“If I went back in time even 10 years ago and told Past Vince that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed me.”
That’s me quoting, well, me from a column I wrote right after Barack Obama won the Iowa primary. I think it’s appropriate because, frankly, if I went back in time less than 10 months ago and told Past Vince where we are, I don’t think I’d believe me. But here we are. Whether Obama wins or loses, this particular moment in history is coming to a culmination. Obviously, if Obama loses, it’ll be a letdown but, honestly, even if he wins, well, then it’ll be a little like Christmas morning, won’t it? Sure, those of us who support him will be happy, but, once the celebration dies down, we’ll all realize that we’ve moved on to a reality that can’t possibly live up to the expectations of the run-up to it. But the other important point of that column for me is that it marks the exact moment where I got pulled in and became a part of the whole. Speeches and inspiration aside, I believe that people becoming involved, being swept up by this man and this moment, will be the real testament to his campaign.
The funny thing is, when I first learned about Obama, I completely dismissed him. He was doing his run for U.S. senate in Illinois in 2004, and honestly, I was only paying attention to the race because of the Star Trek angle of Jeri “Seven of Nine” Ryan’s husband and the whole sex-club scandal thing. I even remember joking about Obama’s name: “Gosh, ‘Barack Obama’ — guess it’s fair to say he’s black, huh?”
But he got on my radar, much like most of America, when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention, even though I didn’t hear his speech. Seriously, who really watches the whole convention? But I remember people, specifically white people, falling all over themselves about it the next day. And, lemme tell ya, the quickest way for me to dismiss you as a black man is to have you be the subject of the patented white America “He speaks so well” spiel. That coupled with the manner in which his biracial background was initially pushed — i.e. “He’s not really black; he’s just kind of black” — didn’t help. So, y’know, yeah, Barack Obama. He’s got a funny name, he’s a senator, which is nice, since black people don’t really get to be senators, and, apparently, he gives a good speech.
The irony is that I really started to respect Obama for the same reason that many of his critics have dismissed him during his presidential campaign: his experience before gaining public office. I know people who live in Chicago, and they all talked about how he worked on the South Side and the various good things he had done as a community organizer. And, unofficially, the reports started to trickle out that he was a good dude. So, by ’06 or so, I had put him in my column of positive brothers and, at some point, I did go back and listen to the ’04 speech and, yeah, that’s quite a speech. I liked Barack Obama.
That’s why I was a little concerned with all the “Obama for President” talk. It’s not so much that I didn’t believe in Obama as it was I didn’t believe in the depth of the support he was getting. I just didn’t want to see him getting caught up in the rah-rah of people blowing smoke up his ass. Yes, Democratic Party types were starting to refer to him as “the future of the Democrats,” but, frankly, Harold Ford Jr. was supposed to be the future of the Democrats, and one blonde white woman later he had been put out to pasture. Plus, the whole presidential push seemed to be based largely on the 2004 speech and the impression it made, and, honestly, that’s always been the role of black politicians for the Democrats: Give a barnstorming speech to get folks riled up and then go back to wherever they came from until it’s time for another speech. Every time a news report came on saying Obama had formed an exploratory committee or he was putting together a staff, I just shook my head. Even when the fundraising began and money started to pour in, I was hesitant to believe it was going to happen.
When Obama announced he was actually going to do it, I was despondent. The whole thing looked like a fool’s errand. First of all, there was no way white people were going to vote for him. Second of all, even if they did, the field was too crowded with seasoned politicians like John Edwards and Joe Biden, who were more skilled at the process and were going to embarrass him. And, third, any conversation about anybody in the Democratic primaries was just an intellectual exercise because Hillary Clinton and the Team Clinton juggernaut were going to absolutely flatten everyone in their path. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When Barack Obama announced his candidacy, my only concern was getting one of those cool T-shirts before the whole thing imploded.
Then, of course, Iowa happened. A lot has been written about the effect of Obama winning the Iowa caucus, and a lot more is going to be written in the days and years to come, but what it really did more than anything else was point out that a) it was possible for him to be a contender, and b) we all needed to start paying attention to this thing. To be honest, when I woke up that Friday morning last January and my wife told me he had won, the first words out of my mouth were, “Was that yesterday?” If we’re all honest, I think most folks weren’t paying attention, except for the diehard political junkies out there. Then Iowa happened, and lots of us woke up and got engaged.
In retrospect, the “Wow, I can’t believe all those white people in Iowa voted for him” thing was a factor, but ultimately it was the details of the win that made me take notice. I think it’s fair to say that most Americans don’t really know the difference between a mass popular-vote primary, like those held in most states, and the intricate, drawn-out caucus process, but I was impressed by the manner in which Obama’s campaign outmaneuvered Clinton’s in Iowa. It spoke to his team’s organization, discipline, and strategic edge, and it hinted that Obama was not only charismatic and impressive enough to draw votes from across the spectrum, but that he might be smart and pragmatic enough to actually get things done.
