Less than one week after Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected president, two Saint Mary's professors and three Bay Area journalists who covered the campaign described the 2008 election as a watershed moment in the nation's history.
"I've covered a lot of election nights, but this one felt different," said San Francisco Chronicle political reporter Carla Marinucci, who was among the more than 125,000 people at the Obama victory party in Chicago's Grant Park on Nov. 4. "There were so many young people waving American flags â€“ it was like being at the fall of the Berlin Wall or an event like that."
More than 200 students, faculty and Contra Costa County residents gathered at the Soda Center on Nov. 10 to hear the panelists discuss the race for the White House and California ballot initiatives at an event co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, The Contra Costa Times and the Disney Forum.
"It's been a long and exhausting campaign for politicians, members of press and media, and also exhausting for citizens," said Father Mike Russo, an SMC communication professor who moderated the event.
The day after that exhausting campaign ended with an Obama victory, KCBS political reporter Marc Sandalow said it was difficult to escape the sense of witnessing history as he waited in line at a Washington D.C. newsstand to buy a Washington Post.
"In front of me was a 57-year-old black woman, not much older than me, who had grown up in segregated Mississippi," Sandalow said. "And here she was buying a commemorative edition of a newspaper for Obama's election. It's a remarkable change."
Even with the excitement the election has generated in the United States and around the world, several panelists noted that the new president will have his work cut out for him. Obama inherits the worst financial crisis in decades in addition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's no doubt the status quo is grim â€“ on the economy, on foreign policy, on health care," SMC political science professor Steve Sloane said. "And there are other things that will affect outcomes â€“ events, over which we may have no control."
Obama may be helped by his margin of victory. In addition to carrying traditionally Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans, Latinos and voters under age 30, Obama found support in new locations. Contra Costa Times political reporter Lisa Vorderbrueggen said she first noticed Obama making inroads in unexpected places during his California Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton in February.
"Barack Obama was very strong here in Contra Costa County. And this is a more moderate area, a centrist area," Vorderbrueggen said. "When he won Moraga, Orinda and Lafayette, I thought, â€˜This guy could really catch on.'"
The Chronicle's Marinucci said the difference was that Obama drew on his successes as a community organizer to run a different kind of presidential campaign.
"He organized people better than any candidate we've ever seen and raised more money - $650 million, much of it small donations over the Internet," she said. "This was someone who came from outside a traditional political trajectory, and used those skills he learned to take him to the national stage."
As Obama moves from the campaign trail to the Oval Office, Sloane cited advice from another president about how to survive a town full of politicians.
"Harry S. Truman said â€˜If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,'" Sloane joked. "So this puppy (Obama promised his daughters) may be more significant than we realize."
Office of College Communications
Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10