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Obama's Win: An Inflection Point

Here's why the president's re-election is more important than his win in 2008.

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It is inflection point in the arc of history because an African-American president was re-elected even though unemployment was at nearly 8 percent, and Republicans threw absolutely everything at him it was possible to throw, from "You lie!" to their vow to make him "a one-term president," to driving the nation to the brink of financial insolvency rather than negotiating in good faith over the national debt. Most important, in terms of the economy, it is difficult to imagine a set of economic circumstances more favorable for a Republican challenger. And yet they lost, and lost convincingly. Obama and the Democrats are now firmly in charge, despite Republicans' edge in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Changing Values

This election was not about Hurricane Sandy. It was not about birth certificates. It was not about who believed most in America. 

The 2012 presidential election was about the direction of social policy across a whole host of critical issues: the economy, taxes, education, health care, the rights of women, the standing of immigrants and the position of gays and lesbians. It was a choice between desperately trying to hold on to a past that is clearly gone or moving confidently into an uncertain future that we all know, in our hearts of hearts, is the destiny of a great but changing nation. It was a vote in favor of Barack Obama and what he has been trying to do for four years. It was a vote, as President Obama put it, that gives new meaning to "the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth."

Give Mitt Romney credit. In the end, his concession speech was gracious and high-minded. As he said, no doubt to the chagrin of many ideologues in his own party, "This election is over." And he rightly called for an effort to "reach across the aisle to do the people's work."

This moment will also be an inflection point in terms of race relations, quite frankly. I say this not because Obama will suddenly pursue an agenda more openly advancing the concerns of black Americans in particular. No. Obama has proved that a black man can rise to the most extraordinary challenges our political process can put before a president and convince a clear majority of the American people to continue to stand with him. This success at being re-elected means far more for deep, transformative change in race in American culture than his 2008 victory, though, of course, 2012 would not be possible without 2008. 

Many of us -- everyone I know -- have been anxious and worried for weeks on end. I stopped watching the news and listening to the radio two weeks ago. That's how nervous I've been. Thankfully, as President Obama put it in his victory speech: "A long campaign is now over." History just took a decisive turn, I believe. The full meaning and breadth of that turn will depend on continuing the work this electoral outcome symbolizes. 

America is, decisively, headed forward, not back. And that is a very good thing indeed.

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

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