I’ll never forget this moment. I was 17, and watched the speech on our basement TV because my dad was gone at a conference, and my sister was watching some other TV show upstairs. I was pretty psyched that someone from Illinois was giving the keynote, sitting on the floor because there was no couch in my dad’s basement office. I hadn’t followed the 2004 IL senate primary very closely until now, so this was the first I would hear from Barack Obama.
The 2004 primary had been pretty lame. An insurgent Howard Dean campaign excited the liberal base, but showed itself to be too immature to go the distance. After last nominating the soporific Al Gore four years prior, the party stayed sedate with John Kerry, a taller, war-hero version of Michael Dukakis, but ultimately no more politically talented. Democrats seemed to think that the old formula would work ok with just a few tweaks and a few more checked boxes.
In 2004, punditry and cable news were the dominant force and the internet was a fringe novelty. We were several years from facebook and smartphones. Media was becoming more partisan. The country was engaged in two of the longest wars of its history, incompetently waged under false pretenses. Eight years of Bush were marked, above all, by incompetency. Obama didn’t have a magic message that solved those problems; he simply refocussed our attention on the real point. The parallels to the Gettysburg Address are obvious to me, but probably too heretical to detail without greater historical distance. We have a habit of underestimating the relative importance of recent history while overselling the potential significance of our next achievement, but I digress…
Obama spoke about the reality of American life that had nothing to do with party identity. As he belittled the color-coding of states, punditry, and tired wedge issues without a trace of the smugness or elitism that hampered old liberals, my mouth dropped farther and farther at how perfectly he captured the political moment. In a desperate atmosphere, he showed us the triumph of what we already had. After that speech, I was convinced that he could be our next president. I rushed upstairs and told my mom, and she smirked at me. “That’s not how it works”, she told me. I might as well have said that Jon Stewart would be the next president.
Twelve years later, I believe we are setup for another such moment, perhaps even greater. Given the current partisan divide, someone who can articulate a bigger picture and a new national ambition could cut through. We are forced by events to be narrowly focused on process, on overcoming routine budget disasters threatened by an increasingly radical and obstructionist right wing. We live in a world where nativist bigot Donald Trump and “socialist” Bernie Sanders are serious contenders for their respective nominations, and there is significant overlap in their electorates. “Conventional wisdom” has become a joke about what probably won’t happen. We are gripped by fear of foreign violence with no rational basis, as if ISIS had the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal at its disposal. We are steeped in potential for a new leap forward in leadership. The key to the perfect voice for this political moment is not one we can predict, but we know it when we hear it.
That summer in 2004, I started as an intern at my local Democratic headquarters. I worked 30-40hrs per week organizing and campaigning for candidates I wasn’t old enough to vote for. George W. Bush taught me the consequences of politics, but I think it was Barack Obama who changed politics from a sport that I had long followed into a sport that I could play.