It was in the middle of the president’s victory speech that I started to feel it.
Barack Obama had moved on from the perfunctory post-election thank yous to his thoughts on what the election meant. Every victorious politician has an opinion on what the vote totals say about their pet policies. But it wasn’t Obama’s political positions that caught my attention; it was what he had to say about our political system as a whole.
“Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy,” he said after Election Day results came in. “That won't change after tonight, and it shouldn't. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”
The words struck a chord that hadn’t resonated in a long time.
It felt a little something like “hope.”
I missed out on the hope the first time around. As the Obama machine increased its hope and change message to a crescendo in 2008, I was in Iraq wondering whether that broken country would ever be able put together a functioning government.
The nadir for me came right around the time of Obama’s first inauguration. My father, an Army chaplain born and raised in the South, is a far cry from a progressive. Yet he e-mailed me shortly after the ceremony describing the beauty he saw in the moment and the historical import of electing the country’s first black president.
I couldn’t see any of that at the time.
The very morning Obama went to chapel for the inaugural service, a car bomb struck a convoy I’d been with the day before—killing three Iraqis, breaking the arm of an American soldier and giving another a concussion.
Less than a month earlier, a roadside bomb killed a gunner in a company I was embedded with. A few days after he died, three of his buddies were wounded. The first platoon leader I’d gone into combat with had severe traumatic brain injury. A government center I visited had seen 55 of 90 council members killed—and nearly lost more with the attack on the convoy.
The violence seemed to stretch on without end. War had ceased to be an extension of politics and had become instead the normal language of Iraqi politics.
“I can still appreciate art, music and beauty like the gospel choir you mentioned. God knows, I try my best to bring that into my own work,” I wrote my father. “The problem is I just don’t know that this beauty means anything anymore. When the choir is silent, when the poem or prayer is through, when even Obama’s words are exhausted, what do we have? I really don’t know anymore.”
“Hope” was never supposed to be a part of the 2012 campaign either. It was a grueling, in-the-trenches contest from the Republican primary to the moment the final votes were tallied.
The presidential campaigns drew the greatest amount of attention, but I found the 5th District race most saddening. I genuinely like both Rep. Keith Ellison and Republican Chris Fields, so watching their followers——fling venom at one another was increasingly disheartening.
And yet sadness isn’t the message that stayed with me from the 2012 election. It’s not just time—or even the absence of violence—that’s made so much difference since Obama made his first inaugural address.
On Election Day, I listened to neighbors chat while waiting to vote. I picked up my ballot from School Board Director Irma McIntosh Coleman, an election judge who greeted those she knew in between demonstrations on how to ink in the Scantron bubble. I slid my ballot into the machine and walked away with an “I Voted” sticker on my chest.
At Alice Smith, Democrats and Republicans stopped to buy the same “Vote!” cookies at the elementary school bake sale. At Eisenhower, students dutifully filled out imitation voter registration forms and then picked their favorite candidates in the district’s mock election.
This election wasn’t a political event; it was a community event.
I didn’t even need to compare the United States to a warzone to appreciate the difference. A 14-year-old student from the Ukrainian city of Kiev accompanied me for most of Election Day. While driving around, we compared notes on our respective electoral systems.
She described how her father took her to witness the Orange Revolution protests that happened in response to widespread fraud in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. The sea of orange was thrilling, she recalled, but it was also somewhat frightening.
In America, we don’t need revolutions to change our leaders. After every major election, incumbents lose their jobs, pack their boxes and head back home with less consequence than a fired employee.
In this sense, Mitt Romney laid just as much claim to hope as Obama ever did. Romney, after all, was the one who voluntarily stepped aside and offered the president his best wishes. Such gestures may be expected, but the expectation of something as simple as a polite campaign speech is a true testament to the civility underlying our entire process.
Of course, the darkness I felt during that first inauguration has not completely left my heart; I doubt it ever will. When I see Wisconsin legislators flee the state specifically to halt the legislative process, when I see a lack of compromise bring Minnesota government to a halt, it’s easy to retreat to cynicism.
But for all that, we have good reason to be optimistic. However negative the ads, however bitter the fight, it will always be right there beneath the surface—a little something like “hope.”
Click on the PDF to the right to read the full e-mail that the author sent to his father after Obama's first inaugural address.