We still have four days before the next president of the United States is officially decided, but eight years ago on this day Americans were in the midst of casting their ballots.
Election Day 2008 came on Nov. 4, with then-U.S. Senator from Illinois Barack Obama winning 365 electoral votes to John McCain’s 173.
Obama and his family celebrated the evening in Chicago, with a quiet moment in a hotel room before they went out to greet the massive crowds in the city’s Grant Park. As more and more news outlets were starting to call the election in Obama’s favor, the family sat in muted awe at the history that was at hand.
“Everybody was quiet,” Obama’s mother-in-law Marian Robinson recalled at the time, in a morning-after interview with PEOPLE. “I can’t tell you how subdued it was. We weren’t like the people in the stands — you know, yelling and screaming.”
Robinson sat next to her son-in-law on a couch in that hotel room, silently holding his hand. She remembered it only hours later as a speechless moment.
“I was thinking about what a journey you have to come,” Robinson said. “It was almost like there weren’t any words.”
Read PEOPLE’s full 2008 cover story, which earned the White House Correspondents’ Association Merriman Smith Award for excellence in presidential reporting under deadline pressure, below:
Barack Obama sat on a sofa beside his 71-year-old mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, in a small suite at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. It was a little before 10 p.m., and the family—just family—had broken away from the bigger returns-watching party downstairs. Campaign aides had already started to hear that news organizations were close to calling the election for Obama. His uncle Steve Shields beat them to it. “He said, ‘I told you,'” Marian Robinson recalls the morning after. “We all had our little laugh when he said it. It was like, Okay, that means it’s true.” By the time CNN made it official, Robinson adds, “everybody was quiet. I can’t tell you how subdued it was. We weren’t like the people in the stands—you know, yelling and screaming.”
People had been anticipating the moment for weeks and months, if not generations. And yet when it came, there was still an instant of shock. The second that news organizations declared Barack Obama the next President of the United States, the crowd of more than 200,000 that had gathered in and around Chicago’s Grant Park erupted in shrieks and cries of “My God!” People trembled, wept, hugged each other. One twentysomething white man, with tears in his eyes, stood quietly holding a torn piece of canvas on which he had fashioned letters out of duct tape: We Have Overcome.
The election of a new President always marks the start of a fresh chapter in the nation’s history. But to many supporters, Nov. 4, 2008, felt like the beginning of a whole new volume: the election of the first African-American man as President, at last affirming the cherished belief that anyone could grow up to win the highest office. If nothing else, Obama, 47, just four years into his first Senate term, has already redefined what is possible on the nation’s political landscape. But coming into office at a time of war and global financial crisis, the 44th President won’t have the luxury of savoring his historic achievement for long—a sobering truth he acknowledged in his victory speech, delivered with the protection of plates of 8-ft.-high bulletproof glass. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” he said, “we know that the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime.”
But celebrate they did anyway, fueled by the news that Obama had smashed the red-state/blue-state jigsaw puzzle by capturing such formerly Republican bastions as Virginia and Indiana. After the speech Barack and his wife, Michelle, 44, spent several hours with friends, staffers and supporters. “They’re big huggers, so there’s a lot of hugs, a lot of thank-yous, a lot of warmth,” said one campaign aide. In addition to the masses of ordinary people drawn to downtown Chicago on the unseasonably mild November night, political heavyweights and celebrities—from Brad Pitt to Oprah Winfrey to party chairman Howard Dean—were also on hand to show their support. In the rest of the world, the anticipation was especially great in Kenya, where Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born. (He died in a car crash in 1982.) In the capital, Nairobi, people thronged the streets chanting “Obama! Obama!” If he was overwhelmed by the moment, he didn’t show it. To those who know him best, that wasn’t surprising. Close family friend Marty Nesbitt says that the President-elect doesn’t allow himself to get burdened unduly by the issues that he faces. “It doesn’t weigh on him like it would weigh on the average person,” says Nesbitt. “He’s Steady Eddie.”
