In the end, it wasn’t a day for action after all. The outgoing President didn’t issue any pardons in his last minutes in office. The incoming one didn’t stop in at the White House, between his inaugural address and his plethora of to-dos, to scrawl his name on a set of Executive Orders fresh off the printer. It was a day for ceremony, for symbolism, for exits and welcomes. And maybe it went the right way. There’s time enough for all that tomorrow.
This election-cycle has been long, and it was today – not last November – that it finally came to an end. Barack Obama is no longer a candidate, nor a nominee, nor even the President-elect. Instead he is, simply and without qualification, the President of the United States of America. When this election began I was nineteen and the race was wide open; no one could tell whether it was going to be Hillary, John Edwards, Obama, or Bill Richardson who got the nomination. John McCain’s campaign was bankrupt and people were starting to wonder if the guy from Law and Order could take it all the way. And now I’m twenty-one, it’s a year and a half later, and look at all that’s happened. I mean, just look at it.
I thought off-and-on throughout the day of how it all happened. How the junior Senator from Illinois, with a scary name and a resume as thin as a piece of paper, rose from near-obscurity to snatch the nomination away from one of the most powerful dynasties in American politics. How he managed to defeat a thirty-year-Senator and war hero to claim the Presidency, and how he managed to make it look easy. How he made it into office financed not by lobbyists or by the government but only by donations collected, in twenty dollar increments, from households across the world. How it came to be that two million people braved the cold and the crowds simply for the chance to hear, in person, what he would say upon taking the oath of office.
In thinking about this, I had to think too about what effect the campaign wrought on me, how I’ve changed and grown both as I aged and as the election wore on. The ancillary effects of Obama’s candidacy (and eventual election) are manifold, and my story is certainly not the most interesting, nor the most dramatic. But it is the closest one to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in twenty years I look back on this time in my life as an inestimably important one. And no matter what happens now, I’ll always be grateful for that.
I can still remember a telephone call that I had with my father sometime in late 2007. It was soon after the so-called “YouTube debate”, in September of that year, and it was just at the point when most people were beginning, dimly, to follow the race. I was talking to my dad about the then-little-known Senator Obama. “I don’t know,” I told him. “He has … ideas. And he’s ambitious enough to want to put them into action, and to make me think that he can. When he talks, I get excited about all the things he could do.”
I remember saying this because I think that the key to Obama’s victory is right there, in that exchange. What made Obama so appealing was not that he was smarter than Clinton (if, indeed, he is – if nothing else, she is ferociously intelligent). It wasn’t even that his policies were better than Clinton’s – they agreed on the vast majority of issues. But Clinton never understood that governing was not something we simply wanted other people to do. Not anymore. Not after the last eight years. Obama appealed to that in us which wants to feel important, which wants to believe that we can be better than we are. And in his appeal he tapped into a vast vein of power, one that ended up overwhelming his opponents time and time again. Consider this passage, from his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention:
I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring. What the nay-sayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me. It’s been about you.
For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.
He made our stake in this election personal, and in doing so he elevated his campaign above the normal political rules. When he won the nomination he made us feel as though we had made that victory happen. When he was faltering in the polls, we redoubled our efforts, unasked – because we had become suddenly and deeply invested in this new and exciting thing. And today, when he was sworn in as the first black President of the United States, he did not frame it as something extraordinary that he had done. He said that it was something extraordinary that we had done, and together we tasted the sweet triumph of having taken on the impossible and won nevertheless. And now that he is there we can stand back and look at it all and say, look what we have done.
It is because of this that his speech today was important on so many levels. It was not his best speech, nor was it his most eloquent, but it may have been his most important. Look:
Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
I worry sometimes about what growing up during the Bush years has done to me. For as long as I’ve been fully cognizant of the world around me, he has been in charge. Soon after his reelection, I was talking with a group of friends from high school – smart people, all of them. And in talking we realized that we shared a common sense of impending doom. We were certain, absolutely certain, that something terrible was coming. Whether it would come from within or without, be man-made or naturally-occurring – these things we didn’t know. We simply felt, as it were, a nagging fear.
That fear still exists. But it feels now like something that can be dealt with, and perhaps absorbed, and not like something inevitable.
Of course, tomorrow, the campaign is over. And though we can find ways to help in the coming years, in the end, the Presidency is a lonely job, and it will be Obama alone who has to make the tough decisions. Our role in this saga is, if not completed, then at the very least becoming much smaller, and that in its way is a little sad. And the fact remains that it’s downhill from here. The expectations are too high, and he will make mistakes. Not many, I think, and hope. But never again will our image of him be as unblemished as it was on November 4th and today.
Which is good, really. For one thing, it will lead to a great many more substantive discussions, and a lot fewer emotionally lewd outbursts like this blog post, which could turn out to be quite embarassing in the future. But it’s a little sad, too.