Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Reason to Hope

Day to day, my life is organized around what happens here in Australia; my job, activities and some friends are here. Yet, living in Sydney, thousands of miles from the campaign trails, made me feel that the US presidential election had never been so important.

When you live in the US under an administration as incompetent as Bush's, you can complain about it with your friends and neighbors (especially in the bay area) communally. You're all in the same boat, but that boat is sinking. When you live as an American abroad, however, you have to take the heat from angry non-Americans who, in ways large and small, have also suffered over the last eight years. Their boat is sinking, but it's because of something that our boat did.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed every time 'Dubya' opened his mouth. I didn't vote for him and he doesn't represent me, but George W Bush and the negativity that surrounds him springs to mind when people from outside the US think of America and Americans.

I barely slept the night of November 4 after having stayed up late to watch early election coverage from the US. As we were going to bed, the polls were just opening and when we woke up and walked excitedly to work, the polls were closing and results were filtering in.

My Australian colleagues were just as interested in the US election as I was and our boss (American) generously allowed us to project MSNBC coverage on the wall all morning and afternoon as the results came in. MSNBC called states for either McCain or Obama with only tiny percentages of the precincts reporting, while the New York Times, whose website I refreshed every five minutes, was much more conservative.

Regardless of what you were watching though, Obama had a lead that only grew as the day wore on. The notion that a person of color would become president of the United States slowly dawned on America and the rest of the world. In a way, America had put its money where its mouth was; maybe anyone, regardless of skin color, gender, religion (or even ability in Sarah Palin's case) could in fact become president.

When it became clear beyond a doubt that Obama had won, MSNBC showed clips of the excited crowds at Rockefeller Center, or Election Center as NBC temporarily called it, young black college students crying with joy at Spellman College, the somber atmosphere at the Biltmore in Pheonix and the sea of people waiting to receive Obama himself in Chicago.

I actually felt a bit sorry for John McCain because his concession speech was so gracious. My sympathy for his camp waned, however, when his Arizona supporters booed mentions of Obama's win. I smiled when McCain thanked Todd and Sarah Palin, hopeful that she would be remembered as the butt of jokes on SNL and not as a serious political candidate.

The anticipation built as the cameras switched back to Grant Park in Chicago. At least one coworker and I got a little choked up when Obama took the stage with his family. I wonder if Sasha and Malia had any sense of how their father's career was shaping history and how their own lives would be effected in years to come.

I wanted him to dance down the walkway and celebrate his hard-fought victory. It had been two years of campaigning and traveling to Pennsylvania an indecent number of times and I felt that there was room for a moment of levity. Instead, Obama approached the podium with solemnity, probably relieved that he had won the respect of so many Americans, but humbled by the task ahead. The economy is in the tanks, we're still in Iraq and the pace of climate change isn't slowing. Perhaps a victory dance in the end zone wouldn't have been appropriate.

A week or so after the election I watched a short New York Times video describing the world's reaction to the US presidential election. Unsurprisingly, if you were to zoom out from a map of blue and red states, the rest of the world would be blue. Indeed, people interviewed for this video from Germany to China to Iran were excited that Obama had won and hopeful that their country's relations with the US would improve as a result.

I was most struck by the words of a young man from Kenya, where a national holiday was declared in honor of Obama's win. "I don't care that he is the first black president of the US," he said. "It matters that the white people [of America] were civilized enough to vote for this man." It fascinated me that the election could have such different significance for different people.

Australians are no exception in that they also are pleased with Obama's success and fortunately, their goodwill trickles down to expat Americans like me who call Australia (temporarily) home. My Aussie friend Kate confided, "I have good feelings for you Americans now."

My days of being embarrassed by George W Bush are numbered and I'm looking forward to being proud of my president. We Americans won't have to settle for a 'c' student at Yale who only found himself there because of his father's connections or even a veteran who graduated at the bottom of his class. We've chosen a candidate with brains, strength and character and can hold our heads a little higher now when introducing ourselves as Americans.

A week after the election I heard someone pessimistically saying that Americans' day to day lives wouldn't change immediately after Obama's inauguration. They'd still be concerned about losing their homes, filling their cars up with gas and putting food on the table. I disagreed with him, though, claiming that Americans' lives have already changed as a result of the election. We have a reason to hope.