As I make my daily walk, enveloped by beautiful fall foliage, taking a break from the news, listening to folklore, and hearing Taylor Swift sing, “Back when I was living for the hope of it all,” my mind drifts back to August 2007. Drawn in by Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, for the first time since college, I found myself crossing the border into New Hampshire to volunteer on a political campaign. That is not to say that I had not been active in politics. By 2007, I had served several years as vice-chair of our town’s Democratic committee, made hundreds of unanswered phone calls, cleaned voter databases, driven candidates door-to-door throughout town, and spent 12-hour days outside of polling places every other November. That was all fun; but, this was different.
For some of my colleagues on the Eliot Democratic Committee, the 1968 and 1972 elections were their time; and mine was the 1980 election. This moment and this movement belonged to the dedicated group of 20-somethings who came from across the country to spend nearly a year in New Hampshire and run the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Obama headquarters – a small, little storefront on a side street in downtown Portsmouth. Their enthusiasm was contagious and didn’t wane through six long months when everything was pointing toward a Hillary Clinton nomination.
Back when we were still changing for the better
Unlike many of my fellow democrats in 2007, I was never one who regarded Jed Bartlet as the real President of the United States in the early 2000s. However, as I made I way to the Portsmouth headquarters week after week, month after month, thinking about how a President Obama would change Washington, I did have visions of Jed Bartlet walking to Capitol Hill then taking a seat in the hallway. I also saw Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtongiving everything he had in that filibuster. And on some days, there was even a bit of Bill Pullman from Independence Day and Harrison Ford from Air Force One mixed in. In other words, my expectations were high and my inspirations fictional.
To be fair, however, the 2008 campaign had a fairytale, magical, sense of destiny and inevitability to it that fueled those expectations. Although chances of winning the nomination still looked slim as 2007 drew to a close, election year 2008 began with an Obama win in Iowa followed by a surge in the polls in New Hampshire. There was a slight setback when Hillary cried and eked out a victory in New Hampshire, but then the Kennedy family unexpectedly took back the Camelot mantle from Bill Clinton and handed it to Obama. We all know the unlikely series of events that came next: the Clinton campaign was not prepared to compete in the long series of caucus states following Super Tuesday and the Obama campaign survived three self-inflicted wounds that would have derailed any other candidate: plagiarizing speeches, Rev. Wright, and the promotional flyer for Obama’s first book that stated he was born in Kenya. Professional athletes can get away with the claim that they were misquoted in their own book, but rarely can presidential candidates.
And so, Obama won the nomination, selected Joe Biden as his running mate, and we were ready for history. Joe was a fixture in the Senate, friends with everyone, and apparently ate lunch with John McCain. If you wanted to change the way things worked in Washington, an inside man like Joe was the final piece to the puzzle.
Wanting was (not) Enough
Alas, it was not to be. There were some significant legislative victories and executive orders, but there was no change in how things were done in Washington. If anything, the situation in Washington was worse in 2016 than it was in 2008. There were a few lines drawn in the sand, an invitation to a movie night at the White House at the start of the second term, and even a trip to Capitol Hill. But there was no Jed Bartlet moment – no image of President Obama camped outside of Mitch McConnell’s office until the deal was done. No bully pulpit. No call to action. Rather, there were seven years of gridlock that culminated in the final indignity of the Garland nomination.
You can blame McConnell and the GOP, but they didn’t promise hope and change. Nobody thought hope and change was going to be easy. As they say, “It supposed to be hard… The hard is what makes it great.” And it’s the hard that makes great leaders.
‘Cause it was never mine
There have been other politicians who have been unable to live up to their campaign hype. But the thing with charismatic leaders like Barack Obama and populist movements like 2008 is that when the leader fails to deliver on his promises, the consequences can be dire and long-lasting. So many who were drawn to his flame and were brought into U.S. politics for the first time by the 2008 campaign became disillusioned and lost hope in the system by the end of the Obama administration. Regaining their trust will not be easy. And, of course, when things are broken, populist trends cut both ways. The yearning for somebody who promises to change the way things are done in Washington was still there in 2016 (e.g., Drain The Swamp).
If Obama had been able to achieve some measure of success on his core promise to change Washington and bring people together, there is no question in my mind that the entire 2016 election would have played out differently (sorry, in this version it still doesn’t work out well for Hillary) and that we would be in a much different place today. Instead of dreading three more weeks of volatile, voluble blather every time I turn on the television, tonight I might be sitting down to watch the fall premiere of 25th season of The Apprentice, commenting to my wife on how well the show has held up since Ivanka took over a few years ago, and wondering what her father is up to these days.