So here it is, November 5th, 2008, my 31st birthday, and what do I get? President Barack Obama. Those three words said in that particular order are enough to elicit every possible emotional response across the gamut. Everything from abject euphoria to quivering fear to a burning anger. As I watched, first John McCain’s concession speech and then Barack Obama’s acceptance speech last night, I tried to determine what emotion I was feeling. At the time I couldn’t really put my finger on it, and only now have an inkling of what it may have been, and its quite surprising. I think it was pride. Not because I voted for Obama, because I didn’t, and not because I think he’ll be a particularly good President, I have some very real doubts, but because from this point on no one will every be able to say again that America has never or will never have a black President. That has to be a good thing. It was as recently as forty or fifty years ago that in large areas of this country a black person couldn’t use the same drinking fountain as a white person. Now a black man will hold the highest office in the land. Pretty incredible.
Listening to his speech last night there were two things Obama said that grabbed me. The first was this sentence, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Particularly the words dream of our founders. Despite the fact that many of them were themselves slave-holders, Obama recognized them as our founders. Not just white America’s founders, but his as well. Our founders, though often mythologized, were not perfect, but they’re dream of an America where anyone can succeed through hard work and determination perhaps has never been more realized, whether you agree with his politics or not, then it is in Barack Obama.
The second thing that struck me about his speech, particulary the first part of it, was the sense of our collectiveness. Not in a socialist/communist way, but just in the sense of our being one country. I guess it was again the use of the word our. Since 1789 every President who has addressed the nation and used the word our, the face has looked pretty much the same. Now it is decidedly different. It seems that in the past when a prominent African-American used the word our in a speech it was in reference to black America. When Obama used it last night, it was in reference to all America. The face of the United States is a different color for the first time ever. The prime representative of us to the world does not look like most of the population. For some this will take some getting used to, but hopefully they will adjust. Many will dislike this President, but hopefully even the opposition will be based on performance and not color.
Like I said, I didn’t vote for him and I’m not especially confident that he will do a good job. I know for a fact he will make decisions and enact policy that I disagree with, even strongly disagree with. But I hope, if I may have the audacity to do so (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk), that I’m wrong. I vote for a President because I want what’s best for America, not some political party. I know some wish failure on presidents they don’t see eye to eye with, but I think they forget that the failure of the President usually coincides with the failure of the country. Its fine to be the opposition, but be the loyal opposition. We’re all still Americans. As I watched the speeches last night, it would have been very easy to be cynical about all the flowery talk of unity and change. I’m not a cynic, but I am a realist. I don’t cling to some mythical notion that there will be partisan peace in the near future and all of our many problems will be solved with few impassioned speeches and symbolic reach-across-the-aisle gestures. But I’m also an optomist. America has faced tougher times, much tougher times, before and managed to overcome then. Is Obama the man who can get us through? The jury is still way out, but I hope even in disagreement people can be civil to each other and not resort to the kind of vindicative madness we’ve seen against Bush for the past eight years. It may be a pipedream, but, hey, its my birthday, I get to have a wish.