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Posts held by Rice and Powell made Obama's victory possible

Even though Barack Obama received only about 53 percent of the popular vote, his favorable rating stands at 67 percent. It appears that many conservatives who didn't support him are nevertheless enthusiastic about his presidency and optimistic about his tenure.

How could it be otherwise? Americans were hungry for change, as was the rest of the planet. Obama's victory has generated excitement around the world — among Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, Scandinavians and South Africans, democrats and autocrats — and helped to restore the moral authority of the United States. As the "Economist" put it recently, "All of Europe is on the hunt for a European Barack Obama." The president-elect's popularity stands in stark contrast to that of the man he is replacing. President Bush's approval rating is stalled in the low 20s — and deservedly so.

But Bush did at least one thing right in an eight-year tenure characterized by incompetence and hyper-partisanship: He appointed black Americans to the post of secretary of state, the highest position of authority blacks had held prior to Obama's election.

Many pundits have already noted that Bush's failures helped to create a climate in which Obama could win. So did Bush's singular achievement — the elevation of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. It ought to be noted that it was a Republican, not a Democrat, who broke the barrier that had limited black appointees to the usual Cabinet positions dealing with housing and health.

Whatever their political failures, Powell and Rice are both bright, hardworking and honorable individuals. Their presence on the national stage, in positions that had nothing to do with affirmative action or "urban affairs," helped white Americans to get used to seeing black Americans in positions of great prestige.

There is no doubt already a budding cottage industry of journalists, historians and social scientists attempting to explain the remarkable cultural changes that allowed the election of the first black president, a mere 44 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act. Books will be written, seminars held and tenure granted around that one subject. After all, Obama was among the few politicians to believe his victory was possible when he began his campaign two years ago.

Social scientists would no doubt point to popular culture as one catalyst for this amazing transformation. Believe it or not, Hollywood is a social arbiter, influencing cultural standards as it chooses characters for movies and TV shows. Morgan Freeman was the American president when the world nearly ended in "Deep Impact," released in 1998; Dennis Haysbert, another black actor, was president when "24" launched in 2001.

Meanwhile, America's young adults have grown up in a world of diversity, where "Big Brother" has an integrated cast and hip-hop is as popular with white kids as with black ones. College students, then, are less likely to be bound by rigid racial traditions.

For older Americans, however, Powell and Rice were pivotal. Powell was chosen to help lead the nation to war — delivering a now-infamous speech at the United Nations in February 2003 — because he had more credibility than anyone else in the Bush administration. Rice broke ground as Bush's national security adviser in his first term.

Three years ago, I wrote of my astonishment at seeing the enthusiastic greeting Rice received at the University of Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium when she walked onto the field during a football game's halftime.

I'm an Alabama native, as Rice is, and I remember its oppressive and violent Jim Crow era, as she does.

"She was not the first black person to step onto the University of Alabama's football field to so enthusiastic a greeting, but she is the first who has never worn a helmet and shoulder pads. Had I not witnessed the moment myself — in all its magic and wonder — I could not have imagined it." Even so, I could not imagine that a black person would be elected president so soon, so I also wrote:

"I am not naive enough to believe that racism is dead, the nation is colorblind or that Rice could be elected president, as some have claimed." Racism is still not dead, nor is the nation colorblind, but a black person has been elected president. And Bush's promotion of Rice and Powell helped to pave the way.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.