Still, I believe it’s the active engagement in the process of millions of Americans who might otherwise not have cared that much about the election at this point that, ultimately, will be seen as the main reason that Obama’s campaign has succeeded as it has. I know that after Iowa, I actually got into the game. I looked at all of the Democratic candidates’ plans and platforms, compared them, and, yes, ultimately made a decision to support Senator Obama. A few days after the caucus, my wife and I made our first $25 contribution to his campaign and, more importantly, signed up to be on the email list. We were officially part of Obama Nation.
I have to say that handing over our money and email address has, in itself, been an experience, because, boy, once you’re on that list, they make sure to work it. My wife and I have joked all along about it, with nary a day going by without us asking each other if they got the latest email from “beggin’-ass Barack Obama”? And we sent money, at least twice a month, month after month. One of my friends, who also was on the monthly plan, jokingly referred to it as “grinding for Obama.” When you think about it, 50 bucks a month isn’t a lot of money, but the regular interaction that goes along with it makes you feel more engaged and more empowered. For $50 a month, the Obama campaign made me feel like I was a part of something.
True, part of it was just the “lightning in a bottle” historic aspect of his candidacy, but being historic does not necessarily equal being effective. Again, his campaign has made the most of contemporary organizational philosophy and communications technology. Yes, the Obama campaign sends out emails asking for money, but there are also video messages, GPS maps to local meetings and activities, neighborhood listservs, person-to-person online connections. In many ways, it has felt like Obama was building a community more than a body of supporters.
I finally got one of those Obama T-shirts, but it came with self-imposed stipulations. Frankly, I have issues going back 10 years ago, to when I wore a Cab Calloway shirt and an old dude quizzed me on Calloway’s history until he was satisfied that I was worthy of wearing it. I don’t wear anybody’s name or face who I don’t know about. And with all the general grumbling that Obama supporters were somehow hypnotized ignoramuses, I damn sure wasn’t going to get caught out not being able to discuss the man’s policies. I’ve voted for every Democratic nominee for president for almost 20 years now. But I’ve never known as much about Dukakis’s, Clinton’s, or Gore’s domestic and foreign policy as I have John Edwards’, Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s. By getting involved, by wanting to get involved, I made sure I was an informed voter.
Of course, that level of involvement has led to some awkward moments. Which brings us to my neighborhood’s Great Lawn Sign War of 2008.
The thing that made the conflict so unexpected was that we pride ourselves on being a progressive community. We are a group of people that are racially, culturally, and educationally diverse. There are all types and forms of families on our street, and many of us are active in local politics and in various forms of volunteerism. Hell, we have a couple of actual members of the Communist Party in our midst. Those of us who don’t vote third party are unapologetic Democrats. But that meant a lot of things this year, didn’t it?
We were among the first to put up our Obama signs, but more soon followed. Soon, approximately half of the houses on my street sported the now familiar “O” sign. In fact, as the process went on, our local Obama office ran out of signs and, for a week or so, everything was on back order so that when a new sign showed up it was actually cause for a little celebration. And then the other half of my street got their “Hillary” signs.
Much like the dynamics of the primary itself, for a while, things stayed pretty civil between both sides. But, much like the dynamics of the primary, as time went on, the situation got more and more tense. In fact, it got to the point that people stopped participating in our neighborhood listserv, some pretty vocal arguments broke out, and, as surreal as it seems now, a couple of people vandalized each others’ signs. No one wants to talk about it, but there was a short, nasty period where it wasn’t surprising to see Obama signs altered to read “Nobama,” and through some creative use of black marker, Hillary placards turned into “liar” signs. Even after Clinton dropped out, a few supporters kept their signs up almost out of protest. I’m happy to say, however, that there is now one woman in our neighborhood who still has her “Hillary” sign proudly displayed in her front yard but has added “Obama/Biden,” too.
Still, for my money, the vitriol that the Clinton/Obama aspect of the primary generated by the level of engagement in this year’s process was worth it for the passion that it’s generated among young people. I’ve been teaching 100-level English classes for six years now at a few different colleges, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time with 19- and 20-year-olds. For the most part, I’ve been impressed by their sense of fairness and overall morality, but their work ethic seems shaky at best and, frankly, I’ve always generally viewed them as the most spoiled, self-centered, apolitical group of people I’ve ever been around.
That has changed because of this election. Almost to a student, I have been impressed and inspired by the energy, spirit, determination, and overall focus that Obama has catalyzed in the young people around me. Over the years, I have almost resorted to begging students to read the newspaper online and pay some damn attention to what’s going on in the world around them. For the past two semesters, I’ve actually had to put the kibosh on class political debates because they were getting so heated, but I also took notes and discovered more resources, blogs, community programs, etc. because of my interaction with my students than I ever have before. And that is because the Obama campaign has not only recruited young people but has empowered them to become active participants in the campaign.
In retrospect, I think the 2004 speech was the first part of one of the greatest acts of political legerdemain in modern history. While many people were busy being pulled in by the flash of Obama’s words and oratory skill, the true strength of his campaign has been the organization and ground game they’ve put together and, more importantly, the manner in which he and his campaign got people involved. So, we got someone who is able to put together a group of people and motivate them to work toward a common goal. Boy, I tell you, that sounds like someone who would make a good president.•
Vincent Williams contributes the Social Studies column to our Times-Shamrock altweekly sister paper, Baltimore City Paper. You can find him online at citypaper.com.