Attending your first major political rally is kind of like going to the first frat party of the quarter: You know what to expect and yet you can’t help but feel excited about the event. Fortunately, the Saturday afternoon Democratic rally came on one of the last beautiful days of autumn, before the persistent rain and pre-winter frost creep into Chicago life. With the unseasonable weather as a backdrop, Illinois’s finest assembled before an eager crowd of 35,000 people on Saturday night to provide the political theater we’ve all come to expect.
Senatorial hopeful Alexi Giannoulias did most of his work on an aesthetic level, wowing the crowd more with his all-American good looks–chants of “Sexy Lexi” came and went at various points–than with his predictable stump speech. Governor Pat Quinn did not resonate with attendees on a stylistic or substantive level; Mr. Quinn had to be called on-stage several times by the PA announcer, only to later forget the day of the election when asking the crowd, “Are you ready to get out there and vote tomorr…?” Current Mayor Richard Daley outdid both before uttering even a single word, welcomed by disappointed jeers and tongue-in-cheek applause when the crowd had learned that he would be speaking.
And yet, the event was neither about their blunders, nor about Common and Dot Dot Dot’s performances, nor any of the other sideshows. At about 7:15 pm, the crowd got what it came for when a former community organizer from years past shouted, “Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home!” Until that point, however, I had watched the event unfold around me with sharp skepticism.
It is one thing to watch a crowd on television do the whole political rally bit, waving American flags and political paraphernalia as they cheer politicians on. It is another to be in the midst of that crowd. And yet, until the moment President Obama’s name was called over the loudspeaker, I had been left to wonder what all the fuss was about.
I certainly understood the context of the event: Polls and projections around the nation predicted heavy Democratic losses in both the Senate and the House while reaffirming the very real presence of a GOP resurgence. I understood that the fruits of economic recovery had yet to ripen as quickly as many were hoping. I understood that struggles with the new healthcare reform bill’s implementation have left many grossly dissatisfied with the rate at which benefits are rolled out. And I understood that the man who had graced the covers of magazines around the world as celebrity, demigod, savior and the like two years ago, seemed to be wearing out his welcome in the minds of many of his supporters.
I understood all of that and thus found it odd that people of all ages were moved with such patriotism and political fervor so as to chant “USA” during programming pauses, and scream “NOs” of disapproval when anecdotes about loony Republican senators who wanted to gas dogs were rehashed, and echo resounding “YESses” when asked whether they wanted our kids to be the best engineers, doctors, mathematicians, and scientists in the world. I understood the gravity of the moment for the Democratic Party and yet could not find myself responding with the genuine idealism and excitement that those around me–young and old–were displaying. I could only participate with little more than a hint of cynicism. And then 7:15 came.
From the moment President Obama’s name was announced, I not only sensed a more intense spirit of invigoration in the already raucous crowd around me, but I felt myself moved in an unexpected way, something like the collective feeling the Chicago Bulls’ faithful had in the ’90s when Michael Jordan’s name was introduced to the crowd in the opening lineup.
You got the sense throughout the evening, as the speakers and performances wore on, and as the intensity of people’s expectations heightened, that the city and the community were welcoming back both a native son and a distant man of royalty. He approached the stage with the same swagger and youthful gait that caught the nation’s eye at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Amid Washington whispers about his sinking morale behind closed doors and a New York Times Magazine piece that paints a portrait of a miserably unhappy president, the man was all smiles Saturday evening.
When he opened his speech, he thanked the crowd and the political staff for “organizing [him] some good weather.” He likened the Republican-led Bush years to a time when the GOP drove the American economy into a steep ditch, only to sit idly by and sip “Slurpees” while the Democrats worked to get that car back on level ground. And, after thanking the headlining artist for his performance, Mr. Obama affectionately called Common “Chicago boy.” His personality shone through throughout the evening in a way that disarmed the cynicism within me.
The substance of Mr. Obama’s words meant less than the spirit of those words. It was a spirit that transcended the similarly political, partisan stump speeches before him. It was a spirit that not only energized the heterogeneous crowd of Chicago students, downtown professionals, and South Side residents, but also a pessimist like me, because he made me want to believe him.
After he finished his speech and the crowd began to pour out of the Midway onto 59 Street, I really didn’t want to leave. Zooming past parents and security, and hurdling one of the dividers separating sections of the crowd, I found myself less than a hundred feet away from the podium. He was somewhere, drowning within a crowd of 50, and I never got to see him up close. As I walked back to meet a friend, I suddenly felt the harshness of a cold Chicago night that inevitably follows an unseasonably warm day. It had gotten dark fast, and the now empty Midway was littered with remnants of the event, posters and buttons and flags scattered on the grass. Without the collective chaos and excitement of the event’s proceedings surrounding me, without chants of “Yes We Can” and political clichés ringing in my eardrums, still questioning how much of what I heard that night could really be done, I walked home encouraged by the spirit of a former community organizer’s words.
Youssef Kalad is a third-year in the College majoring in Public Policy and Political Science.