On election night, Barack Obama’s magnificent acceptance speech felt like a defining moment in American history. Adding to the elation many of us experienced for having supported the winning candidate in a twenty-two month presidential marathon was our sense that America had turned a page and headed off in a new direction. But what exactly is the Obama moment?
Some will see the election as a defining point in American race relations. Nonetheless, while this is a major step forward in the long struggle for racial equality, it won’t solve the problems of institutional racism; it won’t miraculously lift up the young black child born into an inner-city ghetto who doesn’t have a supportive family or enough to eat.
Others will view Barack’s victory as a triumph of liberalism and prophesy the conservatives’ dream of a permanent majority has been crushed. While Democrats winning the presidency and convincing control of Congress supports this notion, the political reality is that many Democratic congress members are not liberal. The last time a similar Democratic sweep happened, at the dawn of the Clinton era, the result was not a new liberal era.
Many will regard the 2008 election as evidence Americans have grown up: we’ve decided to elect a president who has the temperamental and intellectual qualities required to do the job. Even so, when Jimmy Carter replaced Gerald Ford, or when Bill Clinton replaced George H.W. Bush, there wasn’t the political sea change many expected.
Certainly Obama’s ascendancy signals a changing of the guard. As happened in the Kennedy Administration, the best and the brightest will now descend on Washington and, after Jan. 20, we’ll have the sense that our country is being run by people who actually believe in government, rather than those who want to dismantle it or use it to benefit the rich and powerful. Having competent people run Washington is a good thing, but not a historic shift.
What has changed is our process: a democrat has replaced a plutocrat.
During the past eight-long years, George W. Bush governed as a plutocratic oligarch: someone who places the interests of the wealthy above those of the American people; a president who views the executive branch of the Federal government as having more power than does Congress or the Judiciary. After 9/11, Bush put on the mantle of “commander-in-chief” and never took it off. His actions demonstrated he doesn’t believe in democratic process.
Barack Obama does. From the beginning of his campaign, he has consistently spoken as a philosophical democrat. He’s avoided the personal pronoun “I” in favor of “we.” He often returned to the refrain: “This election is not about me, it’s about you… Change happens because the American people demand it—because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.” Election night Barack repeated these sentiments and added, “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you—we as a people will get there.” Repeatedly he’s emphasized, “we’re in this together.”
While his words are important, the best evidence of Obama’s deep affection for democracy is his presidential campaign, which would not have succeeded without the support of millions of average Americans who gave generously of their money and, more importantly, their time.
For the past two months I worked as a volunteer with the Obama organization in Boulder, Colorado. (Colorado was a swing state with a competitive Senate race and, in Boulder County, a competitive House race, and therefore a far more interesting place to volunteer than was Berkeley.) Although there were more than fifty Obama offices in Colorado, and twenty paid staff in the Boulder office, what was most impressive was the participation of volunteers, many of who traveled long distances and worked horrendous hours to ensure an Obama victory. Before election day, the Obama campaign arranged twenty “staging locations” in Boulder County, satellite offices for the get-out-the-vote effort. These were staffed and run by volunteers and, on November 4th, we used them to deploy more than 3000 Obama volunteers for the final push. As a result, Obama got 72 percent of the Boulder County vote.
This elaborate volunteer-driven get-out-the-vote effort succeeded because ordinary Americans believe Barack is a democrat in the best sense of the word; believe that as president he will represent the people rather than the powerful. The day-to-day field operations were driven by three Obama principles from his days as a community organizer: respect, empower, and include. Obama field staff respected volunteers, empowered them to become team members, and fully included them in get-out-the-vote efforts. On election day, millions of volunteers were empowered to get voters to the polls in record numbers.
This Obama moment is about democracy. As Americans watched Barack’s acceptance speech, the powerful feelings that surged through many of us were about more than winning or the symbolic importance of electing an African-American or a uniquely competent individual. These feelings rose up from the moral fabric of the body politic: they were the recognition that we—the American people—have taken back our country.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org