Yes, we certainly can . . .

The final days of the campaign were marked by an extreme stillness. It was as if Americans had "chal

In the final weekend, as the polls held unusually steady, John McCain seized on a comment made by Barack Obama the day before. On a brief pass through Iowa, Obama had reminisced about his win in the state's caucus which had launched his candidacy ten months before. "My faith in the American people was vindicated," Obama said.

McCain took this as further proof that Obama was a self-aggrandising cosmopolitan who saw the nation's greatness reflected only in his own rise. "He said the other day that his primary victory 'vindicated' his faith in America," McCain said, as the crowd booed. "My country has never had anything to prove to me, my friends. I have always had faith in it, and I have been humbled and honoured to serve it."

It was a curious attack to debut in the final days, given Obama had been including a similar line in his stump speech all year. But it inadvertently helped underscore the significance of what was happening in the days leading up to Tuesday.

Obama's formulation may have been a touch grandiose, but it had all along implied something less solipsistic than McCain suggested. On one level, to be sure, the "vindication" had been a veiled reference to the racial breakthrough his election would represent. (Does one need any other evidence for how astonishing this leap is beyond that, in electing Obama as president, the country has also lost its only black senator?) But the vindication referred not just to the country's acceptance of him, but to its rejection of the kind of small-bore and divisive politics that had increasingly bogged down the country. As he put it in January: "What I was banking on was if we could just draw our forces together . . . to challenge ourselves to be better, then there was no problem that we could not solve, and there was no destiny that we could not fulfil. That was the bet I made a year ago. And . . . my faith has been vindicated, because all across the country we've been seeing people engaged and involved in ways we've never seen before."

And this was what was remarkable about this past week. There was the engagement - the tens of thousands of canvassers who put into motion an unprecedented turnout operation. But, most extraordinary, was the extreme stillness of the final days, the sense that voters had decided to "challenge themselves to be better". Because a campaign that had seemed doomed to be about many small and distracting things became, in the stretch run, almost surreally impervious to them, as if in acknowledgement of a force not to be deterred. In the final two weeks alone, there was Joe the Plumber, charging Obama with being a socialist and agreeing with a voter who thought he represented the "death of Israel". There was an attempt by McCain and Sarah Palin to tar Obama with his association with Rashid Khalidi, a renowned Palestinian-American academic whom McCain analogised to a "neo-Nazi"; their attempt to besmirch Obama with some months-old comments he made about coal-fired power plants; and, of course, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who starred in two final TV ads. Obama, too, got in some final trivialities by trying to make hay of Dick Cheney's televised "endorsement" of McCain at a Republican dinner.

In the past, elections have been impacted by these things - Al Gore's sighs, John Kerry's windsurfing, the Osama Bin Laden tape released just before the 2004 election. Democrats braced themselves for the seemingly picay une headline that would end it all. But it became clear that this year, in a time of great troubles, that stuff might not register the way it used to. The biggest news of the final day of the campaign was deeply untrivial - the death of Obama's grandmother. The timing was absurd. A woman who had helped raise the boy her daughter had at the age of 18 by a Kenyan man, who had watched over this boy as a teen while his mother travelled the globe - this woman died the day before her grandson was up for election as the first black president.

But then this was the 2008 election, in which everything had been grand and novelistic, when small was no longer good enough. And the next day, Barack Hussein Obama won the largest popular majority for a Democrat since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. He won white voters by as large a share as any Democratic nominee had in 22 years. And he stood before hundreds of thousands in Chicago and made one more call against the smallness he had identified as his main obstacle all along. "You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead," he said. "We know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century . . . Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long." The gravity in his bearing suggested he knew this would be, as they say, easier said than done.

Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come