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Barack Obama: TIME's Person of the Year

I can’t imagine any other newsmaker that the magazine would have chosen in an election year.

It’s unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama’s face on the cover. He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago – that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn’t sure Obama had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order. Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth – the one about boundless opportunity – has plenty of juice left in it.

…The real story of Obama’s year is the steady march of seemingly impossible accomplishments: beating the Clinton machine, organizing previously marginal voters, harnessing the new technologies of democratic engagement, shattering fundraising records, turning previously red states blue – and then waking up the day after his victory to reinvent the presidential-transition process in the face of a potentially dangerous vacuum of leadership. “We always did our best up on the high wire,” says his campaign manager, David Plouffe.

Obama’s competence fills him with a genuine self-confidence. “I’ve got a pretty healthy ego,” he allows. That’s clear when he offers a checklist for voters to use in judging his performance two years from now.

Just so you know, one of the runners-up was Sarah Palin. Read a snippet of that below the fold.Just reading this gives me PTSD thinking about the “what if” had McCain/Palin won.

But in the end, the critical showdowns occurred between Palin and two other working moms going about their jobs, who four years ago would have been in no position to wreak such havoc: Katie Couric, whose cool questions yielded scalding footage; and Tina Fey, whose most lethal SNL skits didn’t always bother to rewrite Palin’s statements but merely repeated them.

Couric managed a remarkable feat for a woman making $15 million a year: she made herself invisible. She was not the feminist’s avenging anchor or the snide dean of admissions or any of the archetypes she might have been tempted to embrace, given the stakes. She just asked her questions, then asked again, and can you give us just some example – and stayed far enough out of the way that Palin had the stage entirely to herself and proceeded to self-destruct.

Plus, it was Palin’s great misfortune to uncannily resemble the country’s hottest comedy star. But Fey could not have succeeded without the help of the toxic sexism of the McCain camp. So great was their apparent distrust of Palin’s abilities that after the rollout, they kept her in a lockbox. Asked about Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience, McCain adviser Charlie Black reassured us that “she’s going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years.” She had no chance to define herself, so Fey got to do it for her, and by the time of Palin’s debate with Joe Biden, you weren’t really sure which would turn up. Palin was a good sport, even appearing on SNL herself; but by then, the damage was done. On Election Day, voters concluded in exit polls, 60% to 38%, that she was not qualified to be President.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding