What Obama has changed

It is a breathtaking sweep of fate.

Sen. Barack Obama is making history here 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed for the ages his dream of fellow Americans one day judging each other by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Now a black man, just a baby on that summer day long ago, will be nominated by his party for the highest office in the land.

Obama’s “improbable journey” has opened the door for future generations and changed our politics forever.

Yet with Sen. John McCain pushing past him in the polls, Obama faces a steeper climb as he sets out to become the first black president of the United States. Racism, both subtle and blatant, is alive and welcome in too many pockets of America. And its insidious descendant — resentment — festers in an economic downturn among whites who just can’t warm to this cool, smooth, black star.

Then there are Obama’s (D-Ill.) other obstacles that have little to do with the color of his skin. His bitter primary contest with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has weakened him for the general election as McCain (R-Ariz.) now mocks Obama’s inexperience in ads using Clinton’s exact words. A goodly number of Clinton’s angry followers still threaten to vote for the appealing, principled war hero, policy differences be damned. Obama is struggling to make the case to a post-9/11 nation that he is fit to be commander in chief, particularly since McCain’s surge has largely succeeded and Iraq is no longer the cauldron of violence it was when Obama announced his run.

Obama doesn’t have time left to change this. But if he prevails, it will be because he factored these divides into his formula for victory all along. He has become a fundraising phenomenon, has galvanized young people in record numbers and inspired black Americans to a goal few of them could imagine in this lifetime. He outsmarted the Clinton political machine by mastering the map to win as many delegates in the Idaho caucuses as she did in the Pennsylvania primary.

As he locks down the numbers in every district, in every county, in every town and on every block, Obama has 51 million unregistered voters in his sights. Of course he won’t register all of them and he can’t motivate every one he registers. But with his money, his movement and his organizing skills, he just might win enough of them in enough of the right places to hold the cards. And McCain would wake up on Nov. 5 to realize he was playing a different game altogether.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.