As a teacher of history I studied many presidencies; therefore when I first saw the slate of candidates for the Democratic party, I was hesitant, viewing them through my historical lens. The leading candidates seemed to lack that traditional definition of experience, that seasoned definition of long years of elected public service, extensive foreign policy experience, established voting records. The only Democrats who actually fulfilled those traditional requirements were Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden and the voters quickly dismissed them.
So I had to sit back and rethink this primary and this election‚ but more importantly, to put on a new lens. Perhaps there was something different happening and maybe it could be even better. And so I began to read everything that I could find on Barack Obama. He caught my interest. I knew he was bright, had worked as both a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, had been in the state legislature and currently is a U.S. Senator. Those qualifications give me a different kind of experience but crucial for the people and policy work that needs to be done but more so, needs to be organized and led. Then I looked at his personal background; he truly brings an international identity and experience to the table, not only in his own multi-racial life but also in his studies at university. He seems to be a people person, very friendly, engaging and a listener. Not bad traits when you have to work in both the international and national community. He definitely knows how to organize people and in particular, the young voter. He has a keen wit so perhaps we will have more of those JFK-like news conferences.
I read the Audacity of Hope, his second book, and am reading his autobiography in my book club. I volunteered to canvas for him in New Hampshire since I am teaching at a university up there four days a week. When I reported to canvas door-to-door, I saw a number of young college age men and women organizing for the senator. When I asked them questions they knew what he stood for, what his platform is and could articulate his ideas and policies clearly. They knew his positions on health care, education, taxes, the economy and the war and pointed me to papers, memos, etc. that further explained them. But, more importantly, they were passionate; their enthusiasm for political change was exciting and solid.
I am so impressed by the grassroots organizing. They reminded me of myself over 40 years ago so excited about JFK, RFK, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wasn’t JFK even younger than Senator Obama and he, too, offered the country something new and different along with his youth and wit. I remember going door to door registering voters in Roxbury. There was a tenor in the country that empowered us as young people to get out there and get the votes, get involved, and make a difference. Many of us, of my generation, are still doing that! It was a participatory time and when JFK gave a news conference, we all gathered around as my parents had done during FDR’s fireside chats.
Obama is an articulate, bright, intelligent and exciting leader. I now see how his myriad of experiences, both personal and professional, truly prepare him for the job of the President today. He is a statesman. He is a thinker and appreciates history. He knows people and will work building those most necessary coalitions. His roots are part of him. What refreshing traits in this day and age!
He reflects on history and wants to write the next chapter as President of the United States. There has not been this kind of energy, excitement and interest in years. Look at the voter turnout. It is fantastic! People feel empowered that we can make a change in the course of our current history.
Many young people have joined Obama. Now, it is time for my generation to join them in setting the course for the next eight years.
Margaret Harris is a retired longtime history teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.