CHICAGO — Barack Obama’s campaign aides say it will take a long time for them to fully comprehend what they achieved Tuesday: They helped usher a freshman senator into the history books as the first black president of the United States.
When the TV networks called Pennsylvania for the Democrat shortly after 8 p.m., eliminating the only likely path to a John McCain victory, staffers in the Obama “boiler room” on the 19th floor of a Chicago tower exchanged hugs and cheers. When he took Ohio an hour later, the place erupted.
“Ohio is the holy grail for Democrats,” an aide e-mailed minutes after CNN projected him as the winner in that state, raising the possibility of an electoral landslide and essentially ending McCain’s bid.
They knew then that, almost two years after starting as the underdog in a race against well-established political brand names, Obama had won the White House.
“It is surreal in so many ways,” said communications director Dan Pfeiffer, one of Obama’s earliest hires. “When I started this campaign, Sen. Obama and I were flying Southwest [Airlines] together to get to Iowa and New Hampshire, and now we are on the precipice of history.”
Several miles away in Grant Park, a crowd of thousands descended into a sea of screaming, flag-waving elation when the networks declared Obama the winner at 11 p.m. Staff members milling around the press tent released a gale of cheers, and the media rushed into the crowds to capture the celebration. U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a favorite for the post of White House chief of staff, smiled slyly and exercised restraint as he walked by reporters, saying only that it was a “great night for America.”
Supporters wiped tears from their eyes. One man held up a sign that read, “We have overcome.”
Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, filed into the rally with other VIPs to watch Obama deliver his victory speech.
“It points out that we've had a much more transformative impact on this country than we realized,” Green said. “And this represents the beginning of a new era.”
A cast of celebrities, including Spike Lee, Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, roamed the maze of tents and media risers.
“I am going to try not to fall down and cry,” Winfrey said, as she emerged from a Port-O-Potty, describing what she would do when she sees Obama.
It was an early night by the standards of recent contests as Obama took to the stage just before midnight, promising to work across party lines and be a president to all Americans.
“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,” Obama said.
The drama-free conclusion matched the personality of a campaign operation that prided itself on calmness and cohesion. The massive victory party, which drew an estimated 240,000 people to downtown Chicago, rivaled the extravagant displays of a campaign that consistently pushed the envelope with its theatrics.
The victory was sweet for the tight-knit staff, some of whom who passed up opportunities to join the well-funded establishment campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for Obama, who was then an untested phenomenon. They occasionally marveled at the fact that, after two years in the political trenches, they still liked the candidate — and each other.
The past several weeks had been emotional as they began absorbing the certainty of victory. Aware of how close Democrats have come in the past two presidential cycles, they allowed themselves to go only so far in openly discussing the possibility of an Obama White House.
On Tuesday, as his staff monitored voter turnout and returns from what they call the boiler room, Obama made a quick campaign stop in Indiana and returned to Chicago to play basketball, which had become an Election Night ritual during the primary season. He met with his top strategists at the Hyatt Regency downtown, ate dinner at his Hyde Park home, and later returned to the hotel.
With his daughters and the grandchildren of running mate Joe Biden playing in a suite next door, Obama watched as news organizations declared him the 44th president of the United States.
In a concession call from McCain, Obama thanked the Arizona senator “for his graciousness and said he had waged a tough race,” according to Obama senior strategist Robert Gibbs.
“Sen. Obama told Sen. McCain he was consistently someone who has showed class and honor during this campaign, as he has during his entire life in public service,” Gibbs said in a statement. “Sen. Obama said he was eager to sit down and talk about how the two of them can work together — Obama said to move this country forward, ‘I need your help. You're a leader on so many important issues.’”
Back in Grant Park, the scene resembled a celebration like those after European soccer matches. The crowd bounced and waved large American flags. VIP guests and Obama staffers laughed and hugged one another. Framing it all was a high rise that had been strategically lighted to spell out “USA.”
Laurie Richter of Lincolnshire, Ill., a Chicago suburb, came to Grant Park because she wanted to experience the potentially historic moment with her 15-year-old son Brady. The two had traveled to Wisconsin last weekend to canvass for Obama.
“Twenty years from now, kids will be learning about this in school. It’s just history; you don’t feel it when you’re going through it, but you know that it is,” she said.
An Obama supporter from the beginning of the Illinois senator’s political career, “it’s a great release to come out here and see it happen,” Richter said.
After a 17-minute speech, Obama gathered his family, friends, fundraisers and staff for a reception inside a tent at Grant Park.They chanted "eight more years" after Obama made brief remarks.
They were going to take the early hours of Wednesday morning to celebrate, said Chicago businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers.
“In the days ahead, you are going to hear more from Sen. Obama,” she said on CNN before catching herself on his new title. “President-elect Obama, I should say.”