Even now, 10 years later, Sher Watts Spooner gets choked up.
She remembers dodging through a euphoric crowd of 350,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park to stand just 150 feet from the stage when President-elect Barack Obama appeared.
She remembers the tears, the fist pumps and the perfect strangers who hugged one another. And she remembers black, white and brown parents pausing to explain the significance of the moment to their children, as teenagers ran through the streets yelling, “Obama won! Obama won!” Even Mother Nature seemed to join in. The temperatures hovered in the 50s though it was a November night near Lake Michigan.
Yet she also remembers what followed: “The insults, the backstabbing and the lies” Obama faced during his two terms. The Republican lawmaker who yelled at him, “You lie!” How “Yes we can” segued into “Make America Great Again.” But ask Spooner if she’s turned pessimistic since that night, she offers a different answer.
“I don’t think in terms of optimism or pessimism,” says Spooner, a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. “I am more determined.”
The term “post-racial” is now used more as a punch line than a rallying cry. Hope and change have been replaced by tweets and tribalism. And millions of Americans with varying political beliefs may wonder if Obama’s election in 2008 was not the beginning of an era, but the end of a sense of optimism they may never experience again.
Even Obama has voiced his doubts.
“What if we were wrong?” Obama asked after the election of President Trump in 2016, according to a recent memoir by one of his closest aides. “Maybe we pushed too far. … Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
But talk to Obama supporters like Spooner and they say something else: What Obama started that night Trump cannot stop.
As America remembers Obama’s election 10 years ago this year, CNN talked to members of the Obama coalition, people who literally had a front-row seat to the beginning of his presidency, as well as those who study such turning points for a living.
They gave three reasons why they think that, while Trump is the President, Obama’s vision of America is still the future.
1: President Trump gives us hope
Shayne Lee is a sociologist, but he was forced to momentarily step outside his professional detachment that night in 2008 and soak in the meaning of Obama’s election. He sat in his house and said nothing for a while, trying to figure out what it meant.
“It was just surreal to me,” says Lee, who teaches at the University of Houston in Texas.
“To elect a president, the most visible symbol of what it means to be an American, for that person to be black and for this to happen less than 200 years after slavery – it still should not be overlooked by pessimistic people,” says Lee.
Obama symbolized a better future, a vision of hope and inclusivity, Lee says. That vision of America was memorably captured by the late historian Vincent Harding, who once described the United States as “a work in progress – a shadow on the wall of a multiracial, compassionate democracy that does not yet exist.”
President Trump actually gives Lee more hope that Obama’s vision of America will ultimately triumph.
Lee cites a sociological term to explain his point. He says his colleagues have what they call a “functionalist theory of deviance” – that when someone joins a group and violates its standards by raising hell, the interloper can unintentionally build solidarity among the other members as they close ranks and remind the interloper about the “the right way to be,” Lee says.
Trump has posed a test to American values, and Lee says he’s prepared to give Americans an “A-plus” for how they’ve responded.
He cites how aggressive the press has been in covering the Trump administration, including cases of corruption; the universal condemnation that greeted Trump’s comments that “some very fine people” marched alongside white supremacists last summer in Charlottesville; the massive Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration.
“I think people are charged up on various levels,” Lee says. “Trump has paid a price for his racism, and he may pay an even bigger price in the (midterm) elections. At every angle he’s facing the dissent of a nation that’s so powerful that he has to come up with terms like ‘fake news.’”
People who think Trump is going to wipe out everything Obama stood for are forgetting how much the country has changed, he says.
“This is the best time to be an American, based on our history and where we’ve been going. The Trump presidency, as much as what he does upsets me, shows how other people have so many mechanisms to express their anger. It’s inspiring.”
David Litt, a former Obama speechwriter, says polls have consistently shown that most Americans don’t agree with Trump’s governing philosophy. They don’t want to cut taxes on the rich and corporations; they want to keep Obamacare; they accept that climate change is real.
“American opinion is not on his side, and it’s less and less on his side as time goes on,” says Litt, author of “Thanks Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years.” “This is a President that most Americans didn’t vote for, and he’s pursuing policies that most Americans don’t want.”
Some people are even encouraged by displays of outrage directed at the Trump White House, such as officials being harangued or asked to leave restaurants. This public shunning has prompted a debate over civility, with some saying it’s gone too far.
But Eric Liu, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, is worried about people going too far in the other direction – and not caring enough to be angry any more.
One of the biggest warning signs of a failing democracy is not rage, Liu says, but cynicism.
“Cynicism is a state where you accept as normal a state of corruption and degradation and self-dealing in our politics and basically throw up your hands,” says Liu, who’s now an author and founder of Citizen University, a nonprofit group that teaches Americans from all political backgrounds how to cultivate civic power.
He says he prefers political disagreements to be civil but, “I’ll take rage over cynicism any day of the week,” because it shows people haven’t given up their belief that they can change their country.
“Civility is not the highest standard of democratic politics,” Liu says. “Justice is.”
2: ‘We ain’t what we was’
Here’s a favorite saying from one of Obama’s heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When King would encounter some disappointment that threatened to crush the morale of his followers, he would quote this popular expression from the black church tradition.
“We ain’t what we oughta’ be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
That’s another reason why some of those who support Obama are still optimistic: The United States might not be “what we want to be” in the Trump era, but they say it will never be what “we was.” No one can hit a rewind button on the demographic changes reshaping America, they say. The country is inexorably getting browner.
White racial tribalism is a sugar high, they say. To quote one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. … As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Lee says no leader can continue to rally Americans by telling them to fix their gaze in the rearview mirror.
“It could only work once in an election; it can’t work for four years when you govern,” Lee says of Trump’s penchant for evoking nostalgia for an earlier time.
The Trump administration may be led overwhelmingly by white men. But white men are no longer the default leaders in America because of Obama, says Litt, his former speechwriter.
“And I say that as a white man,” he says.
He points to the mushrooming number of women and people of color running for office. Even Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump offers a ray of hope, he says.
“One of the reasons that women and people of color didn’t get nominated for president before is that everyone used to think they could never be president,” Litt says. “Between Obama winning the presidency twice and Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote for the presidency, that argument no longer holds water.”
Litt, who was 24 when he became a White House speechwriter, didn’t hesitate when asked if he thought he would ever see a woman or another person of color in the Oval Office:
“Absolutely. No question.”
Some who look at other periods in American history, though, may question Litt’s optimism.
Here’s the alternative scenario for those who think Obama’s election in 2008 was the end of an era: They say democracy is fragile and can be corrupted. Demographic changes are overrated. A ruthless minority can hold onto power for years even though they’re outnumbered. Look at how long apartheid lasted in South Africa.
Many point to a dark period in US history that bears some uncomfortable parallels with the last 12 years.
It’s called “the nadir,” and it ran roughly from the end of Reconstruction – the country’s first attempt to build a multiracial democracy – to the early 20th century. This was the low point in race relations in post-Civil War America. White supremacist violence, voting restrictions and a racist Supreme Court obliterated many of the civil rights gains won during Reconstruction.
Some warn this could happen now. They say Republicans can deploy so-called “countermajoritiarian” tools like gerrymandering and a conservative-dominated Supreme Court to crush the racial progress embodied by Obama.
There are few historians who know how a racist backlash can destroy racial progress better than Richard White, author of the widely acclaimed, “The Republic For Which It Stands,” which examines how the rise of racism, political corruption and inequality destroyed Reconstruction.
One of the major reasons Reconstruction failed is that the politicians who pushed for black equality didn’t protect the right of blacks to vote, he says.
“Never underestimate the power of political violence and terror to undo political relations,” he says. “What cuts into the black vote is simply torturing and killing people. You read the accounts in the South of the Klan, and they’re terrorists. They come in and kill women and children. They torture people in front of their family. It’s a ruthlessness that is transparently violent, and it works.”
But some people overstate the similarities between the nadir and today’s political climate, he says. Huge battles over immigration, racism and wealth concentration marked both eras. But he says increased racial diversity among today’s citizens and political class might prevent a return to another nadir.
The key, he says, is protecting the right to vote. He says Democrats now recognize how critical that fight is; their counterparts who supported Reconstruction in the late 19th century didn’t realize it until they lost power.
“The United States is fundamentally committed to democracy, but my caveat is, democracy for who?” White says. “If democracy is going to work, it has to be available to everybody. What happened in the late 19th century is that it remained a democratic country, but – starting with the eradication of black suffrage and other types of voting laws – the number of people who could vote in the United States declined pretty dramatically between the 1870s and the 1920s.
“If we’re going to remain a democracy, the critical question is: Who gets to vote?”
3: He never said ‘Yes I can’
Another one might be: Why vote at all if it doesn’t make any difference?
One of the biggest impacts of Obama’s presidency is that he inspired millions of people who don’t normally get involved in politics to campaign and vote. Spooner, who wrote eloquently about her experience at Grant Park, says Obama’s campaign was the first she ever got involved in.
Obama convinced many of these people that ordinary Americans could change – and have changed – their country. It’s a theme he explored in what many consider his best speech, which he gave in 2015 in Selma, Alabama.
And it’s a belief embedded in his most famous slogan, “Yes we can.”
The key word, his supporters say, is “we.” They never saw Obama as a messiah who would end racism. Nor did he.
“He said over and over again that this is not about me. This is about us,” says Litt, his speechwriter. “Those of us who took him seriously tend to be very hopeful because we’re seeing these huge movements that are now demanding that we change the course we’re on under Donald Trump. Most Obama supporters understood that this is a long process.”
Yet some still haven’t absorbed Obama’s message, says Lee, the sociologist.
Obama’s critics say he was too accommodating to his opponents, that he should have been more radical, that he should have talked about race more. But they misunderstood who Obama was, Lee says.
Obama was not a civil rights leader taking his people to the Promised Land, Lee says.
“Liberals want what they want when they want it. They want you to take idealistic stances regardless of outcomes,” Lee says. “I always saw Obama as a shrewd pragmatist. He wants to win, and he understood how to do that. At the same, he didn’t let his ideas die.”
And he never saw winning as a solo effort, says Spooner, who also saw Obama give his farewell speech at Chicago’s McCormick Place not long after Trump was elected.
There wasn’t the delicious euphoria that ran through the crowd in 2008. But Obama’s words inspired Spooner so much that, unprompted, she sent me a portion of the speech.
“I guess I’m being sentimental,” she says, as she shared Obama’s words from that January night in 2017.
In the speech, Obama told dejected youths in the crowd to “grab a clipboard, gather some signatures, and run for office yourself” even if meant that sometimes they would lose.
“Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you,” Obama said. But he said that “more often than not, your faith in America will be confirmed.”
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
Spooner still believes. She keeps an autographed copy of Obama’s photo on the piano in her living room. When she thinks of the hope she felt that night in Grant Park 10 years ago, she doesn’t say, “Yes, we still can.”
Instead, she has her own personal slogan, born from that same night in Chicago:
“It lit a spark that will never die.”