That much was evident throughout the course of an incredibly focused campaign against Sen. John McCain, all the way through to election day itself. On Nov. 4, always sticklers for discipline, the Obamas tried to keep to their routine. They voted just after 7:30 a.m. at their usual polling place, the Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago, bringing along Sasha and Malia. (After Michelle took a long time to finish, her husband cracked, “I had to check out to see who she was voting for.”)
The girls later went to school as usual on Tuesday, then got their hair done for the big night. By bedtime, extended for the occasion, their grandmother Marian Robinson, who has taken care of Malia and Sasha while their parents traveled with the campaign, hoped they’d get another break from Mom’s strict schedule. “I told the girls, ‘Well, surely your mother’s not going to make you go to school after being up this late at night; that would be cruel,'” Marian Robinson told PEOPLE with a hearty laugh. “So I told Malia, ‘Just don’t set your clock.'” Sure enough, though, they were headed to school Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile the candidate, after some last-minute campaigning, returned to Chicago for his own election day routine: a basketball game with some buddies and staffers. Then it was back home for a quiet steak dinner at his home in Hyde Park with his family.
Those rituals are of course going to be harder to come by in the months to come. In any event, Michelle, a hospital executive taking home a six-figure salary before the campaign began, gives every indication of being a more traditional First Lady than her background might suggest. She has said her first priority will be to get her daughters settled in their new home, new school, new routines (see box). As she told PEOPLE at the beginning of the campaign, “Our concern is that they stay normal.” She looks at her girls and worries that their childhood, as they have known it, is over. If Obama serves two terms, Malia will be headed to college straight from the White House. “I’ve done that math,” Michelle told PEOPLE over the summer, nodding her head a little mournfully. “Where I gain comfort is that all of these [presidential] children have turned out to be pretty decent kids, even with the bumps and bruises that go along.”
Michelle has also said she will focus her energies on a cause closest to her heart: help for working parents to achieve “work-family balance,” with a special emphasis on military families, whose juggling act is disrupted by a parent’s deployment. As for a Hillary-style office in the West Wing and a seat at the policy table, the Harvard-trained lawyer says no thanks. “I can’t do everything,” says Michelle.
Even in retrospect, her husband’s political ascent seems astonishing. The brown-skinned son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, one who lived for a time in Indonesia (eating tiger meat!) and tried cocaine as a teen in Hawaii, he presented some stunningly original growth rings for presidential timber. Even his own mother-in-law doubted, at first, that the country was ready for a black President. In June 2007 Robinson told PEOPLE, “There are people right now, older black people, who don’t think Barack can be elected President because of what they’ve known.”
Out on the hustings, Obama himself rarely mentioned race. He would merely invite supporters to help him “write the next great chapter in the American story.” Nevertheless, the transformation in the nation’s attitudes that he embodied was plain to many black Americans, such as Angela Cox, a 43-year-old Florida high school teacher who gripped a colleague’s hand and wept as Obama took the stage at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on the eve of the election. “For the first time, I see my students really believing that skin color really doesn’t matter,” she said, shaking.
For all the historic significance of Obama’s election—a history still to be written—his victory also reflects something much more basic and human. Robinson recalls holding her son-in-law’s hand in the hotel suite on election night. “I was thinking about what a journey you have to come,” she says. “It was almost like there weren’t any words.” Seeing past skin color was a lesson Obama learned from his white grandparents, who raised him in Hawaii while his mother pursued an advanced degree in anthropology. The death of his grandmother Madelyn Dunham deeply saddened him (see box). “He feels an obligation to fulfill his potential for his grandmother, who sacrificed so much for him,” says Nesbitt. So it wasn’t surprising that “sacrifice” was one of the watch-words of Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park. “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep,” he said. “This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.” There was no denying the challenges. But in the immediate glow of his extraordinary triumph, there was also no denying that nothing seemed beyond reach.