Today marks the one-year anniversary of President Barack Hussein Obama's term in office. I thought long and hard about how to mark this event, especially since I had travelled to Washington, D.C. myself last year, in order to attend Obama's Inauguration. Now, I know that there are other subjects (cough, cough... Massachusetts... cough) I should be writing about today. But the calendar is the calendar, and we'll certainly have enough time in the future to discuss the coming year and what it all means. For today, though, I'd like to take a look back. And a look forward, in two very different ways.
Because I am turning the column over today to two people I shared the Inaugural Day experience with, both of whom are less than half my age. I and my wife stayed with a D.C. friend who attended the Inauguration with us, who also brought along her high-school-age daughter. I also met up with a college student I know in the region, for lunch, after the big ceremony was over.
I approached each of them recently with a fairly wide-open invitation: write about what the Inauguration meant to you. No limits, just write what you felt. I got back two very different essays, and I would like to beg your indulgence to read both of them, as I think they are representative of what a lot of young Americans are thinking, and continue to think, about President Barack Obama. And of how they see the future.
The first of these essays is from Alexandra Butcher. The second is from Eric Varela. I present them today in the spirit of "the first anniversary of Barack Obama's Inauguration." I think Alexandra and Eric need no more introduction, as their words stand up admirably on their own.
[For those of you wondering, as you read the first piece; here is what I had to say on the subject of milkcrates, when writing up my own Inaugural experience last year:
Our intrepid group of four not only had seats together on the train, we also had room for our four milk crates. "Why milk crates?" I hear you ask, so allow me to explain. I had seen an article in the Washington Post which had Inauguration tips from folks who had attended them in years past, and the one tip which leapt out at me was: "take a milk crate." The Secret Service had not disallowed them, and they serve a dual purpose -- you can sit on them (rather than the frigid ground) and you can stand on them later (to see over the crowd). This turned out to be the single most valuable piece of advice we received for the entire event.
I have to say, this led to an amusing incident later, when we went to lunch at a super-ritzy D.C. restaurant. They are not used to Californians asking plebian questions like "where's the milkcrate check room?" but I have to admit, the oh-so-snooty waiter took it in stride and dealt with us admirably well.]
But I digress. Without further ado, here are the views of two young Americans on what Obama's Inauguration meant to them, looking back at it one year later.
-- Chris Weigant
When I think about why I attended Barack Obama's inauguration, I guess some of my reasoning was: "What do I want to tell people later in life?" When I'm older and wiser, I'll have a story I can reminisce about... perhaps for somebody to listen to, with genuine curiosity and intrigue. If, when I'm a 95-year-old woman, I'm asked to speak to a class in school about "What was it like?" I'd talk about how not only was Barack Obama the first African-American to be elected president, he was also the first Democrat in a while to be elected, and he talked really well compared to the previous eight years. After the children had sat and listened to my talk (because some teacher told them to) I would sit back and watch as children bounded off to whatever their next assignment was, only to be interrupted, as one little girl wanders up to me and asks with wide, curious eyes: "What did it really feel like?" I would gladly tell that child a more emotional piece of history, as I personally remember it. I would tell her something like this:
One of the reasons I went to Obama's Inauguration was for that crazy caught-up-in-the-moment, "You know what, I think I will bungee jump off that cliff!" feeling. When every other person in the D.C. area was fleeing, hiding out, and/or staying put (while millions of tourists came to rampage through the city), my Mom and I decided to take part in their rare variety of mad curiosity, and actually go see it for ourselves. Of course, I didn't feel that way when I woke up that morning.
To be honest, what I felt was: "It's co-o-old!" I knew that before I even woke up, because every day of the month leading up to the 20th was cold, blistering, freezing (I know that people from colder states and cities and countries were there, and they might have thought it wasn't that bad... well... I'm from Maryland and I was COLD).
We woke up at 3:00 A.M. to get ready. I think I wore: two shirts, a sweater, a sweatshirt and a ski jacket, leggings and jeans, one pair of regular socks, one pair of hiking socks and hiking boots, ski gloves, a scarf and a sheepskin hat. I think it took fifteen minutes just to get dressed, even with all my clothes laid out. Mom made a giant Thermos of coffee while Chris and his wife and I got some breakfast. We got out our milkcrates (to stand and sit on) and stocked them with emergency blankets and everything else we needed.
