The first comment I received from someone not on my television screen regarding the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States came via email early the day after the election. It asked simply, "Now what?" Those two words coalesced the questions facing not only our new president, but also the people of our nation, regardless of ideology or political affiliation.
Now we wait, I replied, and guard the house, and protect the chickens, and peer deep into the night and listen.
It occurred to me that my reply may sound skeptical, indeed fearful, of Mr. Obama. Quite the contrary. I meant to point out folks should react cautiously, but not anxiously. Those who did not vote for him have no need to grab their rifles, run out into their yards with hair aflame, and fire blindly at imagined intruders.
Those who voted for the current Mr. Bush the first time must remember their outrage when supporters of Al Gore derided the nation's new leader before he could prove himself one way or the other.
Yes, there was much anger and even considerable suspicion regarding the election, bad feelings that remain to this day. But it's different this time. The outcome is clear. No chads hanging the election in the balance. Back then, in 2000, Mr. Gore received half a million more votes than Mr. Bush. This week, Mr. Obama outpolled Mr. McCain by more than seven million votes. Even though he did not win, Mr. McCain received more votes than Messrs. Bush and Gore and even Ronald Reagan in either of his landslide elections.
Mr. Obama will become president of a nation divided strongly along many lines. Nearly 56 million of his fellow citizens preferred another candidate, another set of ideas, another plan for change. He will learn on the job, as did every other president before him, the best way to lead his nation in the direction he believes best. In the process, he will lose many of his followers, people who want to take their leader to places he does not, or cannot, go. He will find, as did every other president before him, that the Oval Office is a lonely and confining place.
That's why we the people need to cut him some slack and resist the temptation to nitpick, to continue the mean-spiritedness that has infected our nation and has made a sport out of making sport of someone we don't particularly like. The level of political intolerance and nasty rhetoric seems to have increased considerably during the last couple of years. Were the commentators and comedians to blame or did the campaigns set the tone that others mimicked? It doesn't matter today. The election is over and both candidates, in their respective concession and acceptance speeches, achieved the level of eloquence we should see during a campaign, not just at the end.
Mr. McCain began his speech by asking the crowd to stop booing at the name of Barack Obama. And then he urged his supporters to join him in congratulating the next president and in offering Mr. Obama "our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromise to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences," he continued, "we are fellow Americans."
It is natural, he said, to feel disappointment. "But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again."
Mr. Obama echoed in his acceptance speech that call for national unity. He told the world that the citizens of our nation "have never been a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America."
And then, on a night filled with history, he called forward the memory of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, who was the first to carry his party's banner to the White House. "As Lincoln said to a nation more divided than ours," he said, "we are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."
That statement answers the second email I received the morning after the election, sent by a person who wrote, "He will never be MY president." Our political system, the envy of the world, allows us to embrace fully the victor while guarding the house and peering deep into the night and listening. Then, if we find ourselves at odds with what comes to our front door, we can take up our ballot, not our rifle, and change our leadership again.