On a Day Like No Other, Obama Is Typically Serene

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama casts his ballot Tuesday morning in Chicago. He was accompanied by his wife and daughters. Video by AP
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CHICAGO, Nov. 4 -- Barack Obama left his Hyde Park home late Tuesday night and arrived at Grant Park just before 11 p.m. Central time, enveloped in euphoria. Friends who surrounded him near the stage choked back tears. Campaign staffers studied the latest voting totals and gushed about "a blowout." Supporters descended on Chicago, filled the city's biggest park and spilled through downtown, chanting and waving miniature American flags in celebration.

Only Obama, the reason for so much pandemonium, remained characteristically serene. He walked onto a blue stage with his wife and two daughters, stepped to a lectern flanked by 25 American flags and protective glass, and allowed himself a moment to gaze out at the final overwhelming crowd of his campaign. Then, after thanking his family and his staff, he stared at his jubilant audience and struck a somber tone.

"I know you didn't do this just to win an election, and I know you didn't do it for me," Obama said. "You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime."

Through the highs and lows of his unlikely rise to the presidency, Obama has maintained a steady equilibrium. It is the quality that helped him become the 44th president of the United States. And it is the quality, friends said, that kept him from reveling in it with carefree abandon.

Instead of pausing Tuesday to rejoice with those around him, Obama generally treated Election Day like any other. Breakfast with his wife and daughters. A business trip to Indiana. A basketball game with friends at a gym on Chicago's West Side. A quiet evening watching television at his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood, shuttered from the chaos.

When he stepped onstage to address more than 125,000 people pressed inside Grant Park's fences and several times more gathered near the shore of Lake Michigan, Obama reminded them that "there will be setbacks and false starts" and that "we know government can't solve every problem."

The past few days have challenged Obama's cool like never before, his Election Day stress amplified by the fatigue of the 21-month campaign and the death of his grandmother. As Obama readied to play basketball with a group of nine friends and campaign staffers late Tuesday afternoon, a few teammates thought to check on his state of mind. How, they wondered, was he holding up?

"Doing fine, doing fine," Obama said. "Let's play."

"When you get on the basketball court with him, he's telling jokes, laughing, arguing for fouls like there's nothing else in the world going on," said Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer and a longtime friend of Obama's who played in Tuesday's game. "He makes it seem normal. You have to step back from it to think: 'Wait. He's playing with us? Right now?' "

A sense of history stalked Obama all day. He woke up before 6 a.m., after the latest three-hour sleep, and dressed in his typical campaign uniform -- a dark suit, white shirt and black sunglasses. With his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, he traveled about a mile north from his home to arrive at the Precinct 24, Ward 4 polling location. William Ayers -- a Hyde Park associate, 1960s radical and hazardous connection for Obama's campaign -- walked out of the polling station a few minutes before Obama, an unwelcome reminder of how tenuous his campaign's fate remained.

At 7:40 a.m., Obama stepped into a voting booth at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, where 96 percent of the students are black and 85 percent are poor. He cast his vote for the first black president of the United States as his youngest daughter, Sasha, clung to his right leg. Obama occasionally turned away from the extensive, 60-vote ballot to look down and smile at the 7-year-old, who squirmed amidst the room's adult sterility.

"You know, I'm happy I got to vote with my daughters," Obama said later, in one of his few reflective moments. "That was a big deal."

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