My Dad drove us to the Metro station. He knows a secret back way in that only people in the neighborhood know about, so we had no trouble getting there. I'm glad we did, because not only was the parking lot packed and every scrap of pavement in and out of there covered in cars and people, but we were able to get seats in one of the train cars. As we were walking up the path to the station, the first train was leaving at 4:00 A.M. -- hours earlier than Metro normally opens. We ran to the gates. Inside, it was mayhem! I know they had only just opened up, but already the place was packed, and everyone was having a lot of trouble operating their farecards. A couple people commented (to put it lightly) on how we shouldn't have to pay, since it just holds up the gates. Me? I just followed the others, elbowed my way through, slid my smart card smoothly over the machine and was pushed over to the other side. The whole place was crammed with the noise of people shouting, complaining, footsteps, thousands of footsteps, calming words, crying from children, shushing coos. The groggy, bundled-up faces of the crowd followed me to into the second train of the morning. My group found some seats together and we settled in for the ride downtown.
We started taking pictures with our cell phones. My Mom was posting every five minutes on Facebook to document the experience, while Chris was writing in his notebook. I was in a good mood, but didn't want to talk, so I mostly looked around at the other passengers. Some were also taking pictures and trying to send off texts before the train entered the tunnels. I had ridden the Metro many times before, but this time around something was different... but I couldn't tell what, at the time.
When we got on the train, it was fairly crowded even though we got on a car at the end. As we pulled out of each stop I thought the car had reached its limits, but was continuously proven wrong. Every time I thought we were a full car, people would continue to push and shove on board. It continued like this until we were about a mile into the city. At that point everyone who would have normally taken Metro was taking a bus, walking, or riding a bike to get to the Mall.
There were two main stops to get off the Metro, one for people going to the parade, and one for people going to see the swearing-in. Our group was heading to the Mall for the swearing-in, so at our stop we (and I think everyone else on the car) practically threw ourselves onto the platform and migrated up stairs, where we met a giant crowd of people trying to get past the ticket gates. Apparently something had happened to the machines, and people were having trouble getting through. We stood in that crowd for about ten minutes with our milkcrates over our heads. We learned to appreciate how mobile a milkcrate can be if you hold it in the right spot (later, we were the envy of everyone who saw our milkcrates). Finally, someone came up with the brilliant idea of letting everyone go through without paying. The gates were opened and the temporally insane released into the heart of Washington DC.
When we got out on the streets Mom immediately headed to the closest vendor to buy the day's newspaper, to document the occasion. I might have mentioned this earlier but outside the Metro station: It. Was. Cold. And the fact that the sun wasn't going to rise for another three hours wasn't helping. After we left the station I don't remember much except for a lot of walking, occasionally running, stopping, thinking we had found our spot and settling down, policed to a new location due to some mix-up, more running, walking, standing, crowding, sneaking, escaping, following some Girl Scouts... and finally arriving in our boxed piece of grass before the police decided to close it off to everyone else.
It was 4:30 AM -- two and a half hours until the sun rose, and five and a half hours until the swearing-in. We set down our milkcrates and sat in a circle. I lasted about two minutes. I thought I was going to lose my toes if I didn't do something. So I decided to walk around to keep the blood moving and heart rate up, to keep me warm. I wandered up the side of one of the rows of porta-johns, making note of landmarks, so I would be able to find my way back. I saw an ember orange-colored rectangle glowing at the top of our grassy block. As I got closer I could hear the faint sounds of one of the fans form the Metro tunnel. It wasn't until I was right on it that I realized that it was a vent to pump out the hot stale air from the tunnels. True, the air was stale but it was also warm. Not walking-into-a-hot-shower warm, but warm enough to bring the feeling back into your face and fingers. I chatted with one of the few people there, and after three minutes of warming up, I was ready to move out, knowing I was feeling something different about this experience in DC.
I headed over to largest line for a concession stand I had ever seen. I stood in line for an hour and a half. Even standing around in line was different from usual. Commonplace actions became memorable and special. But I couldn't figure out what it was. When I got back to our group the Girl Scouts were passing out little American flags, so that even if you forgot to bring one, the crowds of people would still be painted red, white and blue. I went along with cheering and rising of the crowd like a cork bobbing in an ocean. The sun had warmed our faces and moods as the day went on. When Obama finally stood up for the vows there was so much noise and electricity in the air I thought for a minute that that city could be run off the energy of the crowd alone.
