Six years ago, at a rally in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, I heard Barack Obama speak out against the then-imminent invasion of Iraq. He was only a state senator then, and not the only elected official present nor the most prominent. He was not the keynote speaker, just one of many… but afterward, my girlfriend and I agreed that his speech was the most memorable of the afternoon.
Four years ago, in a banquet hall at the Chicago Hyatt, I attended the victory party for Obama’s U.S. Senate race. He spoke around the theme that has become his enduring mantra—”Yes We Can.” Everyone was enthusiastic, and there were many comments about what an incredible multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition he had put together, the most impressive demographic cross-section since Harold Washington’s mayoral victory two decades earlier. There were perhaps a thousand people in the room.
Tonight, on a beautiful Indian-summer evening, I stood in Grant Park among a crowd that was orders of magnitude larger. My girlfriend and I had been lucky a week earlier, when we both noticed and quickly responded to the e-mailed invitation that went out to donors and volunteers across Illinois, so we each received the much-coveted tickets for the Election Night event. We used our plus-ones to bring along a friend (a schoolteacher, former architect, who had shared a crowd with me before when we both walked in the historic March 2003 anti-war protest that closed down Lake Shore Drive) and his adopted eight-year-old African-American son, who had been following the presidential campaign with a passionate intensity and attention to detail that belied his age. Together with countless thousands of others, we celebrated the history-making moment when…
Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America.
I wasn’t the only person there tonight whose eyes welled up with tears when Obama finally gave his victory speech. Tears of joy, tears of exhilaration. It felt like releasing a breath we’d all been holding.
Holding for ten months… of anxiety and anticipation, since the primaries began.
Holding for eight years… as outrage piled upon outrage until it seemed that our capacity for outrage would be exhausted.
Holding for a lifetime, really… as disappointment followed discouragement in one election cycle after another. Cynicism has worked its way deep into my bones, and this feeling of optimism, of genuine excitement about a presidential election, was and is deeply disorienting. Welcome, but disorienting.
I envied our eight-year-old companion. For him, this is what elections are like. Everyone votes with enthusiasm. Everyone celebrates the outcome. And there’s nothing unusual about the victor being a black man.
This is a turning point, in more ways than any of us can yet know. Certainly, the issue of race in America will never be the same again. Certainly, the electoral map and people’s partisan alignments have shifted dramatically, in ways unseen in a generation. Obama won the highest popular vote percentage of any president in 20 years, the highest of any Democrat in 44 years. He beat McCain two-to-one in electoral votes. But beyond the immediate and obvious results, the deeper ramifications remain to be discovered.
When you’re living through history, you don’t get to know how everything will turn out. But at least we can finally stop holding our breaths. We can finally get the twenty-first century started. We haven’t changed the world, but we’ve won the chance to change it.
Yes, we can.
Tomorrow, and thereafter, I’ll have more typical, analytical posts to offer about what lies ahead, for Obama and for all of us. Thoughts on politics and policy, on how we got here and where we’re going.
Tonight, though… it’s still an emotional mélange, and I’m just waiting for the reality of it all to sink in. It’s been a long time coming.Tags: Election 2008, Obama