As Election Day 2008 approached, if you were an urban organic kale farmer, a crochet enthusiast or a vaudevillian with a new song to sing, and you wanted to support Barack Obama for president, you were in luck.
New York streets were crowded with “Walks for Change,” “Bike4Barack” groups, “Karaoke We Can Believe In” sing-alongs, “Get Out the Laughs and Votes” comedy shows and “Art for Change” auctions. The days leading up to the election saw Pasties for Peace, a Cowboys for Barack Wild West Burlesque Show Fundraiser, a Yo La Tengo fundraiser in Brooklyn, and a $1,000 fundraiser in Brooklyn featuring They Might Be Giants, which sold out.
Richie Fife, who helped lead the Obama effort in the run-up to the primary, estimated that 10,000 New Yorkers had contacted his office to get involved and that three times that many were out on the streets on their own initiative.
“It was an amazing thing,” Fife said, and he recalled going sometimes to five different events a night at various clubs, houses and downtown galleries. “It was like going to an AA meeting, except it was at a bar. You would have all these people stand up and say sort of sheepishly, ‘I’ve never been involved in politics but this time I am going to get involved.’ It was almost like a religion.”
The Urban Dictionary called them “The Obaminators” (or, for the females, “Obaminatrixes”) and despite a short lifetime of political ignorance, they helped create in 2007-08 a cultural flourishing tied to electoral politics the likes of which the dreary world of campaign canvassing had seldom seen. It is hard to remember now, but the summer and fall of 2008 in the city were as if an old-timey party convention had met Burning Man, and it seemed like all the political clubs in town had been swept aside in favor of open-mic nights from a generation of supposedly apathetic and skeptical hipsters. They passed around Obama speeches like they were bootlegged concert tapes. They carried around dog-eared copies of The Audacity of Hope. They quoted the 2004 convention address like it was poetry. Even supposedly blasé Williamsburg sported a Shepherd Fairy two-toned Obama poster, with the word “Progress” stenciled in bold font below.
But now the progress posters have begun to wither. A new poster, featuring the president’s image superimposed over Frankenstein’s monster’s face, has been spotted around the neighborhood. The Obama T-shirts—it was ultra-hip if you had a particularly faded one, maybe even one dating back to his Illinois state senate campaigns—have been turning up at Goodwill and at garage sales. The next election is going to be a tough one that invites a question few campaign officials thought would ever be asked: Can Obama afford to lose the hipsters? Or was the Obama love last year’s record, now destined to wind up in the used bins alongside so many Conor Oberst CDs?
“Everybody was taking the campaign’s energy and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a part of this obscure group of citizens, maybe we can raise $5,000 or $10,000 or whatever,” said novelist Amy Sohn, who held a couple of “Authors for Obama” fundraisers at downtown clubs featuring big-name writers such as Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. “At a certain point it was like wink-wink—there are some really bizarre fringe groups around.”
Sohn didn’t sound inclined to enlist her literary brethren again, comparing the Obama presidency to a first novelist who signs a big advance for their roman à clef.
“The best day is the day you get the advance, and then everyone wonders if you were worth it and whether or not you will earn the advance back, which of course, you probably won’t,” Sohn said. “Then you just become the person everyone paid too much for.”
As the election season approached, David Mahfouda, 29, tied an art project he had been working on to the Obama effort. “Mending Bee for Change,” enlisted dozens of supporters to help sew a 65-foot-by-130-foot American flag. He had been, he said, “not so political, and not so good at being informed,” but he saw that all of the rhetoric he had been hearing about restoring and repairing the country was “embodied by this living and breathing person.” Supporters sponsored stars and pieces of fabric, proceeds from which went to the Obama campaign. On election night, they braved the November cold and carried the flag from Bed-Stuy and over the Williamsburg Bridge and unfurled it in Union Square, meeting up with a group of a hundred or so people who had planned a pre-victory parade from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Mahfouda said that the flag is now in his living room and hasn’t been unfurled in more than a year. There are no immediate plans to bring it back out again for 2012.
“My intuitive response is that [Obama] hasn’t done a ton,” he said. “He hasn’t really rocked the boat too much.”
The parade was organized by a fellow Brooklynite, Julian Bennet Holmes, then only 17 and too young to actually vote for Obama. Besides the march, he phone-banked for the candidate during the primaries.
Now, he said, “I’ll vote for him, but I think that he could be a little tougher.”
Will there be a parade next time around?
“I haven’t really thought about it. A re-election campaign definitely won’t be as exciting.”
Kimberly Salib, the proprietor of Art Gotham in Soho, asked 300 artists to make a 12-inch-by-12-inch work of art inspired by the election, and auctioned the pieces off in the fall of 2008. She is not planning on trying again either.
“I kind of lost my passion for it all, to be honest with you,” she said. Since the election, she has been audited, and a shaky economy and lack of support for galleries like hers “has made me totally uninterested. I am no longer excited about doing these things.”
Among Obaminators, some moments from the run-up to the election live on memory. They are like this generation’s Woodstock, with those who remember what it was like outnumbering those who actually experienced it.