After the main event, our group trekked through a city bustling with people but void of any motor vehicles (aside from a few buses and police cars). I got to walk though the Third Street tunnel, under the Capitol building (not normally open to pedestrians). A lot of people described it as a scene you might see after a major disaster. But to me -- who couldn't help but hold a smile shared with thousands all the way through -- it felt more like a day at the carnival. All thoughts of cold melted away with some sun and companionship.
Our group had reservations at a local restaurant were we had some amazingly warming food. We said good bye to people we had met up with, and headed back to the Metro. As we were riding back, Mom spun around and after two minutes of quick introductions, was deep in conversation with the man who just happened to be standing next to her. As other strangers started to join in, it suddenly hit me as to why the whole day had felt different.
Everyone you met was happy, ecstatic even. In the train, on the street, standing in an enormous line for food. It was like a great big family reunion -- everyone was happy to talk to you, stand and freeze with you, or maybe even cry with you. For one day, I had relatives from Alabama to Minnesota, from Kansas to California. For one day, it felt as though the entire United States of America had forgotten their regular life, to be reunited with their long-lost brothers and sisters, or aunts and uncles, to take part in a universal feeling of joy, life, and hope. Everywhere you looked, you saw a smile. Every conversation spoken had a happy tone. In the same way that a local theater production can go from a third-grade presentation to the feel of a Broadway production -- because of the audience -- D.C. became the happiest and most memorable I had ever seen it. To think that this happened due to one man was the most amazing part of all. No mater what the future brings, good or bad, when I hear Obama speak, I'm reminded of the man who got all the Metro trains to run early, and the man that gave a connection that I -- and two million others -- shared, for that day. And that is the reason I will never forget January 20th, 2009.
The little girl I was talking to would then probably turn to me, and ask if she could have a cookie -- and I'd give her a reward, for listening to an old woman reminiscing about the past. And no matter what people say or do in the future, I will still have that day full of feelings of pure bliss -- when I decided to be just a little crazy, and join up with and become connected to two million other Americans, in a way that will stay forever preserved in my heart... my own personal snapshot of a great moment in history.
I've never been much of one for dates. I must admit that, even now, I am just starting to realize that "January" means it's a whole new year, and that somewhere out there are a few forms that are going to be misfiled with my name (and the wrong date) on them. That being said, the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama as our nation's president sort of snuck up on me; and before I scramble around trying to find some roses to save our relationship, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on how far we'd come.
I guess to do things properly we have to start back in November, during the actual election. I was 19 years old, and had finally made it to my first election. Being a student at an art school in Baltimore, I make no secret of my political alignment: I voted very much against anything that even looked like a Bush. And I'll also admit that I didn't vote for Obama in the primaries, I went Hillary all the way. The primaries came, and -- even before the tallies came in -- I realized that it would be a highly symbolic nomination, regardless of the outcome. It seemed we were done with the "old white guys," one way or another.
Obama got the nomination, and by the time the general election rolled around, I had forgotten that my candidate was out, being swept up in Obamania. He came to give a speech in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and half of my school skipped class to go stand around downtown for a chance to hear him speak. This was a time for "Change!" Everyone kept saying it, so it must be true! There was no doubt in anyone's mind that things were going to get better, if he could only get elected. Anything must be better than the other guy!
The entire city of Baltimore was on the edge of its seat, on election night. The tension in the air was thick enough to stand on. Everyone simultaneously felt elation at the prospect of his victory, and absolute despair that American would never actually elect a black man.
The news hit CNN, and the whole of the dorms exploded with cheers. Students ran through the halls screaming with delight, and music started blasting through the building. I got a text message that said: "Im cute and in PJs, Make out for Obama?" and another that said "Jack Daniels + Obama lets celebrate" ...and they kept coming in. In the streets, some had taken up pots and pans and were marching up and down the blocks. There were hula-hoopers for Obama, there were runners for Obama, there were impromptu bands, there was free champagne at the liquor store... there were people out in the city at night looking for something, for someone to share this complete feeling of happiness... of "Hope"... of "Change." The police drove by and blared their sirens, seemingly to keep order, until an officer leaned out of his window and shouted: "Obama!!! Yeaaaaaaaaah!!!" while honking his horn. This was more than a political victory. This was something else. This was the start of something new.
