“Show me a place where no-one cares about politics.” A skinny shop assistant hesitated before answering. “Keep heading straight down past 50th street.” Eyeing my distinctly pale skin and collared shirt with suspicion, she added, “Y’all sure you want to go down there?” Going past 50th street in West Philadelphia is about as sensible as a late-night jog in Central Park, circa 1980.
Being an enthusiastic Londoner enjoying my first day on the Obama campaign, I threw caution to the wind and pressed on. Misplaced confidence turned quickly to unease as the gentrified row-houses of University City gave way to Philadelphia’s ghetto. The early morning sun illuminated brazen drug deals carried out in defiance of a police force which seemed to hold no sway in this neighbourhood.
Unperturbed, I knocked on the door of a derelict bungalow. A few moments later the door was burst open by a muscle-bound young man reaching into a chest holster for his pistol. “I’m with Barack Obama’s Campaign For Change, are you, er, registered to vote?” an absurd voice inside me blurted out. A broad smile spread across the man’s face and, returning the Glock to its holster, he cheerfully explained that he had been expecting an angry visit from his drug dealer.
As I edged away from the porch in bewilderment, I heard something I could not quite believe. “You know man, Obama’s thinking on drilling is just not viable, y’understand? I mean, don’t doubt he has my vote – which of course I’m registered to make – but the energy plan needs a re-think. Feel me?”
This early August encounter speaks volumes for Barack Obama’s extraordinary impact on the lives of young Americans. It was a conversation that was to be repeated in different guises and mostly less dramatic circumstances throughout my summer on the Obama campaign.
At a party to celebrate the opening of the campaign’s Philadelphia office, I spoke to Andrea Perez, a Puerto Rican fundraiser for African development who had left her job to become a field organizer. I was surprised to hear Andrea, a tireless workhorse for the campaign, describe herself as “almost apolitical.” She explained, “before I move on with my African work, I have to make sure Obama is the next president – I can’t afford for him not to be.” In order for her dreams for Africa to be fulfilled, Obama in the White House is a necessity – and Andrea firmly believes that she has a role to play. In the same office I would watch Terrence Anderson, a streetwise baller from Los Angeles, say without a hint of sarcasm that he was here to “be the change he wanted to see in the world.”
When you think that Bush carried Florida, and with it the presidency, by a few hundred votes in 2000, you begin to understand the growing – if belated – belief among young Democrats that one person can make a difference. In only two weeks as an organizer I registered more new voters than it took for George W. to win the White House. But something else is at play in America, something really rather remarkable.
In the blink of an eye, it seems, young people across the West have grown a political conscience. This is the generation whose greatest political contribution to date has been the annual May Day anarchy demonstrations.
In fact, anarchy is a strong word in this context; apathy is a closer fit for a generation who just don’t care. Critically, America and Europe have failed in recent times to produce a leader with the ability to galvanise young people. Bush, Gore, Kerry, Chirac, Brown and the rest have been as easy to relate to as a convention of grumpy headmasters. And let’s face it, no self-respecting young person actually bought into Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’. Youth politics remained the preserve of the nerdy elite. Who did not wince at the excruciating film of William Hague’s address to the Tory party conference as a whiny Young Conservative?
Now, in 2008, Barack Obama has brought politics to life for Generation Y, from gun-toting gangsters to uninterested Puerto Ricans. In a pep-talk to campaign staffers on his first day as running mate, Senator Joe Biden remembered the summer of 1968, comparing his new boss to an old hero, Bobby Kennedy. Biden described on that conference call how Obama has touched a chord in young Americans in a way unheard of since JFK, the greatest charmer of them all.
By now I had moved on to the statewide headquarters, working as a policy advisor. The new job brought fewer guns but no less excitement. I ghostwrote op-eds and drafted Obama’s Economic Blueprint for Pennsylvania. I was at my desk by eight each morning, including Sundays, and rarely left before midnight.
Often the entire office crowded round the press department’s television. We cheered as Biden was introduced as the “scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania,” hissed when Sarah Palin shamelessly mocked community organisers, and cheered again as Biden veered off message to declare his wife “drop dead gorgeous.”
Occasionally, when things got tough, or just when he felt like it, our state director Craig Schirmer would bellow “blackjack, baby!” across the office. With 21 electoral college votes, Pennsylvania is the second most valuable swing state.
When Obama chose Western Pennsylvania as the first stop on his general election bus tour, I quickly reinvented myself as a press assistant. It was a chance to witness Obamania firsthand the day after his presidential nomination acceptance speech. Someone even asked me to prepare a brief for the senator on the local economy, little knowing that I can barely count, and probably think Freddie Mac is a cheeseburger.
Driving into Beaver, Pennsylvania – a conservative small town bettered in name only by its eastern counterpart, Intercourse – we passed block after block of locals patiently queuing to catch a glimpse of the man himself.
When the motorcade finally pulled into sight a toddler clutching a ‘Change We Can Believe In’ sign stamped her foot in delirium. “I saw O-Bama, I saw O-Bama!” As the senator worked the line, kissing babies and fist-bumping supporters, a teenaged girl grabbed me by the shoulder, screaming hysterically, “Oh. My. God. I just touched Barack Obama.”
Forget Kennedy, America hasn’t behaved like this since The Beatles.
After the speech – contrary to reports, he’s impressive on the stump without an autocue – I suddenly found myself alone in a room with the potential leader of the free world. The senator was relaxed, chuckling at the stereotype of European elitism. Improbably, Obama stole my closing remark: “Now you make sure we win this thing.” One to tell the grandchildren, if only it hadn’t happened in a place called Beaver.
Over the past 19 months, the Obama campaign has worked systematically through a check-list of ingredients required of a populist leader, including propagandistic iconography. LA street artist Shepherd Fairey is responsible for the ubiquitous image of Obama’s face gazing idealistically into the future above the word ‘HOPE’. Suitably epic, one imagines it emblazoned across T-shirts in Camden Market alongside the iconic Che Guevara portrait.
And here is the irony. While the hero-worship, the iconography and the sense of youthful revolution summon up the great leftwing ideologues of the twentieth century, from Lenin to Guevara, ‘ideology’ is a dirty word in the Obama camp. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that “ideology…result[s] in inaction”; later, he praises Bill Clinton’s Third Way for tapping into “the nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans.”
Drafting talking points for local media outlets, I was instructed to stress Obama’s record of “reaching across party lines.” The Obama-Biden ticket is selling bipartisan compromise to a grateful audience of idealistic young Democrats.
So how does a man who preaches compromise and realism, a politician who identifies with Reagan more than with Carter, get the girls screaming and the organizers organizing?
It is the philosophy that allows a twenty-one year old from West London a position as a policy advisor.
It is neither Obama’s enviable good looks, nor his undeniable elegance – though these do him no harm.
His success is based upon his ability to persuade America’s youth that he does exactly what he says on the tin: ‘Change We Can Believe In.’ Or more precisely, ‘Change We Can Be A Part Of’ is the message that has energised young people from Berlin to Beaver and given Obama a shot at the White House.