I've seen you at rallies cheering for the charismatic junior senator from Illinois. Overheard you in coffee shops discussing Barack Obama's performance at the presidential debates. Spoke with you about the prospects of the Democratic ticket while making our way across campus. And on the morning after this historic election, together we pondered the implications, and the possibilities, of this remarkable achievement.
Truth be told, I'm a little envious. When I cast my first vote in a presidential election, nearly 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan won the presidency, and I was on the wrong side of history. Today, you are on the cusp of what President-elect Obama rightly described as a "defining moment."
The election of 1980 gave birth to the Reagan Revolution: an era marked by rampant militarism, the rise of free market fundamentalism and an ideological attack on the social, economic and political gains of the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement. Today's divisive politics and economic calamity are, in large measure, the legacy of the Reagan years.
"Today, you are on the cusp of what President-elect Obama rightly described as a 'defining moment.'"
As a college student, I resisted Reagan's military build-up and challenged Reagan-era domestic policies that demonized organized labor and threatened the health and well-being of working people and the poor.
I attended teach-ins that documented the atrocities of Reagan's covert wars in Central America and Afghanistan. Debated Reaganomics with people twice my age. Read political analysis and commentary voraciously. And on more than a few occasions, I marched in the streets of New York City as part of the anti-nuclear movement.
Over the course of this long presidential campaign, you've been keeping busy as well. You've volunteered at Obama's campaign offices. Canvassed neighborhoods to help get out the vote. Used new communication tools and techniques -- social networking and video sharing sites, cell phones and text messages -- to mobilize support for your candidate.
Your commitment to Obama's campaign is evident, and your passion for his message for "change" is enthralling. But before both you and I get swept up in all of the excitement, we need to recognize a hard political fact: the real work for change has just begun.
Don't get me wrong. Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency is a watershed in American electoral politics. His oratory is certainly inspirational, and his formidable organizing skills forged a winning coalition. Even the most casual (or jaded) observer of electoral politics would have to admit that Obama ran one of the smartest, most disciplined campaigns in U.S. history.
"Before both you and I get swept up in all of the excitement, we need to recognize a hard political fact: the real work for change has just begun."
But Obama was also a beneficiary of events far beyond his campaign's control. Without putting too fine a point on it, any Republican candidate would have had a hard time succeeding in light of the Bush Administration's dismal record.
Of course, the McCain campaign didn't do itself any favors, either. Between his inflammatory attacks on Obama's character and his calamitous pick of a flawed and frightening running mate, John McCain was a shadow of his former self during the general election.
Finally, the economic meltdown put the ball squarely in Obama's and the Democrats' court. Exit polls indicate that Americans voted with their pocketbooks this year, and the Democratic Party benefited from the electorate's disdain with corporate welfare and supply-side economics.
Our task then, yours and mine, is to make certain that Barack Obama is as good as his word. Strike that. We have to be sure that Obama is better than his word.
Throughout this longest of presidential election cycles, Obama has turned his back on the progressive issues and voices that fueled his early success in the Democratic Primary. For instance, during the General Election, Obama's anti-war rhetoric seemed a distant memory. In debates and stump speeches, he sounded more hawkish than his pugnacious Republican rival.
"Left to his own devices, it is difficult to imagine Obama, or any politician for that matter, would willingly give up the trappings of the Imperial Presidency."
Equally troubling, Obama has been uncharacteristically quiet regarding his position on the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy, abuse of executive authority and disregard for the rule of law at home and abroad. Writing in The Guardian, Jack Balkin observed: "Barack Obama enters the White House with more constitutional and legal power than any president in U.S. history. One of his biggest problems will be figuring out what to do with it."
Left to his own devices, it is difficult to imagine Obama, or any politician for that matter, would willingly give up the trappings of the Imperial Presidency.
And if the transition period is any indication of things to come, Obama's administration is shaping up to be a classic example of the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
Surrounding himself with a gaggle of Clintonistas -- Rahm Emanuel, John Podesta, Madeleine Albright and, if the Washington rumor mill is to be believed, the former First Lady herself -- the Obama team is beginning to look a lot like the Clinton administration version 3.0.
For corporate Democrats and the power elite, this is precisely the sort of change they were looking for: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
But for the rest of us, the young people worried about the cost of college education and job opportunities, the working families struggling to keep food on the table and roofs over their heads, the veterans, the poor, the undocumented workers and countless others whose voices were marginalized during this historic election season, this is not the change we had envisioned.
That's where you and I come in. We've got to stay organized, work with the new administration to take up a substantive change agenda and, when necessary, keep the pressure on Obama to do the right thing.
"We have to be sure that Obama is better than his word."
It isn't going to be easy. Real change never is. But as radical historian Howard Zinn and civil rights leader Dr. Vincent Harding observed on election night, Obama's singular achievement is our historic opportunity.
You worked long and hard to get your candidate elected. You helped to make this moment happen. In doing so you helped us all to realize the audacity of hope. But this is not the end of the story -- not by a long shot.
Now is the time to get started on your next bold move.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org