I don’t know about you, but my interest in the U.S. presidential election last fall bordered on obsession. After Barack Obama tanked in the first debate with Mitt Romney, I went into a deep funk.
The debate was about the ailing U.S. economy, and it was a given that Romney would come out with guns blazing. Obama could counter correctly that fixing the economy is going to be a long and painstaking process. But that wouldn’t be enough; to earn the confidence of voters, he’d have to play his strong suit and inspire as well as reason with them.
He didn’t even come close. The president looked disengaged, passive, discouraged. His body language suggested a boxer expecting to be throttled. And a throttling is exactly what he got.
Obama’s election in 2008 had been a victory for hope amid the deep gloom of recession and the paralysis of politics as usual. As the first debate of 2012 went from bad to worse, it seemed entirely possible that Obama himself had lost hope. That was a hard pill to swallow. I began to wonder if those of us who saw such promise in the new president four years ago had been seduced by an illusion.
Fast-forward a month. Barack Obama is standing with his family onstage in Chicago, smiling incandescently and waving to 10,000 ecstatic supporters. The networks had declared him re-elected, and Romney had just called to concede.
A stunning reversal. How did it happen?
The conventional wisdom is that Obama’s team read the changing voter demographics better than the other guys, used social media more effectively, and committed fewer gaffes. But I think it goes deeper. Obama’s election in 2008 was the start of a quiet revolution whose full extent only became apparent this past November.
Post-election polls in 2008 showed a huge majority of Americans had been won over by their new president’s message of hope. Obama has fewer believers today, but his core followers remain deeply committed. This past fall, an army of mostly young, smart and dedicated campaign workers quietly fanned out across hundreds of key electoral districts, mobilizing minorities who traditionally have been consigned to the political margins. Obama’s soldiers understood that the best way to sustain hope was to spread it among those who needed it most — people whose jobs had been saved by Obama’s auto-industry bailout, who have access to health insurance for the first time ever, whose children are getting a better education. In some respects, it was a return to old-fashioned knock-on-doors campaigning. But in a political culture accustomed to the excesses of attack ads and super PACs, it was revolutionary.
The morning after the election, Obama met with a roomful of volunteers in Chicago. Someone ran a video camera. The five-minute clip shows a subdued Obama describing his early days as a church-paid community organizer in Chicago, and praising his campaign workers for being smarter and more capable than he will ever be. Toward the end of the clip, he gets a little weepy.
No doubt the president’s exhaustion was showing. But his tears also acknowledged the profound significance of the moment. “What you guys have accomplished will go down in the annals of history,” he said. It was his way of saying that even as he stumbled, they kept the faith.
The 2012 election will be analyzed for years to come. But its basic lesson is already clear: hope can make big things happen. No one pretends that hope alone will trim trillion-dollar deficits or cure partisan gridlock in Congress. But hope is where progress starts. Hope won the 2012 election. And hope was also the big winner.
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