November 11, 2008

President Barack Obama

It's odd when you're in the middle of experiencing something that you know will be a milestone in your life. There's a genuine excitement, but also a sort of detached projection and mental cataloging; a feeling that you need to look around and remember every last, minute detail so you'll always be able to tell the story to its fullest when you look back on it.

That's why I can tell you exactly who was around me, what the beer tasted like, what the air smelled like, what the TV was showing, what song was playing somewhere in the background and basically everything else about Still, on 3rd Avenue in New York City, on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 at 11 p.m. when the polls closed in California and Barack Obama was elected president.

Did you ever think we'd have a president this cool?

It's hard to describe the feeling, though, because I've never really felt anything like that before; I have no relevant experience to tie it to. In the last election I was able to vote in (the first one I was able to vote in, actually), I had to watch John Kerry fumble away a golden opportunity to at the very least be the better option. In the first election I really cared about, I had to watch a man I very much admired have the presidency taken away from him because of shoddy ballots in Florida (and all kinds of other factors, of course, it's just easier to blame the ballots).

By the time the official results were announced, we weren't exactly surprised; anyone who paid attention to the polls and was able to take the temperature of the collective national Obama fever could see that the man was headed for an historic victory, and maybe even a Clinton '92-esque landslide. But there was always that fear that the country wouldn't have the guts (if that's even the word) to pull the trigger come election day. That sense that not a lot of people are outright, malicious racists; but rather, just can't quite bring themselves to vote for a black president when it came down to it. It certainly didn't put a damper on our excitement and our certainty of something big happening, but it was still there.

And then, as soon as the polls closed in California, there it was:

Best. TV. Ever.

It was like that moment when your team pulls out a huge victory; it was, in the words of the great Homer Simpson, "better than 10 Super Bowls." The feeling of absolute, pure joy and euphoria was so unbelievably palpable, so present in the smiles and tears of everyone I looked to. All I can remember is just hugging everyone, yelling some sort of foreign-tongue, rambling, incoherent mess of happiness and relief. The cheers kept up, the beer kept flowing, and no one could really make sense of what to do next. After 8 years of embarrassment, shady politics, financial and moral decline, and general dispassion in the very idea of American government, we now had something truly great to hope for. Whether or not President Obama lives up completely to the hype that became a revolution remains to be seen, but I have to think that the hope generated by the man will be a game-changer for America in itself.

One of the more infuriating arguments spewed forth by Obama's detractors during this election season was the idea that the man was running purely on hope, with no substance to back it up. That idiotic notion aside -- we'll just forget the fact that he's a U.S. Senator, a graduate of Harvard Law, president of the Harvard Law Review, and everything else; I forgot we've become used to the idea of the president being an unequivocal dumbass -- it was that sort of hope, that sort of binding ideal, that this country needed. Face facts, the American people's faith in its government is running on fumes. When scandals and flat-out lies become as commonplace as the setting of the sun or the absence of Brittany Spears's underpants, you become conditioned to not expect much of the leaders that are only a century or two removed from men like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

With Obama, though, we have something new, something bold. Call it pop-culture politics all you want, that shit got Americans ready to believe in someone. And at this point, with so many people having just gotten used to the idea of being embarrassed of our leader and our standing in the world, we needed that.

For me, watching Obama go from relative obscurity in the national political scene to being elected the leader of our country in such a short amount of time has been incredibly satisfying. Like everyone else, I was introduced to the man after his amazing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and couldn't get enough of him after that. I re-watched the speech dozens of times, kept up on his actions in the Senate, downloaded his podcasts (I mean, come on, our current president used to podcast!!!), and waited for the day when he would finally announce his intention to run for the highest office.

A friend of mine from college, during the height of this year's campaign, sent me an email along with a link for a column I wrote back on July 20, 2005 (!), in which, after talking about the sorry state of Bush's approval rating (which at the time was at a soaring 45%), I threw in this line about Obama's approval rating for his then-role in the Senate:
As a comparison, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, who I and many other Dems believe should take a run at the White House as soon as possible, tops the list with a 72-percent rating.
So, for me, waiting for this man to get his shot at the White House has been a passion more than 3 years in the making. When he announced his candidacy that day in Minneapolis back in February 2007, it was like the start of what we all knew would be a very long, very uphill, but potentially satisfying journey. It was almost written off in the beginning, suggested that he'd never be able to overcome the Hillary machine, but eventually people started to realize the man's potential. Over the months of the primary, he gained steam and eventually left all the other contenders in his wake, and by the time it became Obama v. McCain, there was nothing (not even the Sarah Palin hail mary from hell) that could stop him. Change, as he loved to say, was coming.

When it finally happened, we all hugged, shed tears, danced in the streets, drank our celebratory beers and just sort of LET IT OUT. You never realize the strain something as heavy as the Bush Presidency puts on you until you're finally able to let it go, and holy god was it satisfying to feel that weight lifted. The picture below taken at the bar I was at minutes after the announcement conveys a joy that I could never truly put into words:

What pure happiness looks like.

That was one of the most stirring things about Obama's victory for me and anyone else in New York that day: watching one man's win transform an entire city.

New York isn't exactly the incredibly rude, scary place most people think of it as; there aren't muggers and prostitutes lurking around every corner, people don't scream "I'm walkin' here!" at cabbies in the middle of the street, and everyone's really much nicer and more engaged than my midwestern-influenced view would've originally led me to believe. But it can also seem very distant. Everyday, you walk to work along with hundreds of others on the sidewalks of Manhattan and get the impression that you, like everyone else, are just sort of ignoring them. As hard as it sounds, a city of 8 million can make one very lonely at times. That sense of even basic acknowledgment of your fellow man doesn't exactly always come across.

But after I left Still that night in November, it was like another world: Random strangers were hugging in the street; beautiful, maybe-drunk women were stopping to kiss you as you walked by; everyone was yelling out some form of "Yeah Obama!"; cabbies were slowly, law-abidingly driving down the roads honking horns and throwing triumphant fists into the air through rolled-down windows; the urge to high-five was at an all-time high; and that sense of joy and relief that I wrote about earlier hung in the air like a wonderful fog.

The best came as I walked down 14th Street into Union Square at around 2 in the morning. The scene could only be described as absolute joy-induced madness. Hundreds of people who had marched in from all over were gathered in the Square, dancing and cheering, chanting and waving flags. People brought in instruments and played all kinds of haphazard victory songs. I stayed around for what must have been a good 20 or 30 minutes, just getting lost in the crowd and not ever wanting it to end. Until I realized that I had to be at work in less than 6 hours and should probably hop on the train to Jersey.

In the morning, things had calmed down a bit. People had slid back into the old way of blindly walking to work, but the feeling from the night before was still there. Everyone had some great Election Night story to tell (you don't seem to run into many Republicans in New York, after all), and you got to feel like you were experiencing it all over again. And because of that and so much more, I'll never forget that day and what I was able to share with so many other people.

Shortly before I left Still, I wandered over to a TV after McCain's surprisingly moving concession speech (despite the boos of his supporters), and watched as Obama walked onto the stage in Chicago to deliver his victory speech. I found my friend Chante, standing in the same rapt attention as I was. We put our arms around each other and let the tears flow as we listened to a man talk about the nature of responsibility, the power that change could have, and the idea that every big thing starts somewhere. No matter how it all ends up in the end, if you were able to have anything like I had that night, you'll always remember that start.

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