People were drunk, that much was clear. On the top floor of a bar in Dupont Circle, a crowd of Obama volunteers and administration staffers enjoyed heavily discounted drinks and a rallying vibe. Many had spent that day in Virginia on one last canvassing effort, and were grateful for $2 PBRs. It was a loud crowd getting louder, and all eyes were on CNN. But at about 11pm, the other side of the room roared—MSNBC had apparently called the race for Obama. The entire crowd exploded, a fireworks display of fist pumps and bro hugs, but still our attention stayed on Wolf Blitzer’s fuzz-beard. It may have been over, but we had waited all evening for CNN’s call and CNN’s call was what we wanted. Almost immediately, there it was, Wolf intoning a new projection and that familiar smashing news-alert sound. The crowd crouched down in anticipation, like the water pulling away from the beach before a wave. But, no: Oregon, it was just Oregon. The crowd deflated a bit, chuckling—and then that breaking-news audio blasted again. The crowd tensed, wanting this moment, dying for this moment, but, oh, goddamn it: Missouri, for Romney. The crowd laughed, the tension shattered, and I worried if when CNN finally told us what we already knew, it would be thrilling but muted, like winning the World Series in the other team’s ballpark.
I was wrong. Those worries—like so many past worries, from Rick Perry’s cowboy machismo in Iowa to a dispiriting debate in Denver—melted away in the ecstasy and elation with the re-election of President Obama. And yet the joy didn’t feel as euphoric as it did in 2008. It felt colored more by relief, which somehow felt all the more rewarding: If Obama’s election taught us that anything was possible, his re-election was the cement that these things could last. Sure, much of the rapture came from a schadenfreude overdose after fending off Mitt Romney’ efforts to cravenly bullshit his way into power. But I doubt we’ll ever think of that strange and weightless man again. No, the night’s focus was on bold progressivism’s renaissance, not just in the presidential race, but in congressional contests and statewide measures as well. This campaign was a referendum on basic liberal thought, the concept that government should take action to protect the vulnerable—and we won. If we had lost, 2008 would have seemed a fad, an outcome of flukish happenstance later colored by failure, and a warning to anyone who sought to calibrate government as a tool to help others. Tuesday’s lesson for Washington was clear: politicians can take purposeful, courageous strides on our behalf and be rewarded for it.
This was the thinking as DC’s government workers returned to our desks, shaking off the nerves of the last few weeks, comforted by the electorate’s approval of our purpose. The tense campaign-season pause was over, a pause that, to borrow from Jennifer Egan, felt like maybe the song was about to end—and when it didn’t, in flooded soothing relief. And in that relief comes the knowledge that there’s tangible, literal work to be done. In the wake of a campaign about worldly things, the actual realization of those ideals will come down to offices like mine, with larger-than-life photos of the president and vice president on the walls but inboxes full of tiny bureaucratic drudgery. Inside office buildings tourists take pictures of, we whirl the machinery of government forward, inch by inch. I imagine offices everywhere have their frustrations with incremental tasks, and government is no different. But what can make the difference for us is the quadrennial reminder that it matters, a new waft of optimism prompting energy to the duty at hand. After sitting on edge for months, wondering if the country would abandon its support of a purposive government, this relief keeps us going. Frankly, it’s still vaguely weird whenever American culture opts for complex reason over mush-headed cretinism and while that result shocked four years ago, now it just offers a steadying comfort. The feeling for anyone who’s been anxious and unsettled for months reminds me of when you’re walking down the sidewalk and don’t realize you’ve reached the curb—for that brief moment, that step is a terrifying, confusing parallel universe where everything you believe to be true about the physical world is gone. But then your foot lands, and the street is there, and you’re OK. And you keep walking.
Life is all about those disorienting pauses, those moments that make it clear we’re still figuring things out. Perhaps in that way does the Obama story best mirror the American story: doubt and insufficiency are permanent fixtures, and all we can do is keep working on ourselves. Neither as a nation nor as individuals are we ever finished. There’s no perfect ending, no denouement big enough to solve every mystery. The lesson isn’t to let go of the helplessness, but to assert some control over the process. It would be hubristic to think winning this election puts evil in checkmate, with shambolic forces on Washington offering brand-new opportunities for failure every day. But it’s helpful to recall the difference between the White House’s ruinous strategy during the debt-ceiling crisis last summer and its success a few months later in forcing the GOP to extend a payroll tax cut. In the earlier crisis, Obama fixated on negotiations with congressional leaders practically vibrating with obstinate hostility; in the latter, he left D.C. and sold his ideas directly to us. In the confusing darkness of national politics, Obama will be wise to continue handing out the Maglites to the people.
After all, this is our time. There was a hilarious, thumb-brained Politico analysis before the election that said if Obama won “he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites… A broad mandate this is not.” Please. The rural white male hegemony is over. And the fact that young voters incredibly made up a bigger percentage of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008 is proof that we’re just about ready to take things from here. (I’m still going to say “we” even though by the next presidential election, I’ll no longer be in the 18-29 sub-group, which I guess will make me a middle-aged white guy? Jesus Christ, let’s move on.) The ersatz rural-white leadership of our national direction will surely demand a few more minutes on stage, taking their time to tell and re-tell us how we should live, I’m sure. It’s merely unappetizing now, but in the face of demographic tectonic shifts, they’ll soon become mere seditious malcontents, delaying and delaying their long-overdue epistemic closure. But for most of the country—especially those of us who toil in government, believing to the bitter end that it is a place where people can come together to do good—the time for being frozen in uneasy suspension, waiting to see which side would want this win more, is over. We beat the voter suppression, the barrage of ads, the ignorance and the mean-spiritedness and the selfishness. Feels nice.
Outside that Dupont Circle bar late Tuesday night, traffic had snarled as boisterous revelers in button-laden jackets crossed the street ignoring all crosswalks. Cabs had flocked to the area, and through an open passenger door I could hear one packed backseat scream “the White House!” as they wedged themselves in. People were sprinting in all directions, toward the White House, or the next bar, or another party, someplace, anyplace where they could find another ecstatic face to serve as a mirror to their own screaming. They hurried through the cold, practically leaving vapor trails of their campaign stress behind them, enraptured by victory. Waiting for the light at the corner, I pulled out my phone and idly checked Twitter. A national reporter had just tweeted the news that people were still in line, determined to vote, in highly Democratic Miami-Dade County. It was 2 am, seven hours after polls had closed and three hours after CNN called the victory. A guy ran by with an American flag, and the light turned green.