Obama the Figurehead

12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The city of Baltimore was alight Tuesday night, and for good reason. Percentage-wise more people there watched the debates than most of the country. A record 85 percent of registered voters turned out on Election Day. Sixty-four percent of the national electorate—the most in generations—came out to vote on Election Day. When MSNBC called the election for Obama there were instantaneous rounds of fireworks, barrages of car horns screaming and chanting and cops and lights.

Out on St. Paul St. in Charles Village—the heart of the Johns Hopkins University neighborhood—the crowds were surging onto streets, blocking sidewalks and roaring every time a car honked. At least 20 uniformed officers were out on a two-block stretch of St. Paul by 1:45 a.m. They were watchful but otherwise unperturbed by the commotion. By two, as the bars were preparing to eject their lathered mobs, they were telling everyone to go home. Before I could discern anything resembling a provocation, I witnessed a young man get tazered on the stoop of an apartment building, as well as at least 10 other people cuffed and thrown in a police wagon.

It turns out several professors and students were arrested, with no charges ultimately brought against them. A freelance journalist was cuffed with them when he started snapping cell phone pictures. There seems to be little reason to suspect anyone needed to be arrested. Perhaps a few in that crowd were drunk, and subsequently felt compelled to speak and act their mind in such a way as to earn (sort of) a knee in the back.

In the presidential election of 2004, young liberals and progressives—speaking for my 20-year-old self at the time and those around me—were voting against Bush, not for Sen. John Kerry. The opposition was clear, but our hearts were not in the Democratic Party candidate's campaign in terms of principle and ideology. That reality was thrown into relief with Barack Obama’s campaign. Though Sen. John McCain, by now a highly recognizable figure in national politics, was not an incumbent president—something Obama was able to imply by virtue of his voting record—Obama was more than a name, a buzzword, a meme. But he didn’t start out that way.

Obama drew a lot of heat in the primaries for being vague on issues. That is as much a political calculation on Obama's part as it is a testament to Sen. Hillary Clinton's breadth of public policy know-how (most candidates looked short on policy next to her). But by the general election, the policy lines of division were clarified to an exhausting extent. Iraq, taxes, health care, technology—these issues, while articulated by my generation's greatest politician, were nonetheless the overall Democratic Party standard. They were generally the same lines Kerry stood his ground on.

Yet when Obama raised that standard, he did it wholly on his own terms. A source in an Obama swing-state campaign put it bluntly: in terms of dealing with local officials and politicians, the line was always, "our way or the highway." The Obama campaign stepped on toes, soaked up volunteers and eschewed anyone and everyone who might pose a problem. When Obama proudly outlined his respect for Ronald Reagan in the primary, the Clinton campaigned pounced. But that type of nuance laid the foundation for believing in the man as well as his vision.

The Obama campaign wasn't out to ingratiate itself into the fabric of conventional party politics. Obama's ground game, similar in approach to Bush's evangelical juggernaut in 2004, was a bastion of community organizers and volunteers who grew up around the turf they canvassed—politics from the ground up. When Obama passed up on public campaign money the hard left moaned and pundits scratched their chins and within a month everyone was agog at his donor demographics and the size of his war chest (in the final 48 hours the man burned through cash, throwing up TV spots in Arizona and South Dakota). All of this is even more astonishing when one remembers that the Clintons were one of the most feared and respected political machines in contemporary politics.

This time the young progressives and liberals in this country had a name to rally around—a name with an eyes-in-the-sky message and an eyes-on-the-prize game plan. During the primaries there was hope inherent in the prospect of an African-American major-party candidate, followed in the general election by a brimming fervor to elect an African-American to the office of president. The stereotypical foot soldiers of my generation are called the millennials: the post-boomers, gen-X/Y/Zers, yuppies and hipsters—basically the width and breadth of the under-35 white population making over $30,000/year or still living off our parents.

Obama was vindicated by America, first in the Iowa primary and then on Nov. 4. That vindication was shared by a youth electorate that, for now, doesn’t hold even a fraction of the political clout it’s capable of, and we took to the streets two nights ago chanting his name as a visceral expression of that vindication.

Blogger Will Wilkerson wrote, on Nov. 5, a few stark words of context:

"But this is not, headline writers, Barack Obama’s America. He is not your leader, any more than the mayor of your town is your leader. We are free people. We lead ourselves. He is set to be a high-ranking public administrator. Sure, there is romance in fame. But romance in politics is dangerous, misplaced, and beneath intelligent people. Were we more fully civilized, we would tolerate the yearnings projected on our leaders. Our tribal nature is not so easily escaped, after all. But we would try to escape it. We would discourage and condemn as irresponsible a romantic politics that tells us that if we all come together and want it hard enough, we’ll get it. We would spot the dangerous fallacy in condemning as “cynicism” all serious attempts to critically evaluate the content of political hopes."

Yes, we lead ourselves. Kerry's loss in 2004 was made all the more bitter by the banning of gay marriage in 11 states. Such a blanket of intolerance almost trumped the Iraq War by comparison, and seemed to me a referendum on America's sense of justice. Though it was close till the end, the amendment to ban gay marriage in California, Prop. 8, passed, long after Obama wrapped up his victory speech in Grant Park. It was a bitter pill for progressives to swallow (let's not even talk about Alaska's congressional races), and it was a reminder that no matter who is president, the public faces many significant issues entirely on its own.

The breadth and scope of the far-right Christian agenda in this country is very much alive and with the generous help of Gov. Sarah Palin's blindly ignorant and divisive politics, very angry.

On the deep letdown that was the passage of Prop. 8, Dale Carpenter wrote,

"Civil rights movements, we are often and correctly reminded, are not linear projections moving inevitably into the future. They take two steps forward and one step back. Last night, we will be told, was just a “step back” in a long fight. Besides, we are often reminded that the trajectory is in our favor, with attitudes changing very rapidly, especially among younger voters who simply do not understand why anyone would oppose letting gay couples marry."

Obama is our president, but we still lead ourselves. America elected its first African-American president and the world over is wide-eyed with expectancy. But we lead ourselves. If we trust Obama’s platform of hope and change, then that entails actually being the change we have waited for—that entails leading ourselves into a future where we look out for each other.