CHICAGO -- Now that Barack Obama has won the last election of his political career, we can reflect on how brief that career has been, and how swift his rise to the pantheon of two-term presidents.
Obama began his first campaign just two miles south of McCormick Place, the convention center where he celebrated his re-election as president. On Sept. 19, 1995, at the Ramada Inn Lakeshore, Obama announced his candidacy for the Illinois state senate to 200 supporters.
“Politicians are not held to highest esteem these days – they fall somewhere lower than lawyers,” he joked, before delivering the message the liberal Hyde Parkers in that room wanted to hear: “I want to inspire a renewal of morality in politics. I will work as hard as I can, as long as I can, on your behalf.”
It was a door-to-door campaign. Every evening that fall and winter, Obama drove his Saab through Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods. He was a big hit with the little old ladies who answered the doors of worn two-flats and decaying houses. To the dismay of his campaign manager, who expected him to fill two petition sheets a night, Obama was offered fried chicken sizzling in stovetop pans and invited to sit down and explain where he’d gotten that funny name.
Despite the modesty of the office he sought, Obama was thinking of a bigger destiny. Kitty Kurth, a Chicago political operative, recalls a conversation with Obama about Ron Brown, the Democratic National Committee chairman who died in a plane crash that year.
Kurth had worked for Brown, and told Obama, “I’m sad for the country, because I really wanted to work for Ron Brown for vice president someday.”
Looking at Obama, Kurth said, “Well, maybe I can vote for you for vice president someday.”
“Why not president?” Obama asked.
“You know how you can tell when somebody’s not really kidding?” Kurth would recall. “Barack was not really kidding.”
Obama didn’t take long to get there, either. He went from local politics to the presidency faster than any president since former Erie County, N.Y., sheriff Grover Cleveland. A baby born on the day Obama entered politics would not have been old enough to vote for his re-election as president.
“It began in late 1995, passing petitions, and tonight it’s 2012,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said Tuesday night at McCormick Place. “In that 17 year stretch, he’s gone from passing petitions to president of the United States. My doctor went to his first meeting. He gave him money.”
Obama’s training for the presidency had begun even before he ran for office -- ten years earlier, and ten miles further south, when he was hired as an organizer for a community group formed to work with steelworkers laid off after South Chicago’s mills closed -- an economic disaster similar to the recession he inherited as president. Experiencing the steel crisis of the early 1980s in a Rust Belt community contributed to Obama’s decision to bail out the auto industry, believe Loretta Augustine-Herron, one of the “Obama Mamas” who guided Obama through the South Side. (Augustine-Herron, the president of the Developing Communities Project, appears in Dreams from My Father under the pseudonym “Angela.”)
“The interviews with the laid-off steelworkers were so sad,” Augustine-Herron told me when I called her this week. “The people couldn’t understand that these jobs weren’t coming back. That experience really aided him with some of the things that needed to be done.”
Four years ago, Obama celebrated his election in Grant Park, with an outdoor party in a meadow, in front of 125,000 fans. That political Woodstock was the perfect venue for the ascendance of the first post-Baby Boom, first African-American president. But a president’s security needs required a move indoors. This time, Obama’s party was in a dim, concrete-floored exhibition hall best known as the site of an automobile show, with 10,000 campaign volunteers who’d received tickets for making phone calls and walking precincts in Iowa and Wisconsin. It was a utilitarian room for a candidate who now represents the establishment.
Grant Park was a celebration of potential; McCormick Place was proof of achievement. Obama partisans who were with the president in Grant Park saw Election Night as vindication.
“This time, he’s actually running on his record,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who maintained his distinction as the only politician to defeat Obama in an election, having beaten him in a 2000 congressional primary.
All night, during lulls in CNN’s coverage, the video screens switched to highlights of Obama’s presidency: the auto bailout, the stimulus package, the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“They tried to do everything they possibly could to hurt the man,” a Grant Park veteran named Leota shouted, scolding Obama’s Republican rivals. “They had a backroom deal. He made a fool out of them!”
At 10:12 p.m., the televisions turned blue with the message “Barack Obama Elected.” Four years and 12 minutes earlier, that had been a reverent moment, more memorable for its silences than its celebration. Couples hugged. Men and women wept. This time, flags broke out, fluttering like a flock of pinstriped moths, and the cheering sounded tinny inside the vast room. The soundtrack quickly turned salty, with the songs “How You Like Me Now?” by The Heavy, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
Obama, however, sounded as idealistic at the end of his last campaign as at the beginning of his first.
“The task of perfecting our union moves forward,” he began. “It moves forward because you reaffirmed that has triumphed over war and Depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope. The belief that while each of us will pursue our individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise and fall together as one nation.”
Obama’s supporters had booed every time Romney won a three-electoral vote Red state, such as Wyoming or Montana. During Romney’s concession speech, the crowd jeered when the loser said, wistfully, “I so wish I could have led this nation.”
But Obama was gracious to the man he had just defeated, and to the 54 million Americans who had voted for his opponent.
“We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country so much,” he said.
“I look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about how we can move the country forward the next four years.”
Obama got his biggest applause when he addressed climate change -- an issue he’d avoided during the campaign, until pressed by an MTV veejay, but that may have guaranteed his election, or at least increased his margin of victory.
“We want our children to grow up in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” he said.
And when he ended, he didn’t sound much different than he’d sounded two miles and 17 years away, talking about a renewal of morality in politics. Or than he’d sounded in 2004, in Boston, talking about American unity, as he gave the greatest convention speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold.”
“We’re not as divided as our politics suggest,” Obama said. “We’re not as cynical as our politics believe. We remain more than a collection of Red states and Blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.”
And then a storm of glittering confetti exploded in front of the stage, obscuring a man whose career had come full circle.