I LOST lots of bets on Nov 4. For many people out there, the Presidency of Barack Obama is a dream come true. And dreams don’t often come true, in politics. Ask anyone on the streets of Hyde Park, Chicago, in the last two weeks. Political experts or not, they’re likely to suck their teeth and then laugh: “it’s too close to call.”
But this year’s presidential elections weren’t too close to call. There was not a single newspaper or a single poll that could reasonably tell you to expect John McCain to sweep the swing states and pick up a few of Obama’s “safe” states, as he would’ve had to do in order to win. The odds against Obama were not statistical, but hinged on the irrational fear that something — anything — might “jinx” his victory. After eight years of the Bush doctrine, of the bitterness over the Iraq war and the financial crisis, of the cynicism that sets in when poor families become poorer, few were willing to place wagers on the election of the man who they believe can change it all. Americans, after all, have seen democracy not work. They’ve seen vested interests steal elections. And they are painfully aware of how polarised their nation has become, over the last few years.
The jittery energy that sparked Michigan Avenue on Tuesday night was this — part hope, part confidence, and part fear. Rising to the ground level from the packed subway station we found ourselves in the heart of this carnival. Steady streams of people poured in from the surrounding streets, swilled around the entrances of restaurants and pubs, waited impatiently at street crossings and sat on the steps of the public library, the glorious baroque of Chicago’s buildings towering above it all. The broad sweep of Congress street that led directly to Grant Park had been blocked off to traffic all day, and was now the centre of gravity for some 30,000 people at 6 oclock that evening. By 9pm, that number would rise to over 50,000 ticket and non-ticket holders, hoping to get in in time to watch his victory speech. Street hawkers waved T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with “YES WE CAN,” speakers crackled instructions overhead and in the distance another roar from the crowd drifted towards us as Obama inched his way towards the 270 mark.
For the truly devoted, however, the wait to get into Grant Park proper was the real test of mettle. By the time the gates opened at 8.30, the line stretched five blocks away. Having had the good fortune of getting tickets we stood in line for the better part of two hours. But it seemed that nothing could dampen spirits that night. Elaborately decorated cars and motorcycles cruised by, waving flags and shouting encouragement, and the crowd happily shouted back. I was put to shame by older folks who leaned patiently on their walking sticks, shuffling forward a few inches every time the line moved. Younger people stared intently at their laptops and iPhones, determined to be the first to know even as they waited outside. Presently a woman at the back waved a cellphone in the air- “Obama got Pennsylvania!” simultaneously, the ecstatic cheering of several thousand people emanated from the stadium and rumbled through the trees.
I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a crowd of 125,000 unless you’re in the midst of it. At the lip of the bowl you could see a mass of humanity packed, shoulder to shoulder, filling every inch of a stadium about a quarter of a mile long. Flags fluttered against the night sky and camera flashes sparkled across the surface of the crowd like electricity. Fathers swung their children onto their shoulders, parents held babies that had long gone to sleep. Students chattered excitedly and snapped pictures of their friends, strangers exchanged greetings and opinions on how close, how long and how much more time to go.
And suddenly, it was official. The crowd wept, screamed, and a million hands reached into the air. An old black man touched two trembling fingers to his mouth and whispered “oh my God, oh my God.” On screen, Jesse Jackson and Opera Winfrey convulsed in tears. A tall blond girl beside me wiped her eyes and stared at the screen, beaming. Behind me two middle-aged black women in suits held each other, tears openly streaming down their cheeks. Somewhere in the crowd a chant rose: yes we did.
If there were ever any doubts about the mastery of Barack Obama’s oration, they were put to rest over the half hour. It wasn’t just that he grinned easily out into the crowd and said “hello, Chicago”, to the ecstatic jubilation of his supporters. It wasn’t just his praise of his wife and of his two daughters. American politicians are fond of saying things like “I’m one of you guys,” but Obama didn’t. Instead, he shouldered responsibility the way his supporters expected him to, not taking too much time to bask in that moment but to look into the future, and in that half hour, unifying a divided America. “I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices – and I will be your president, too.” Instead of promising employment, he promised to be honest and to listen to voices that disagreed with him. Instead of glossing over racial divides he squarely admitted that America was black and white, as well as Republican and Democrat, Asian and Hispanic, gay and straight. In an age of recycled speeches and clichés, for a generation of new voters who’ve spent their adolescence listening to Bushisms, issues like the environment, gender politics and healthcare merited sighs of relief and elicited cries of affirmation.
Victory belonged to the voters, but the future does not. Obama spoke of a long and difficult road, of an America that had to be “rebuilt” for future generations. He spoke of sacrifices and struggle, instead of tax cuts. The sweep of history that found its way into his speech was impressive: from buses in Montgomery to bombs at Pearl Harbor, there was something in there that had touched the life of every member of this hugely diverse demographic. And he chose, aptly enough, to highlight a voter who had witnessed first-hand this century of struggle, heartbreak, inequality, racism and achievement in the US. Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old black voter isn’t simply an allegorical reference to what has transpired in America and what continues to exist: even now, the South side of Hyde Park, Chicago, is broken down, poor and mostly black. Ann symbolised a concept that Obama has been quietly, forcefully driving home for weeks now: that Americans voters may not reap immediate monetary benefits from this election, but will have set an important precedent for future generations. “…the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.” Difference in America is a fact of life, but, says Obama, the power to overcome difference is also American – could there be a more elegant reconciliation?
Somewhere in those 20-odd minutes Obama spoke to the rest of us, watching our television screens in other parts of the world, those of us who did not sing the national anthem at the beginning of the ceremony but clapped and cheered all the same; “If there is anyone out there who… still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” I’m sure that I was not alone in my scepticism, when I bet against the man who is now the 44th President of the United States. I’m glad that I lost, and that he won.