On a crisp blue day, the sun shone bright and low in the November sky. New England’s yellow and orange leaves crunched underfoot, as I navigated the twisting wooded paths of my new campus. Unable to vote, I felt a twinge of embarrassment whenever people approached me and asked if I had cast my ballot. That night I gathered with my new American friends, and watched the beginning of a new era in American life. Tears fell as the hopes and dreams of a nation were encapsulated in the figures of an African-American family standing on the stage in Chicago.
I began my life in the United States on a student visa, three months before Barack Hussein Obama became president. His presidency transformed America from the international embarrassment of the Bush era, and once again recast the US as the Promised Land. His presidency has been an example of decency, diplomacy, and possibility throughout my American life.
Eight years later, in the potentially crucial swing state of New Hampshire, Obama spent the last day of the election campaign rallying for Hillary Clinton at the University of New Hampshire. And so on a similarly bright blue day, I found myself back on campus—this time a green card holder with an American husband—waiting in line to see the president speak.
Parking in a distant car park, I waited for a shuttle bus to take me on to the campus. The air seemed thick with possibility. Students, many of them first time voters, spoke excitedly about the significance of the UNH community to the election. In front of me, I met a journalist taking a day off from his usual local crime and obituary work, and behind me a seasoned protestor who regaled me with tales of her international Eco-protests.
Scores of people lined the streets in queues that snaked all over the campus. We found ourselves enveloped into the waiting line, and soon were passing through metal detectors, and discarding all our food and drink at security.
In the brilliant sunshine, I sat on the ground outside the Whittemore center and listened to the UNH band perform. Last time I had stood there it was at my graduation.
At 12 o’clock the doors opened and we were herded into the arena and offered a choice of seats or floor. With a long wait ahead I chose seats, my seasoned companions chose the floor.In the hours that followed, neighbors were friends. People saved seats, and shared pretzels, Sour Patch Kids, and anecdotes of elections and rallies past. Springsteen’s We Take Care of Our Own blared across the arena, and a sea of “Stronger Together” posters tiled the floors and walls.Excitement grew with each entrant to the stage—from local politicians to local choirs. Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly reminded people of the importance of common sense gun law and universal health care, while Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan talked about local concerns, pleading with voters to vote not just for Hillary but for Democrats up and down the ballot ticket.
After several hours of waiting, a secret service agent took to the stage and ceremoniously placed the seal of the president on the front of the lectern. And then the crowd went wild.
The president ran in from the side of the stage, shirtsleeves rolled up and arms waving. The atmosphere was euphoric. I have never felt the excitement of politics in this way before, never felt part of something so much bigger than me, or part of a force for such good. My heart raced and tears streamed down my face.
Chants of “O-Bam-A” and “Four More Years” thundered through the arena, amidst the deafening applause. The president graciously accepted this thanks, but channeled the passion into support for Hillary. He spoke of the democratic possibilities afforded by Clinton, and of her experience and superiority as a candidate. When the crowd booed at mention of Donald Trump, Obama shouted “Don’t Boo, Vote.”
He understood the crowd, and combined chants and interactivity with careful reasoned rhetoric. Obama is a natural orator with incredible command of a stage. His was more than just a speech for Clinton, it was a rally for American democracy. Talking about the importance of grass roots campaigning and getting out there to meet people, he spoke with such prescience and understanding about the state of America and its politics. He understood the divides, and worked to fire up the next generation to get involved and believe.He spoke for about 35 minutes, and then almost as quickly as he arrived, the president left in a sea of black-suited agents. In a daze of excitement and Springsteen songs, the crowds exited the arena, carefully clutching their “Stronger Together” posters.
Standing outside in the dark, we were “fired up and ready to go.” As the spectacular presidential cavalcade sped through the campus, election day seemed simply a formality. Among the crowds of people–of all races, genders, and ages–the first female president seemed the inevitable heir of the first African-American president.
For the next twenty-four hours the world was full of promises. Of Yes We Cans and shattered glass ceilings. Of “I voted” stickers, SNL impressions, and pantsuits.
Then the dream shattered, not the ceiling.
In the hazy light of our new reality, life looked different the next day. Yet somehow leaves still crunched under my feet, people still squished in together on the subway, and red brake lights still painted the gray I-93 corridor. The smoke still rose from the Holocaust memorial and curled into the sun, which too, still set. Everything and nothing had changed.
As the sun sets on this our second Camelot, there will be no glittering smiles, no little girls in J Crew coats watching their father shatter glass ceilings, no speeches with promises to protect democracy, and no belief in the “patchwork heritage” of the United States. Instead there is fear and America First, the promise to end health care for millions, to curtail minority rights, a partnership with Russia, a destabilized Anglo-American alliance, and, perhaps most importantly, inaction on climate change.
While there is no longer a President Obama, now more than ever, there must still be yes we cans.
God Bless the USA.