CHICAGO — "Yes we can."
Those are the three simple words we've heard for nearly two years, the rallying cry of a campaign that turned a historic corner Tuesday night into a new era in American life. Those three words changed slightly to "Yes we did" under a chilly November sky in Grant Park. It was shouted from the lips of black, white, old, young, first-time voters and ones old enough to remember the harsh realities of a racially divided America.
By the tens of thousands, they chanted it — some crying, some holding hands to their faces in disbelief, others clutching shivering children they brought along and kept up late to witness a new chapter in this country's history as the first black president strode onto a stage in front of 125,000 cheering supporters and pledged that the fight was not over.
"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 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," President-elect Barack Obama told a crowd that had steadily filled the city's lakefront over the course of the day. "It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.
"It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve, to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."
With a lyrical quality that clearly touched many in the crowd, Obama's speech sought to calm some of the raw nerves that had weltered in an often-bitter campaign with rival Senator John McCain.
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America," Obama said.
As he basked in the glory of a moment some doubted he could reach, Obama praised McCain for running a tough race and honored the Arizona senator's dedication to his country.
"I was never the likeliest candidate for this office," he said. "We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston. It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause."
And in an election that saw what is believed to be a near-historic turnout, Obama also gave thanks to young voters, many of whom were key to his victory and who supported his message of a new path for the country. After several elections in which the youth vote failed to turn out in the numbers expected, Obama said this victory was one of hope over cynicism. "It grew strength from the young people, who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy, who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep."
Despite the win, Obama said the job has only just begun. With two wars, a crippling financial crisis and an environment in peril, Obama reiterated that the victory is the first step.
"The road ahead will be long," he said. "Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there."
The elegance of Obama's words and his unlikely rise to the highest office in the land were celebrated on the field by Eryn Rodgers, whose face was streaked with tears as she thought of her forefathers who fought for civil rights for black Americans. "My family was very involved in civil rights, and I never thought I'd see this day," Rodgers, 18, said. "It reminds me of my grandparents, and I'm so glad this was my first election. It's a dream come true, and it will mean something to the world."
Rodgers was grateful that she could be in Grant Park to witness Obama's victory, and she was proud that her fellow young voters played such a crucial part in the election.
In the same spirit of inclusiveness that helped him win the White House, Obama called on those who did not support him to see past party lines and help put the country back on track. "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president too," he said.
As the crowd shouted, "Yes we can," along with their new president, Obama ended his speech with the kind of call to duty that marked a 21-month marathon that rarely wavered from its central themes of hope, change and the promise of a new way.
"This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope," he said. "And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."
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