Obama’s first 100 days in office were filled with formidable tasks, including autograph signing for prime minister’s children. Paparazzi crews stalked him like tigers and I heard more about Bo than I did about Biden. No one can deny that we are in celebrity president overkill. But the real question we need to ask is: is the hype over this man warranted? Can we let ourselves get swept up in the adoration? Yes we can.
I was extremely disappointed when I grew up to find out that the Hippie Generation was over. My parents made free love, took too many drugs, and protested the Vietnam War, and I naturally planned to find my own cause when I grew up. It was clear that I was going to be an Activist, too.
So when I was a freshman in high school I made the mistake of giving a speech to my classmates on feminism. Freshman year is the wrong time to take social leaps, but when asked to model a speech after one from history, I was immediately drawn to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s at the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19th, 1848, on women’s right to vote. This caught my attention as one of the historical fights that was still being fought, and I decided to go with it. After all, the women of my mother’s age were proud to wear such a label on the lapels of their shoulder-padded pantsuits.
After giving my speech on a woman’s position in society as convincingly as I thought Elizabeth might have done 150 years ago, I looked around the room and found completely un-roused and slightly embarrassed faces. It was as if I had just told them to take off their designer bras and burn them right there on the table. I slunk over to my seat and listened to speeches about various historical causes: the Bolshevik Revolution, Labor Movement, etc. There was no cringing when these speeches were made. All of these movements were long finished. My peers had decided that the fighting was over; it wasn’t their job to crusade anymore.
This was my first brush with my generation’s apathy, the reason so many politicians have made it their personal mission to reach the notoriously elusive Young Voters. We have been the unreachable ones, padded by the prosperous Clinton years and blissful in our ignorance. The voting turnout for people 18-24 had shrunk to a meager 32% by 2000, according to an August 2008 New York Post article, down from almost 50% turnout in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote. But the lack of voting was only a symptom of a far worse disease: we didn’t even care.
The late David Foster Wallace mused on this indifference in his essay McCain’s Promise and described what was missing: a Real Leader. “A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people.” He then lists some figures that, “by all available evidence”, qualify as Leaders: Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, Marshall, maybe Eisenhower, and the most recent Real Leader of our country: JFK. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. No one my age was alive to witness any of the people on Wallace’s list. My classmates freshman year weren’t far off when they gave me those blank stares; political movements really were a thing of the past.
The essay, as suggested by the title, is about John McCain, who, Wallace shows us, was running to inspire the young generation of voters “to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest” as a Real Leader should. However, as McCain reached out to the Young Voters, Foster noticed, “a great many of those young Americans will yawn or roll their eyes or make some ironic joke instead of feeling inspired the way they did with Kennedy.” And then, after the Republican primary in South Carolina got nasty, McCain lost (as did Gore in the general election), and we got George W. Bush.
Even the first four years of Bushisms didn’t do enough to fully stir Young Voters out of our torpor. I found myself in the minority again when going to anti-war rallies and signing online petitions. When Bush’s first four years were up, I didn’t know anyone who worked for Kerry, including myself. Although voter turnout in my age group rose to 47% in the 2004 election, simply voting was as close to political activism as anyone seemed willing to venture.
So we had another four years of Bush. And the havoc wreaked by those four years certainly opened a few sleepy eyes: Katrina, torture, Cheney shooting his friend in the face and, most recently, the economic collapse, amongst many other gaffes from the Oval Office.
Then along came Obama. I first heard of him, as many did, when he was just an Illinois state senator making a splash with his DNC speech. He was soon buzzed about in my social group like a viral YouTube video. The word “Obama” was slipped into conversation alongside the newest cultural blogs and Wes Anderson films. I even had a friend who set her Google Talk away message as “obama!” Politics were transforming from communal gripe sessions into groups rallying around a cause.
As I have explained to many Hillary-supporters-turned-Obama-volunteers, as much as I liked Hillary and the idea of having a female president—I still call myself a feminist, after all—it was Obama’s magnetism and promise that got me from online petitions to the real world. Obama was able to make me leave my apartment at 6am every Saturday and travel to another state to spend a day knocking on strangers’ doors. Something was different.
These days, anyone can go to Times Square and buy a t-shirt that depicts Obama stripping back a suit to reveal a blue leotard with a large triumphant “O” underneath.
In an Entertainment weekly article by Jeff Labrecque and Whitney Pastorek on “President Rockstar,” Chris Volger explains why Obama is like a superhero: “He’s got this alter ego, the Obama before he gets to the White House, that so many people can relate to… And then he puts on his uniform—the presidency—and becomes a superhero.”
It is dangerous to cast a mortal man as a real life superhero. Some have even gone as far as to recreate him as a Messiah figure—Slate’s Obama Messiah Watch or obamamessiah.blogspot.com are two outlets that chronicle just that flavor of adoration. In fact, Obama beat out Jesus as the nation’s most often picked hero, according to the most recent Harris Poll. His status as a celebrity and even a savior has the potential to, in its most benign form, lead us to disappointment when we realize he’s a human, and at worst, keep people from challenging him when he deserves it (not to mention creep us out a bit). We cannot give him carte blanche and walk away without demanding he live up to the ideas that drew us towards his campaign. We should judge Obama not on the eloquence of his speech, the beauty of his thoughts, or his spiffy sunglasses. We should judge him on what he actually accomplishes.
So then let’s look at what he’s already done, what he had done long before his first 100 days in office began: he roused the most torpid of demographics. An estimated 23 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 election, an increase of 3.4 million compared to 2004, according to a CIRCLE report on Youth Voting, and 66% of those voted for Obama, according to a Pew Research Center report from November 12. But beyond voting turnout in my age group, which is impressive, what is more impressive and far more important is that they did more than vote. When I told my story to other volunteers, that I had done absolutely no work for Kerry and was now traveling every weekend for Obama, I was not alone—most people I met had never done this before either. And there were hundreds of us in Philadelphia alone. Almost all of my friends who had done nothing for Kerry had volunteered for Obama, from phone banking to donating to canvassing to wearing Obama gear.
And in spite of the blank stares of high school classmates who were convinced we don’t need to fight anymore, this is a fight that marches on. The Onion hits the nail on the head with this video: no one could stop talking about the campaign after the victory came and went. I still wear my Obama Biden pin on my bag, as do about a third of the people I see on the subway. I went to the inauguration and wore an Obama shirt under 17 other layers, along with at least 800,000 people dressed in anything with Obama’s face on it. But far more importantly than the campaign swag and post-election fervor, 100 days later we still pay attention. I care about what legislation has been passed and have spent time reading about positions and issues so that I actually know what the Director of OMB does. And the most important thing of all: I still feel as if I have a part of it all, as if I have a stake in what is happening Capitol Hill. My friends and I talk about the issues. We care.
I’m an Obama fanatic not just because he’s hot, not just because he plays basketball when he’s done giving the most eloquent speeches I’ve heard in my lifetime, and not just because he coined the best slogan since Make Love Not War. I’m an Obama fanatic because he is able to make me a fanatic. And that’s why I drink the Kool-Aid.