by Chiara Liberatore
I’ll admit it. I was totally inspired by the recent speeches at the Democratic National Convention. I was drawn in by the seemingly vulnerable and human qualities of the speakers’ emotions and personal stories. I believed in the promises and even felt a little . . . should I admit it? Patriotic. Wow. At work during the night of Obama’s speech, I was receiving text messages from friends around the country exclaiming over the speech and the man. I could barely wait to get home to watch it. So I went home and watched and listened. At this point, I was already very aware of the overall tone of the conference. I had watched Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Michelle Obama, and several members of the audience choke up during Beau Biden’s introduction of his father. Early on, I recognized the theme of many of the speeches in which the speaker introduced himself or herself first as a father, mother, or sister, etc. before moving on to his or her political status. And at the end of Obama’s speech, when fireworks and ribbons framed the two Biden and Obama families on that huge stage, and Star Wars-themed music pumped through the loudspeakers, I begrudgingly recognized that I felt a little exploited by the fanfare. Was this the Olympics or the DNC? But the moment passed, and I went back to feeling hopeful and pleased with the candidates again, and I will tell you why.
I am an Obama supporter. I do think that he has the ability to be a catalyst for major change in the United States in domestic policy, foreign relations, and overall public political engagement. I absolutely want him to win, but fortunate or unfortunate as it may be, I believe that this type of campaigning is what it will take. I am part of a generation that I find overwhelmingly politically apathetic. At times I find this to be more discouraging and detrimental to progressive change than the existence of dangerous (in my opinion) ideals or political opposition. I have two adult coworkers who proudly describe themselves as apolitical and tout the fact that they don’t vote or support any political candidate. In my opinion, this is proof of a weakened state. We live in a time when reality TV is king, and celebrity stories, People magazine, and talk show hosts dominate our airtime and news stands. If Obama (whom I also find more interesting for his ideas and leadership ability than his background) has to play into this social phenomenon to win a seat in the White house, I am all for it.
During this election, for the first time in my lifetime, I feel the sedated political nature of our culture shifting. There is a palpable momentum among those of many different generations to follow the election and even make the decision to vote. This has been building for a while in connection with Obama. In 2004, when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate, a forty-year-old employer of mine announced to me that she would be voting for the first time in her life, and although she was supporting Bush in the presidential election, would be voting for Obama for the Senate seat. My husband and I waited in line for four hours to caucus for Obama this past spring. Granted, we don’t have many polling places in our small city, but the turnout made the record books in Portland, Maine, as it did all over the country. I think this shift is the beginning evidence of the change that Obama promises. This may be his biggest role: to get us up off our feet and take stake in what is happening around us. Of course, as President he will have major decision-making power, and we should know and agree with his ideas before we blindly choose him as our leader. But waking us up might be the first step in getting us to find out these facts. And if we are in agreement, then our next charge is to elect him as President. The camera shots of his charismatic younger daughter smiling may just be the modern-day equivalent to Kennedy’s wearing makeup in that famous, historic debate with Nixon.
Our editor includes a quote from Kennedy in which the nominee states that his religion is not relevant. Isn’t that similar to what Obama is telling us over and over about himself? Yes, I may look different from what you would expect a President to look like, but it shouldn’t matter. Look beyond my skin color, my middle name, my extremist associates (Reverend Wright) and TRUST me. I think that is what the campaign is shooting towards. I am still amazed in this day and age over some people’s racial ignorance and lack of exposure to those who look different from them. And when I catch a glimpse of this ignorance, I worry that we actually do live in a time when a candidate’s race could prevent him from gleaning votes from even those folks who may agree with his policies. As a waitress, I often get to overhear people during their dinner conversations. I share a few of these quotes with the understanding that these folks never expected what they were saying to be overheard, but overhear them, I did.
“Is Obama black or white?”
“That’s easy; he’s Tiger Woods.”
Funny, I don’t see the comparison at all except that maybe both Tiger Woods and Obama are famous, and they both have non-white fathers.
“The only reason Obama got this far is because he is black.”
Deep breath, deep breath; clear the steak knife, and exit.
Harmless comments, some might say, but I think they indicate a resistance to racial difference. I should also add that I work in a restaurant that is priced and located such that the clientele that frequents the place is about 99% upper-class whites.
And so, I think the Obama campaign is absolutely playing into our emotions and wanting us to relate to him and “trust” him as a direct strategy toward winning this election. Kerry and Gore certainly didn’t have this star power, and Democrats are not taking another chance. I think that McCain’s choice in a running mate illustrates this point very clearly. Sarah Palin is already being described for her personality versus the politician she has been. The first thing I read about her in the paper was that she enjoys hunting wild game, just like her father does. Digging a little deeper, I learned that she supports the doctrine of creationism taught in some schools and opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest.
Although I exist in a social circle of those who regularly vote and participate loosely in politics, I received no text messages or calls from people during any of Gore’s or Kerry’s campaign speeches during their respective runs for the Presidency. The energy is here now.
If I could choose a political climate, I would prefer to live in a time when a candidate’s ideas and policies made the front page, and got people talking on the street. But I don’t. If I did, then candidates like Gore, Kerry, or even Dennis Kucinich might have a better chance.
I think it is problematic that a candidate’s policies and ideas are hidden underneath their personal image. We shouldn’t have to dig deep to learn the facts that will begin to shape the state of our country. But image-driven politics has become part of our political game. Even Obama doesn’t have the power to change that. If he is to win, he must enter into the game. As a baby step towards a more engaged population of citizens, I’ll take it. Did America’s romanticism over the Kennedys incite more social action and political involvement from the America public? I don’t know. I do know that a lot of great change happened during their time.
I agree that Obama’s speech at the DNC was slim on examples of concrete policy ideas. But I heard something else that might be important to policy change and reform. I heard him saying that he is one person, a leader who promises to take us towards change. Then he made a request. Obama asked us all to become social activists ourselves. He put the responsibility back on us. Isn’t this how it should be in a true democracy? I don’t think Obama is Superman or that he will magically fix all that is wrong with his winning smile. But I do think he will be a small, necessary force to get us slowly to nudge the wheel, and turn this thing around.
So, I tolerated the constant camera shots of people holding back tears. I enjoyed seeing Michelle and Barack Obama tell each other they loved each other through a video screen and even found myself Googling “Beau Biden” to find out more about his career. I let myself get attached to these people for their personalities for just a minute, because for the first time since Clinton ran, I thought to myself: This guy, my candidate, is going to win.
Good thing I agree with most of his policies, huh?