On many levels the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the U.S. represents a transformative moment in my nation’s history. I realize that there are some cynics and critics who will find reason to dismiss the significance of this victory, but they are wrong – and I want to share some personal reflections and vignettes from the campaign that describe this moment’s meaning for so many Americans.
During the past year my travels across the U.S. provided an extraordinary opportunity to experience at first-hand the concerns and expectations of so many Americans. There were many memorable experiences along the way, here are just a few:
I began the Sunday before the election by addressing a Bangladeshi-Yemeni rally for Obama at a United Auto Workers union hall in Hamtramck, Michigan. Among the newest members of our nation’s immigrant communities, these two groups have been hard hit by a double-whammy: the economic downturn and the anti-Muslim bigotry on the right and left. Looking into the eyes of the young people from both communities and listening to their words made clear how important this campaign has been, and how their belief in the American Dream would be restored with an Obama victory.
The notion that "you, too, can grow up to be President" had, for many Americans, become a mere banality. But not for those assembled before me. For these new immigrants that expression, and its deeper meaning of acceptance and opportunity, still resonated.
I ended the day at the Annual Hungarian Dinner at a church in Toledo, Ohio. Most of Northwest Ohio’s Democratic Party operatives were gathered there to get energized before the final push to the election. These European ethnic immigrants, who have for a century been the bedrock of the Democratic Party, were the "white middle class" voters whose support Barack Obama had to win in this election. And from the excitement I saw, it was clear that he had. After a few generations in the U.S., these communities felt that they had secured their place in the great American middle class; but now they could feel it slipping away and some feared that the "Dream" was getting beyond their children’s reach.
Scenes like this were nothing new to me. They replayed what I had witnessed over the past year, from as early as October of 2007 in Iowa to this, the final Sunday before the election. And what the scenes spoke to me of was what Barack Obama had achieved – a renewal of hope and a belief in change that had crossed ethnic, racial, religious, and generational lines.
On election day, waiting in a long line to cast my vote, I would again sense the power of this moment. Having been a part of the Jesse Jackson for President campaigns in 1984 and 1988, I knew how many diverse minority communities, and most especially African Americans, understood this day. For those of my generation, and older, the flood of history swept over us. We recalled, in our lifetime, the harsh reality of segregation and racist laws that had prohibited African Americans from using the same accommodations, attending the same schools, and even denied them the right to vote. We had participated in the movement to change our laws, and to open our political process. We had seen many pay the price along the way. Now we saw the fruits of these labors rewarded. We had, over forty years, made a long journey – and here we were in line, waiting to vote for the first African American who could be President.
Watching the results come in with my family gathered around, we wept as Obama’s victory became clear. In some ways we had expected this win, but were still overcome by its reality. And when the Obama family came on stage, announced as First Lady and President-elect, one chapter in America’s history was closed, and another opened. In this regard, the Obama victory represents a potentially transformative moment. We will now be able to see ourselves differently, and the world will see us differently as well. John McCain in his concession speech called the election a great moment for African Americans. He was half right: it was a great moment for us all.
In his remarkable speech in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night, Obama made clear that he understood the importance of all this. He also correctly cautioned America and the world to temper their expectations, and understand that all will not be made perfect. There will be disagreements over appointments made and decisions reached. But none of that diminishes the significance of the moment, nor should it dampen the belief in the real changes in policy and direction that will, undoubtedly, occur.