Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The cover of this week’s Reader is one thing. The whole question of what comes next is another.
I just passed a woman on the street who was saying to a friend, "The sense of euphoria is palpable." It’s true. In Barack Obama’s hometown, I keep hearing people on the train or waiting in line at the sandwich place saying things like "I am so proud of my country" and "It’s a new era" and "How fucking amazing is this?" that just a few days ago might have sounded trite but now actually resonate.
Like millions of others, I watched the returns come in Tuesday night with increasing excitement about so many things: the history made and message sent that we will elect a black man president because he strikes us as thoughtful, intelligent, and inspirational at a time we need all of it; the end of the small-minded Bush years; the realization that we may have slept while thieves looted our governments and businesses, but maybe we’re waking up now, and maybe it’s not too late.
More than anything, though, I was moved by the sense that we are all in this together. Traveling all over the city Tuesday, I was blown away by the level of civic interest and participation I kept encountering—the excited chatter at the bus stops; the little kids talking about the election with their parents as they walked home from school; the old ladies with walkers headed into the polls, followed by the young guys with struts; the eyes fixed on the TV at the corner bar. It is exciting to feel part of something bigger than yourself, especially when that something is rooted in the ideas of compassion and shared responsibility.
That’s why I voted for Obama: His politics have shifted and will probably keep doing so, but no other leader in my lifetime has so clearly and earnestly articulated a social ethic of connectivity, the understanding that the fates of people are intertwined, that power grows from our ability to respect and cultivate and disappears with our eagerness to exploit and destroy. I had interviewed Obama several times even before covering his 2004 Senate campaign, and nothing I’ve seen or heard since has changed my impression of him as somebody who believes these things for both moral and practical reasons—in the long run, what is right is also what will keep us working and make us safe. Listening to his victory speech Tuesday night made me hopeful that millions of other people believe them too, starting with the friends and like-minded strangers right next to me in the pub. And the same was true for everybody else I know, wherever they were. There was truly reason to celebrate, and I for one didn't want to stop (which might explain why I was kinda creaky-feeling Wednesday morning).
But memorable and thrilling as it was, Election Day is over, and I hope I don’t have to witness groups of people chanting "Yes we can!" anymore. It would be a catastrophe to trade one brand of jingoism for another—especially after the ground broken Tuesday. Obama, for all of his historical significance and desperately needed leadership skills, is a politician who’s going to have to make calculating decisions as he governs the country. Some of them aren’t going to make some of us happy—I for one don’t see how a consensus-seeking president selects a chief of staff who’s best known as a Democratic hatchet man—but all of them should be scrutinized and debated by as many people as possible. Otherwise, not as much has changed as we'd like to think.