Nov. 4, 2008 doesn’t seem like such a long time ago. I was 30 years old then. I managed to score a pair of passes to the election night rally in Grant Park, just a few blocks from the condo I had just bought a few months prior in downtown Chicago. I had a relatively new job, a new girlfriend and just a little bit of optimism for the future.
Our tickets allowed us to walk right past the overflow line that stretched for blocks down Columbus drive along the length of Grant Park, and my girlfriend and I joined thousands of others to watch the expected election results roll in on the big screens they had set up. No hanging chads this time. No shocking midwestern losses. At about 10PM in Chicago, CNN called it for Barack Obama. An hour later, we watched him come out to deliver his victory speech. I don’t remember much from the text of his speech–we were pretty far back and just able to make out the figures on stage. There were screens to watch, but I’d seen him speak on TV plenty.
Instead, I was more interested in watching the crowd. This was no homogeneous group of “liberal elites,” the kind that I was used to bustling through in the bars and restaurants, concerts and ballgames. No, this was the same group you’d see packed to the gills on to a red line train in the waning hours of a weekday rush: young and old, man and woman, rich and poor and–without a doubt–as racially diverse a crowd as I’ve ever seen. America itself turned out in Grant Park that night.
During that election, the idea that Barack Obama could be our first black president was always in the back of my mind, but I admit I didn’t attach as much significance to the weight of that outside of a vaguely proud feeling of progress given the historical context. I came to him late, voting for Hillary in the primaries because at the time, I saw Obama as more of a long shot candidate who I’d rather see stay in the senate and build his political chops. But as he gained momentum, I became excited for his candidacy. I liked his intelligence more than anything else, especially in reaction to an administration that seemed to wear anti-intellectualism like a badge of honor. His oratorical skills were obvious and his politics aligned pretty closely with mine. He didn’t feel like the “black” candidate to me as much as he felt like the best candidate.
I remember an elementary school teacher once telling my parents that I was going to grow up to be president, and while that seemed like a long shot to me even at the time, it didn’t seem out of the question. But saying that to someone who wasn’t a white male in the late eighties would have seemed a little more far-fetched. The most vivid memory of that night for me was seeing the tears in the eyes of the people around me who, for the first time, were able to get a first-hand look at a president-elect that didn’t look like me. When Obama closed his speech with that familiar campaign chant, “Yes We Can,” it didn’t feel like sloganeering that night. It felt like gospel.
None of this would have made a difference if he didn’t live up to the “hope and change” platitudes of his campaign, though. Many times in those next few months, I’d see his motorcade rumble by as I walked home from work. I loved watching people stop on the sidewalks at Clark and Van Buren to cheer and wave as he headed to his home on the south side. My girlfriend’s Christmas party that year happened to be at the home next door to the Obama’s house in Kenwood (which gave her the peace of mind of knowing that her new boyfriend could pass a Secret Service security screen) and everyone passing by a south-facing window during the party couldn’t help being distracted as we tried for a glimpse of the new first family coming home. It was more than just celebrity. I think we had a much loftier set of expectations for what this man could do than we had ever been willing to afford a president in my lifetime.
In the eight years since, I think it’s safe to say that Obama was not the liberal savior some of us had thought he might be. There’s still a war on terror, universal health care didn’t quite happen, the wealth gap hasn’t narrowed and the earth is getting hotter and hotter. But he’s been the man I voted for back in 2008: intelligent, reasoned, measured and honorable. He and his family brought a dignity to the highest office in the land that should be the gold standard for anyone who has the honor and the burden of serving in such a role.
The classic election question is, “Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?” Well, you can try to twist the numbers any way you want, but he did his job with the economy. Unemployment is low, the markets are way up, and wages are slowly starting to improve. Marriage equality is the law of the land. For now, at least, millions of Americans can get health insurance that couldn’t before. We’re not fighting wars for the sake of needing someone to bomb. When I travel abroad, I don’t have to memorize provinces and prime ministers so I can pretend I’m from Canada. I can’t help but wonder how much better these years would have been if he hadn’t been faced with a congress that somehow conflated moderate liberalism with socialism and publicly pledged to adopt a platform of obstruction. Regardless, the Obama years were good for America.
And for me, too. I’m coming up on the 10-year mark at my current company where I’ve been able to carve out a rewarding career path. I’ve gotten serious about writing, and, as a Facebook notification reminded me, had my first story being published in the Chicago Reader five years ago last week. And though I no longer own a condo in Printers Row, it’s because I married that girlfriend, and we’ve moved to a slightly roomier condo in Lincoln Park. Am I better off now than I was eight years ago? You’re goddamn right I am.