Fast-forward to January 20, last year. Again, I am outside, surrounded by people, only this time there are literally millions of them, standing in D.C., waiting to hear this man speak. It was supposed to be the first day back in school for me, and I am skipping my sculpture class to be here; frozen and sweating at the same time, half a mile away from a Jumbotron that will soon show the man that I elected as our nation's new leader. I can't move, I can't feel my feet -- all around me as far as I can see are people, people, and more people... and they keep coming. A brief thought crosses my mind that if there is some kind of panic, then there is absolutely nowhere to go and I am going to be trampled to death for sure... but looking at these people's faces, there is no such fear, no agitation at how long they've been here, or how cold the weather is, or how far they've come to get here -- every single one of them has a smile on their faces, and is friendly, in a good mood, and happy to talk with the strangers around them....
The actual speech is somewhat anticlimactic, and (in my opinion) pales in comparison to his acceptance speech at the convention -- but none of that really matters, because I was there for it!
All of that was a year ago. And now, here we are today. Somewhere along the line, things changed, but I don't think it was the big "Change" we were hoping for. The magic Barack Obama brought with him died off quickly, and Washington soon returned to business as usual. He wasn't able to eliminate the corruption of Washington in a year, he wasn't able to bring us peace in the Middle East in a year, he wasn't able to fix eight years of destroying our economy in a year. We were promised "Change," and we quickly became disillusioned when we realized that our problems were bigger than one man. Obama became the boy who cried "Hope," but forgot to whisper "Time."
And so, our fleeting attention spans drifted to our vanishing jobs and growing debt, and were instead turned our backs on our once-beloved, with an eye of scorn. My friends who were once parading in the streets with cauldrons and ladles have again grown bored with politics. The ones who still do talk about Obama only do so in the sense that he has not done enough for whatever group that they are part of, who helped him get into office. We were promised "Change," and we still had problems afterwards. In perspective, at only one-fourth of the way through his elected term, it seems a little unfair to expect him to have changed the world... but it would still be nice to see some of the old magic back from the beginning of the relationship, and to see him develop as a leader as we continue our growth as a nation.
What I'd like to see happen in Obama's next three years, and what he is going to need to do (I think) are entirely different things, because there isn't anything he is now doing that is essentially wrong, or leading me to oppose him. What he is doing is something that we are not used to, however, and that is planning for the long run. Healthcare, education, infrastructure -- these things pay for themselves. These are the things that we should be demanding as a people, and these are the things that lawmakers should be concerned with making the best that is legislatively possible, but -- as usual -- we like to focus on the petty and irrelevant.
Policies I would like to see Obama push forward include finishing this healthcare bill he's been pushing so hard for. It looks more impossible every day, because it seems that what he is fighting is misinformation, and party opposition. I would love to see a diversified energy portfolio laid before the nation -- full of wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, wave conversion, hydrogen -- to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. At the same time we would the increase construction/manufacturing jobs that we've seen disappearing in this recession. We need to build and support these new energy producers, build new high-capacity power lines, improve the distribution outlets, and (if not directly) at least fund the research necessary to improve, implement, and install these systems so that they can become cheaper, faster and more powerful. I would love to see educational reform, but that's a whole book's worth of arguments, and I believe he is headed in a good direction with his grant program. All of these create jobs, increase the economy, and strengthen the nation. Maybe not tomorrow, but certainly down the road, and Obama realizes this -- and that much, at least, is refreshing in a politician. We as a people demand immediate fixes to problems that have taken years -- even decades -- to create, but sometimes those problems can be fixed before they become problems. The things that aren't completely broken can be improved.
Before anything can be done he needs to somehow gain back the support of the people and of the legislature. He was able to mobilize a large group of people on his side for the election -- and anger plenty in the opposition. After he got into office, he has turned many of his supporters apathetic -- and many more turned to the side of the angry. It's not as if he isn't talking to these people, because I've heard him talking to the unions, to the Native American tribal leaders, to the Human Rights Campaign, and (very shortly) to the whole American Union; and his ability to make powerful speeches has never been in question. So communication is not the problem in this relationship. I would say instead it is the follow-up that needs to be seen. At this point, we've been sweet-talked enough and (in relationship terms) we're sick of "first base." It's time for Obama to get more serious in his commitment -- to us, the people. Its been a year and we've still got three more to go. We're on shaky grounds with Obama, but I think he can still win us back if he really tries. When he does, then maybe I'll go get those roses.
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