(TIME) Twenty-seven years after driving from New York City to Chicago in a $2,000 Honda Civic for a job that probably wouldn’t amount to much, Barack Obama, in better shape but with grayer hair, stood in the presidential suite on the top floor of the Fairmont Millennium Park hotel as flat screens announced his re-election as President of the United States. The networks called Ohio earlier than predicted, so his aides had to hightail it down the hall to join his family and friends. They encountered a room of high fives and fist pumps, hugs and relief.
The final days of any campaign can alter the psyches of even the most experienced political pros. At some point, there is nothing to do but wait. Members of Obama’s team responded in the only rational way available to them — by acting irrationally. They turned neckties into magic charms and facial hair into a talisman and compulsively repeated past behaviors so as not to jinx what seemed to be working. In Boca Raton, Fla., before the last debate, they dispatched advance staff to find a greasy-spoon diner because they had eaten at a similar joint before the second debate, on New York’s Long Island. They sent senior strategist David Axelrod a photograph of the tie he had to find to wear on election night: the same one he wore in 2008. Several staffers on Air Force One stopped shaving, like big-league hitters in the playoffs. Even the President succumbed, playing basketball on Election Day at the same court he played on before winning in 2008.
But now it was done, and reason had returned. Ever since the campaign computers started raising the odds of victory from near even to something like surefire, Obama had been thinking a lot about what it meant to win without the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of that first national campaign. The Obama effect was not ephemeral anymore, no longer reducible to what had once been mocked as “that hopey-changey stuff.” It could be measured — in wars stopped and started; industries saved, restructured or reregulated; tax cuts extended; debt levels inflated; terrorists killed; the health-insurance system reimagined; and gay service members who could walk in uniform with their partners. It could be seen in the new faces who waited hours to vote and in the new ways campaigns are run. America debated and decided this year: history would not record Obama’s presidency as a fluke.
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