At a spring benefit at the Hope Lounge in Williamsburg, the hip-hop artist Toothpick performed, slam poetry was slammed and a stenciling station was set up outside. Nearly 300 people paid $10 to get in the door, all of which went to the campaign. Colette Whitney and James Johnson, a biracial married couple, performed what audience members remembered as a song-and-dance vaudevillian number that went, “We’re Ready/Right Now/To Fight For/Obama.”
“It was an exciting time,” recalled Ari Herstand, a singer-songwriter who performed there and who said that the long campaign’s numerous benefit concerts gave his music career a boost. “Everyone was totally amped up and energized. Spirits were high. There was this electrifying energy that night, and in general—everyone was excited to be a part of this movement.”
Asked if he expects a similarly full dance card this time around, Herstand replied, “No way.”
“That time we felt that Obama was more or less this outsider, this new young proponent for change, and he really engaged the younger, 20-something crowd,” he said. “And we felt that this was someone very different, someone that was kind of an intelligent, amicable leader that we could get behind.”
“It’s hard to get everyone to rally back around him this time. We see mild victories here and there, but it’s not the complete overhaul we were expecting.”
A number of new political organizations arose in the wake of the ’08 effort, trying to keep the spirit of the season alive for the next round of local elections and hopefully, they thought, beyond.
The New Kings Democrats formed in North Brooklyn with the task of electing Obama-like reformers to local offices. In 2010, they propelled one of their own to a post with the Brooklyn Democratic Party. The Barack Obama Democratic Club still stands in Washington Heights, and its founder, Mark Levine, said that it remains active heading into the 2012 season. But most of the organizing groups are a shell of what they were three years ago.
“You had people not from the political chattering class, and they all had different sorts of contacts, different social networks and professional networks, and that is what was utilized,” said one former campaign official. “And people going out and getting activities together created buzz, and one thing spawned another.”
Those inside and outside the Obama youth movement say that the conditions of 2008 are not replicable this time around, regardless of how the first three years of the Obama administration have gone. Then you had a generation of people weaned on the Bush years, war and the Patriot Act. When a thoughtful and cool biracial candidate came along, it was hard not to get swept up in it. A dash of naïveté, of the kind that believed “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” could be an actual policy platform, also helped.
“We were coming of age in middle school and high school in an era of fear and war,” said Gadi, the young artist behind the Hope Lounge benefit. “Some of us had come of age and were still dealing with it, and there weren’t many of us who knew what politics was like or what government was like or certainly what governing was. Everybody thought everything would be fixed the next day.”
The skill of the Obama team was a factor as well, using social media to turn the campaign into a political mixer for the post-collegiate set. They built on a lot of what the Howard Dean campaign had done in 2004. But whereas the Dean effort was mostly online, the Obama team used online organizing tools to get people to meet off-line.
“We didn’t have YouTube,” said Joe Trippi, Dean’s online organizing guru in 2004. “By the time Barack Obama started there were 100 million people watching stuff on YouTube.”
Trippi doesn’t anticipate a fall-off in excitement for the president among the younger set this time around.
“The newness and the excitement is gone, and it would be hard to rekindle just because of the historic nature of the election,” he said. “But it’s definitely still there. Talk to me if Michelle Bachmann is the Republican nominee; then you’ll see how fired up everyone will be.”
Still, as Trippi acknowledges, an incumbent is never as much fun. Plus, this time around, those who jumped on the bandwagon early say that they expect “the pros” to take over in 2012. The local elected officials who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries have come to toe the party line, and those who passed out homemade cookies at polling sites in early 2008 say they expect to be shunted to the side. Life interferes, too. One-time round-the-clock volunteers have to take full-time jobs. Children are born and parents become ill. Galleries get audited.
“The real power [of 2008] was giving people the tools to organize themselves, and then you had all of these self-forming groups,” Fife said. “It’s very different [now.] Now you have the power of being in the White House. It is going to take longer.”
Obama 2012 operatives say that they think that the lightning of 2008 can be bottled again. To those who say Obama hasn’t done much, they point to the health-care overhaul, the stimulus, the ending of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. They point to a summer organizing program that has 12,000 applicants for 1,700 slots. Wait until the Republicans settle on a nominee. See how you like the thought of Mitt Romney in the Oval Office, and see, young gallerist, if you aren’t organizing another auction in spite of yourself.
“In 2008 we had unprecedented grass-roots support from young people across the country,” said Clo Ewing, a campaign spokeswoman. “On college campuses and cities across the country they mobilized to elect President Obama, and we are seeing the same enthusiasm for 2012 evidenced by the thousands of young people who recently applied for our Summer Organizing program.”
Some are already gearing up again.
Matt Walters started volunteering for the campaign in April 2007, soon after Obama announced that he was running. By the fall, he was selling “Obamulkes,” Obama-inspired yarmulkes. He met his wife in the New York headquarters. He is ready to go back out on the trail again.
“I get the sense that people of this generation are still excited about the president,” he said. “He’s just not new anymore. He’s no longer a blank slate. He is going to have to run on his record, and he hasn’t even been campaigning. He’s been running the country and killing Osama bin Laden.”