It's difficult to depict what it felt like to be at Oberlin last night. Obies, while not without a sense of humor, are by and large a serious bunch. It's not often that we take to the streets, and when we do it's usually to raise awareness about injustice or failure to act. The gleeful revelry that overcame most Oberlin students last night upon the news that Barack Obama had been overwhelmingly elected President--in a just election, by the abundant actions of Americans across the country--was unlike anything I've ever seen. People were sobbing, yelling, running, toasting, calling relatives. Much can be said about the potential for disparity between Obama's oratorical prowess and his effectiveness as Commander in Chief, but last night the feeling of liberation that was so palpable in the atmosphere here in Oberlin was singularly demonstrative of the promise that an inspirational figure with soaring rhetoric can hold.
I spent the afternoon and evening of election night at the Oberlin Public Library interviewing voters, poll workers, and students about their experiences for an article in The Grape. I was almost saddened to learn that everything had been running smoothly, and that consequently my article would be rather dull. President Krislov's decision to bus Oberlin students to the polls early did seem to have a considerable effect on keeping lines down at the polls, which meant that townspeople didn't have to wait in the same epic lines that marred the 2004 election.
One of the voters I spoke to was Jimmy-Sue White, a 1982 Oberlin College graduate and resident. She voted for Barack Obama because, she said, "I've noticed in Obama that he wants to bring blacks and whites together, wants to provide good teachers, good jobs. He wants to be very accommodating to our own people...He's going to teach us something."
I also ran for some distance to flag down Eugene Zsgray, an elderly resident of Oberlin who took to covering his steel-gray Cadillac with pro-life slogans like "Abortion is Murder" and "If you don't want babies, the answer is no sex, not murder." I was not surprised to find out that Zsgray voted for John McCain. I was surprised to find out that Zsgray also opposes the war and supports universal health care; he ascribes to what I call the Catholic pro-life argument, rather than the American Conservative argument that is more common in our country, and more nefarious.
I asked him if he thought that, given his value for life in all its stages, it would be hypocritical for him to vote for a candidate that believes in continuing (and possibly increasing) America's military presence in the Middle East. "Sure it is," he said. "Sure it is. But I asked myself, 'What's worse? 18 dead men a month, or 4,000 dead babies every day?'"
As a pro-choice voter I don't agree with Zsgray's assertion that abortion is murder, but I came away from our brief talk admiring his ideological consistency and the high value that he places on all human life. (Rather than those who crusade against abortion in one breath and for the war in another.) It's easy--in the course of this election, after the last eight years of the Bush administration, and in the shadow of the Reagan Revolution--to dehumanize those who subscribe to an ideology different from my own, and consequently it's always sobering to have that bubble pop, to greet the human face hiding behind the cold, steel-gray Cadillac.
As soon as Obama finished his speech, I left the lounge at Old Barrows, biked back to my room in North, and went to bed. It was a bittersweet night for me, as Tom Allen, for whom I worked this summer as part of the Cole Scholars program (you can read about that here), performed as expected, losing by a considerable margin to incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins.
All is not lost yet, as Collins is rumored to be on the short-list for Homeland Security Secretary in an Obama administration, which would mean that Maine's Democratic Governor would likely appoint Allen as her replacement. Still, it was unfortunate to see a candidate that I admired do so poorly in my home state. This was amplified further by the realization that the disappointment I felt after investing two months of my time in his campaign was no doubt much worse for those who've been working on his campaign for over a year, a group of great people who I had the pleasure and privilege of working for this summer.
I have a knack for finding things to worry about in times of celebration, and Barack Obama's victory was no exception. Like most people in America (I gather), I thought Obama was going to win but also was distrustful enough of my fellow citizens that I had to wait until it was announced on the news to believe it. But after having watched McCain revert to his likable 2000-election self and give the most eloquent and touching speech of his entire campaign, and after watching Obama humbly (and even gravely) claim victory, my thoughts turned to 1994, and 2010. We have an incredible opportunity now to pass sweeping beneficial reform for our financial industry, our healthcare system, and for the environment. But there are a lot of people who need to pull through for those reforms to pass, and Obama is just one of them.
It is not hard for me to imagine a worst-case scenario in which the Congress is seen, as they were in 1994, as trying to force a too-liberal agenda upon what pundits have curiously declared is a "center-right America." Harry Reid has tried to force legislation through the Senate without trying to forge a compromise before, and he's perfectly capable of doing it again. Obama has about 500 days to enact reform, and if his administration or Congressional leaders are seen as ineffective, uncooperative, or too liberal, Democrats would absolutely be in danger of losing their hard-won Congressional majority in the 2010 midterm elections.
Of course, the differences between 1994 and the present are vast, enough so that even in a worst-case scenario I don't think we'd experience the same sort of Congressional backlash like the one Newt Gingrich helped unleash on Bill Clinton. I think my apprehension comes from wanting for everyone who supported Obama to be vindicated by something more than just an election. In fifty years, if I get asked about this election, I don't want to say "I voted for Obama and he won." I want to say "I voted for Obama, and then he fixed things."