Grant Park. It had become a place of celebration for those delivered from their doubts, a place of raucous celebration for Obama's now-liberated and yet exhausted supporters, worn down by month and after month of hope.
The scenes of jubilation extended well beyond Chicago, to the streets of Harlem, and to Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where more than 2,000 people listened to a gospel choir sing "Victory Today is Mine."
In those final hours, the members of the new president's inner circle seemed to have gone into a trance over the realization that their hopes and efforts of almost two years had become reality. The campaign's trademark songs boomed from the loudspeakers one last time, the Motown hit, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours," the country song "Only in America," the soul hymn "You Take Me Higher" -- all tunes that had been met with disappointment many times during the campaign.
When Obama finally stepped slowly out into a hurricane of applause, he too seemed shaken by this great moment, small against the giant backdrop of the stage and almost delicate with his boyish smile. One can only imagine what was going through his head, and what his thoughts will be when the adrenaline rush of the last two years on the campaign trail suddenly comes to an end, when it comes time to face the day-to-day realities of his new job.
Obama knows this, of course. His speech was a balancing act of idealism and realism, a tune performed in major and minor keys. "This is your victory!" he said, adding that his supporters elected him because they "understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead." Even while invoking "a new spirit of patriotism," he warned that there would be "setbacks and false starts." He reached out to Republicans, and yet made it clear that he would stand up to his enemies.
Only one of Obama's promises was unconditional, and it was one that he delivered with a hint of emotion in his voice: his promise to his daughters that a new puppy would accompany them to the White House.
And then, after it was all over, there was Jennifer Head, sitting on a curb on South Michigan Avenue, staring into space. Someone handed her the latest edition of the Chicago Tribune, hot off the presses. The headline read: "It's Obama."
Jennifer Head took the paper and buried her head in it.