On Nov. 4, 2008, I crowded into Grant Park alongside 240,000 other entranced Americans to watch the newly elected Barack Obama give his victory speech. As results from the last couple of states came in, we passed the time by singing “Solidarity Forever” and jumping up and down to get a good view of Michelle’s newest dress. We knew we had won hours before the official outcome was announced. The excitement pulsing through the crowd was electrifying. All of the hard work each and every one of us had put into the Obama campaign had finally paid off. Yes we could, and yes we did. The country was finally going to change.
I won’t be in Chicago this year on Election Night. President Obama won’t be giving a speech to hundreds of thousands of people who have been standing outside for hours. Instead, he’ll be speaking at an indoor event with 10,000 ticket-holding attendees. It will be a very different picture.
Elections were an important part of my childhood. I made signs for Ralph Nader in my first-grade classroom in 2000, and I crossed my fingers in front of the TV on Election Night in 2004 to no avail. But in 2008, I fell in love with a candidate.
I campaigned in Indiana on the weekends — even when cranky voters told me I couldn’t have formed real opinions at age 14. I stayed up late at night reading every article, re-watching every debate and Saturday Night Live sketch. I watched the “Yes We Can” video so many times that I pretty much memorized it, and I was jealous that I hadn’t come up with the Obama Girl idea first. When Election Day rolled around, I hated the fact that I hadn’t been born just three years earlier so that I could cast a vote for Barack. I consoled myself with the thought that in four years I could re-elect him.
I’ll be walking to the New Haven Public Library tomorrow to vote for President Obama, but I’m not nearly as excited about it as I thought I would be four years ago. I haven’t done one bit of campaign work for him this year, instead choosing to spend my time working on the Chris Murphy senatorial campaign. Obviously I want the president to win, but I can’t imagine having the same feeling of elation about his victory tomorrow night as I did in 2008.
It’s a typical story. And it really shouldn’t be. We all got excited about Obama because, for once, the election wasn’t one where you picked the lesser of two evils. Young voters didn’t vote for Obama out of a dislike for John McCain. They voted for him because they wanted him to be their president. After watching the country’s politics shift farther and farther to the right, people were ready for a change.
I’ll admit it — I held Obama to almost impossible standards. We all did. We wanted him to be the answer to all of our problems, when really he was just a mainstream Democrat with a cool team of celebrities and social networking sites. Obama has, by normal standards, been a pretty good president. He repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” got a version of health care reform through a difficult Congress and started to get America back on its feet after the eight Bush years. But he could’ve done so much more.
Maybe Obama is a moderate at heart and we just didn’t know it at the time. But the hundreds of thousands of people cheering in Grant Park the night he won the presidency were not moderates. They wanted universal healthcare, they wanted out of the Middle East, they wanted an end to tax breaks for the rich and they wanted affordable higher education. Even if Obama wanted to walk the middle-of-the-road, “bipartisan” line, it wasn’t what the people who dedicated months or years of their lives to his campaign wanted him to do. He let those people down. This year, those dedicated supporters from four years ago are grudgingly standing by his side, if they’re even there at all.
He has four years to turn that around though, I believe. Without the looming threat of re-election, maybe he’ll finally be the candidate we all wanted four years ago. Or maybe I’m just being a naïve optimist again.
“But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”
Obama told us this in January of 2008. Now it’s time for him to show us the truth in those words.
Diana Rosen is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .