- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

As he asked Americans to channel their hopes into his candidacy, Barack Obama declared, “This is our moment, this is our time.”

Now it’s his moment.

Mr. Obama spent more than 21 months with that message, insisting in a booming voice from Seattle to St. Petersburg that the election was not about him: “It’s not about me; it’s about you.”

He won the presidency in part by fulfilling that promise, to make everyday citizens feel like they were a part of a movement bound by hope and technology. His coalition of young people, suburban liberals, black voters and disenfranchised Republicans put their boots to the ground to help him become the nation’s first black president.

Those groups converge on Washington on Tuesday to witness history as the Democrat becomes president and gets to work tackling the nation’s challenges.

Geneva Clark, whose passion for her candidate was so fervent that a video of her jumping up and down at an Ohio rally was used by Republicans to portray Mr. Obama as nothing more than a celebrity, will be on hand for the inauguration.

“You never know what’s in a person’s heart, but the heart of the people was revealed November the 4th,” she told The Washington Times.

Many coming to the inauguration, especially those invited by Mr. Obama, were on board from the beginning, opting to gamble on his candidacy when it was the long shot.

They say nothing could keep them from witnessing the culmination of this journey, which spanned 54 primary season contests and more than a dozen battleground states, and captivated the world.

Mr. Obama characterized his win as “the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

“This is your victory,” he said on election night.

“I know you didn’t do this just to win an election, and I know you didn’t do it for me,” he said. “You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime.”

He promised a long road and a steep climb.

Tough times ahead

Obama supporters say they will be patient, recognizing he may have to compromise to make real change and that some of his promises can’t be implemented as quickly as he initially said.

“One piece of advice that I would give to him is that no matter what you are going through, to put God first,” said Edith Childs, the woman who came up with Mr. Obama’s “Fired up, ready to go” campaign chant.

“You consider your family next, and then the people as a whole next, and then when you tell us that you are going to do something then do it to the best of your ability and just do right by people,” she said. “If he’ll do those things, he’s going to be the best president we ever had.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said the moment when Mr. Obama becomes president on Tuesday will be meaningful in more ways than one.

“It means that a lot of the things we taught as teachers don’t ring as hollow, and the things we taught as parents have more truth and hope,” he said.

Mr. Clyburn said it’s important to reflect but noted “that time has long since passed.”

He said people need to realize that no matter what Mr. Obama promised, he’s “not going to be able to do it all.”

His advice for the new president is: Stay true.

“His instincts have been great so far; he should just stay true to his beliefs,” Mr. Clyburn said. “These are tough times, and his campaign surely gave people hope, and that is about all we’ve got to go on.”

Mr. Obama’s former colleagues in the Senate’s Democratic Caucus shared similar sentiments during his recent visit.

“We recognized we were spending time with him for an amazing moment of hope and optimism even though he faces challenges,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

History was made

Patrick Kennedy of La Porte, Ind., isn’t sure he’ll be able to keep his emotions in check when he sees Mr. Obama raise his hand to take the oath of office.

Holding a homemade “We have overcome” sign in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night, he was not shy as tears streamed down his face.

Mr. Kennedy, a white, 35-year-old history teacher at La Lumiere School, said there must be a time for reflection before Mr. Obama gets to work.

“Despite the odds that we’re facing, the adversity, it will still be a time that hope will ring again,” he said. “If the past is any indication, President Obama’s words will help inspire a group and be inclusive of those who didn’t vote for him.”

The school’s students will gather for the inauguration to discuss historical context as teachers share their own opinions about the incoming administration. Mr. Kennedy said he will ask the students, after Mr. Obama is sworn in, whether they view Mr. Obama in a different light.

Miss Clark, 47, a cable company worker from Cincinnati, said she almost passed out when she realized she had been invited to the inauguration after helping the campaign in battleground Ohio.

She said it is tough to contain her excitement and that she appreciates Mr. Obama’s continued push for community service far beyond the election.

“The things that I feel about him, I just hope I’m not wrong,” she said. “I feel so good about him way down deep in my spirit.”

Miss Clark said the inauguration carries more weight for her as a black woman who never knew her own father, but added that she is glad Mr. Obama never made race a central election issue.

“If nothing else, that’s what him being elected has shown me,” said Miss Clark, who served as a radio operator in the Navy. “There are a lot of good people who want to change and didn’t look at the color. They looked and felt his heart and his motivation and his desire.”

For Mrs. Childs, who at 60 hails from a different generation of black women, the day carries the weight of the entire civil rights movement.

“Next Tuesday when he is finished taking his oath, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I do know that none of this was done in vain,” she said. “When those old people that was beaten, and the dogs on them, and they were watered down with the hoses and beat with the billy clubs, none of that was done in vain. Because of their strong willingness to just stand up for what they believe in, that paved the path of this day to be realized.”

She said she always knew the nation eventually would have a black president, but “I never dreamed that I would live long enough to see this day.”

“I thought if I lived long enough to see it happen I would be too old to know what was happening,” she said.

But not so. The sprightly Mrs. Childs has even shared a stage with the man - and Oprah Winfrey.

Her “Fired up, ready to go” chant became a symbol of the movement the that junior senator from Illinois was building around his candidacy even when he was considered a long shot.

A battle royale

It all started in Iowa, a predominantly white state in which Mr. Obama grew a grass-roots organization he would later duplicate across the country.

He declared himself audacious, challenging the front-runner - former first lady and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - but returning to the Hawkeye State again and again to promise that he would turn the page on broken politics.

The Democratic battle had intrigue and drama, as eight candidates shared debate stages, cornfields and auditoriums to make their cases.

As Mr. Obama demonstrated fundraising prowess and a tech-savvy campaign staff; as his coalitions started to form, the crowds started growing.

He organized and pounded the pavement as staffers worked round-the-clock to build an Iowa organization.

“People are hungry for change,” Mr. Obama told an overflow crowd from the Smokey Row coffee shop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on July 4, 2007.

He said he aimed “to create a different spirit” in politics, and noted the thousands who had shown up for his larger rallies.

“When you look in these crowds, they are people from every walk of life … from every imaginable sector of our society,” he said. “It’s tempting to say they are just coming out for me because I’m just so terrific. … The reason people are showing up is they are hungry, they are desperate for change. They want a different kind of America, there’s a wind blowing out there.”

Charlie Comfort, 16, of Oskaloosa, ran home from the coffee shop that day excited to get to work for the Obama team, even though he was too young to vote.

His mother, Martha Comfort, thought Mrs. Clinton was a stronger voice who could be a leader on foreign policy. She became a caucus volunteer for Mrs. Clinton, while Charlie made more phone calls than any other Obama volunteer, dialing for votes in between homework, classes and checking up on the City Council.

Keith Comfort initially backed former Sen. John Edwards, but ended the season following in his son’s footsteps as an Obama supporter.

On Jan. 3, 2008, Mr. Obama declared his stunning Iowa caucus victory over seven other candidates as a “defining moment in our history.”

He said it would be remembered as “the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable,” a reference to Mrs. Clinton.

But a few days later, the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary did not end the fight between Mr. Obama and the one-time front-runner even as some of the candidates dropped out of the race.

Mr. Obama took to the podium for a concession speech despite having led in 17 polls before the primary, telling voters they should ignore a “chorus of cynics” who accused him of offering nothing more than “false hope.”

It was a jab at Mrs. Clinton, who had been suggesting after her third-place Iowa finish that Mr. Obama offered little more than words and that his powerful oratory could not fix the nation’s major problems.

In his speech, Mr. Obama said, “Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”

“In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope,” he said, leading the crowd in a chant of what would become his signature, “Yes we can.”

The concession speech that kicked off what was a brutal primary season stretching five more months inspired hip-hop star will.i.am to put the words to song.

The star-studded “Yes We Can” video ensured that, as Mr. Obama suggested in the speech, the three words would indeed ring “from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea.”

The Web video earned 15 million views on YouTube alone and later earned a Grammy Award.

But it also captured a feeling and brought young people further into the Obama world.

The Obama generation

Mr. Obama’s campaign team registered millions of new voters, many of them younger than 25, reaching out to them through the Internet as he appeared on comedy shows and nontraditional outlets such as MTV.

When Mr. Obama autographs items for children and teenagers, he usually adds a short inscription next to his name: “Dream big dreams.”

Charlie said he dedicated so many hours to helping Mr. Obama because he wanted to see the next president revamp the No Child Left Behind Act and bring troops home from Iraq.

“I don’t like most of anything that happened during the Bush administration, and that’s finally going to change,” he said.

Charlie has at least seven Obama T-shirts and still wears one to school each day, along with an Obama-Biden button. He likes the fact he was a part of history.

“I got to see an African-American elected president, and I helped him win,” he said recently.

Mrs. Comfort lauded her 16-year-old son for picking the winner early.

“I told him that if he got really good grades I would let him stay home on Inauguration Day,” she said.

That’s not likely to be a problem for Charlie.

He’s become such a regular at the Oskaloosa City Council that city leaders have invited him to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and he has started checking up on the school board as well.

If it sounds like the Iowa teen might have political ambitions, consider this: His “Charlie Comfort for President of the USA in 2032” site is already live on Facebook and boasts 50 members.

High school freshman Emily Guthrie, 14, started the Obamaettes last year to urge other teens from her suburban community in Austin, Texas, to get involved because of her motto: “What happens now matters then.”

Now that her work paid off and Mr. Obama will be president, she hopes to see him reverse the actions of President Bush, boost the economy so that when she’s ready to go to college she can afford it, and deliver his promise to change the bitter partisanship in government.

She said she wants to further the Obama message among her friends and family so he can achieve meaningful change.

“As a society, we have to back him up and be able to help him keep those promises,” she said. “We’ve got to be that pedestal to help him get to where he needs to be to get things to done.”

As many other teens have done with their parents, Emily turned her mother, Renee, toward Mr. Obama.

“This election changed our perspective on so many levels,” Mrs. Guthrie said. “We are so involved now in a way we never were before. He has that ability to inspire, to really speak to you and cut through the rhetoric.”

Even though Emily was too young to participate, the Texas primary on March 4 sparked her interest in civics.

She has joined the debate team, researching and arguing policy and current affairs, and is pursuing a summer program to shadow top female political leaders in Washington.

Instead of coming to the inauguration, Emily has taken up Mr. Obama’s call to community service and will be running a food drive at the high school for two weeks.

A party healed

Mrs. Comfort said she was disappointed after Mrs. Clinton failed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and worried that the party would be forever fractured.

“But the convention and her endorsement really brought everything together and started that healing,” she said, adding that she is glad Mrs. Clinton will be secretary of state.

In August, the Democrats gathered in Denver to formally nominate Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton’s blessing and the release of her delegates were key to uniting the party. The symbolism was not lost for the Democrats, who brought the former rivals together for their first public rally in Unity, N.H.

Delegates on the convention floor waved blue signs that said “Unity” on one side and either “Hillary” or “Obama” on the other.

To punctuate the idea, Mrs. Clinton urged the factions to come together.

“Whether you voted for me, or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose. We are on the same team, and none of us can sit on the sidelines,” she said, to earsplitting cheers. “This is a fight for the future. And it’s a fight we must win.”

In closing her speech, she added: “We don’t have a moment to lose or a vote to spare. Nothing less than the fate of our nation and the future of our children hang in the balance.”

Obama staffers - many who had spent months working to defeat Mrs. Clinton - watched the speech from behind the scenes and gave her their own standing ovation.

Though Republicans attempted to exploit divisions, the prolonged fight ultimately boosted the party, helping Democrats add thousands of voters to their ranks in every state, which proved pivotal in November.

The fiercely fought contests in North Carolina and Indiana in May are the best examples. Both states went for Mr. Obama on Election Day after decades of backing Republican nominees.

Every perspective

Mr. Obama also won with the help of Republicans who wanted change, or were fed up with the Bush administration.

In state after state, he drew independent voters and Republicans, a trend that culminated with a prominent endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

On election night and since then, he has made many moves to reach out to people who didn’t support him. In recent days, Mr. Obama has dined with conservative columnists and has promised to attend congressional Republican meetings to outline his economic agenda.

On Monday, he hosted a dinner honoring Sen. John McCain of Arizona, his Republican rival.

Patricia Moseley, a South Carolina Republican who knocked on doors for Mr. Obama during the primary and general election campaigns, said she is glad he is continuing to pull in multiple viewpoints when crafting policy.

“He has to continue to be open-minded to both sides,” she said.

She sees him as no different from the man she met Jan. 24, 2008, just before he won her state’s primary.

“I feel like it’s the same Barack Obama - that steady leader, that confident leader, but not cocky,” she said.

Miss Moseley saw firsthand the influence Mr. Obama had among the diverse students with whom she works as an administrator at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C.

She led a group of teenage volunteers on an Obama door-knocking project in a predominantly Republican neighborhood before the state’s primary and said recently that the youngsters view race differently than the older generations.

“I am so glad they saw this as a man who happens to be black, not to take away from the history, but that is such a powerful message,” she said. “Come January the 21st, for the younger generation this man is the president, not a black president, and that’s how they see him.”

She said the students learned that organizing and grass-roots work can make a difference.

“We helped our candidate, knocked on doors, really believed, and we helped elect a president of the United States,” Miss Moseley said.

Miss Clark of Ohio has high hopes for Mr. Obama.

“I’m not saying he’s going to be perfect, I’m sure he won’t be. He gets his opportunity to make mistakes and even to totally bomb it,” she said. “If he’s half the man I think he is, this is going to be so good, and if he’s all the man that I think he is, oh my god.”


After the confetti is cleared and revelers return home, Washington is preparing to welcome a new regime - younger staffers and an influx of Chicago political personalities, not to mention a vibrant family that many view as a symbol for improved race relations.

The city already has changed as Mr. Obama ventured beyond his temporary housing to enjoy a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl and to play basketball with some friends in town.

“Yes we can” signs dot the streets, citing Mr. Obama’s signature slogan to urge him to consider D.C. statehood.

The police department also has co-opted the phrase to urge an end to youth gun violence.

The president-elect is an inspiration in his hometown of Chicago. He has set about making Washington his new home, and said recently he hopes to help unify the city.

Eastern Market vendors each are selling their piece of history, from a romantic painting of Barack and Michelle Obama embracing to bobblehead dolls bearing the president-to-be’s likeness.

On a recent Sunday, a black woman bought a trinket for her granddaughter and told people around her she couldn’t resist: “It’s all just so inspiring.”

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