I met up with him later that evening in a bar on the south side of Chicago. People were out celebrating the possibility of what the US might be. That sense of possibility had all but been extinguished over the past seven years. There had never been a consensus for George W Bush. Bush didn’t win his first election and in the second he only got around 52 percent of the vote. People felt that they had been excluded from the national conversation, and therein comes the symbolism of this black man who is the kind of anti-Bush. Barack Obama is pretty much everything that Bush isn’t: curious, worldly, eloquent, considered and consensual.
The intriguing thing, given the depressed state of European electoral politics, was that I don’t know anyone who wasn’t involved in the election, canvassing by phone or taking a few days off work – and Americans don’t get much time off work. One friend had been canvassing by phone in east Los Angeles. She was a white woman volunteering with large numbers of Latinos. The local staff members there were an African American woman and a Latino. They were all in this project together. That just doesn’t really ever happen here – certainly not on a mass scale.
In Roanoke, Virginia, you had people who lived in the same town who didn’t know each other, and suddenly there was a moment of action and political intimacy that gave a sense of what might be.
When CNN projects “black man to be president” you go from what might be to what is in such a massive quantum leap that all you can do is yell, very loud and for a long time. Even two weeks later it sparks conversations with strangers. I was in the subway and a 50-something African American woman said to me, “How do you feel about our new president?” There is a sense that anyone wearing an Obama badge is up for a conversation. I’ve tried asking a few people “When are these badges coming off?” At what stage does he stop being a candidate and start being a president? Or at what stage do you want to stop associating yourself with power, because he’s power now, or at least he will be.
All of that said, and the warm glow still exists, there are these other realities. Rahm Emanuel has been appointed chief of staff and there are rumours of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. It’s the dull thud of moderate Democratic politics. I don’t hear much apart from a familiar sigh, a kind of edge of deflation. But the one thing I never got a sense of on election night, or before, was a mass delusion, particularly among working people and African Americans.
I wish, in many ways, that people expected more from Obama and were prepared to fight for it. But African Americans, I think as a result of their experience, don’t think that a black person gets a job and then hires all their friends. In fact a black person gets a job, moves out of the neighbourhood and, if they’re keeping it real, they might come back to the neighbourhood and do good things. But I picked up no sense of African Americans or working people expecting, still less demanding, a massive transformative shift and to me that’s a shame. While I’m glad they’re not placing their hopes in him, I wish they placed more hopes in themselves and were prepared to rock the boat more.
But notwithstanding what Obama and African Americans want to do, and what everyone else wants to do, there is a massive economic crisis and two wars. People have got to eat, they’ve got to work, they can’t get sick. All those things, particularly in the US where if you lose your job you lose your healthcare and there’s very little welfare, are coming together in a terrifying way.
It is possible for people to keep the symbolism in one part of their head and be delighted, and yet say, “Ok, Mr. Symbolic-Victory, give us some food.” We happen to be in a moment where the issue of economic survival is rearing its head for large numbers of people, most of whom – including the white working class – voted for Obama. There will be demands. Obama can’t rest on his laurels – he won it big in terms of electoral college seats but it wouldn’t take a huge shift for him to lose. He needs to keep the coalition he has cohered in place, and to do that he needs to deliver to the poor, the black and the Latino.
Gary Younge is a journalist based in the US.
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