Last night, along with 3000 other people, I went to San Francisco to watch President Obama speak. I have to admit that I’ve been feeling pretty down on Obama’s presidency recently, particularly after spending this past weekend in San Diego with a friend of mine who’s a federal public defender. She deals with a lot of immigration cases and says Obama has been worse on immigration than Bush, which is pretty scary. She said she plans to vote for Obama again but is not excited about it.
I had her stories in the back of my mind as I reached the Masonic Auditorium last night, but even just as I arrived, the energy of the crowd infected me. I couldn’t help but feel a bit more optimistic.
My optimism grew throughout the night, particularly as Oakland was showcased at this San Francisco event. Peggy Moore, California Political Director for Organizing for America, and a longtime Oakland LGBT activist, opened up the night with a rousing speech, which had everyone in the crowd shouting “I’m in” by the end of it.
Goapele, the incredibly talented Oakland born and raised R&B singer, performed later on in the night. She opened up with a song she had written about Obama and closed with the song she’s probably best known for, “Closer.” It was awesome to see the whole crowd engaged in her set, particularly a group of middle-aged women sitting near me who knew the words to most of her songs.
Besides the on-stage appearances, Oaklanders and East Bay residents were everywhere. Our Congresswoman Barbara Lee got some of the biggest applause of the night when Obama introduced her. Also in the house were our senator and assemblymember – Loni Hancock and Sandre Swanson. One of our supervisors, Keith Carson, sat directly behind me. And so many East Bay community leaders and activists were there – Esperanza from Oakland Rising, many East Bay Young Democrats, Cal Dems, people who had run for delegate in the 16th Assembly District, and so many more.
Being among so many East Bay residents made me feel more at home and more ready to listen to Obama with an open mind.
Somehow, despite how poorly my iPhone photos came out, I got to sit just a few rows away from the stage. I was surprised when Obama came out at just how close he was to me. I was even more surprised at how star struck I was. So yeah, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.
Overall, he gave a great speech. He was his funny, charming self, not afraid to poke fun at himself – like when he said he had fewer fans on Facebook than SpongeBob SquarePants. He was also serious, talking about the real achievements he had won – health care reform, ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, pulling troops out of Iraq – while also acknowledging there was more work to be done. Someone in front of me shouted “gay marriage” and Obama smiled, responding, yes, there is more work to be done.
He clearly knew his crowd. He spent a couple of minutes saying that he knew not everyone was happy with his presidency and that many people thought he could have done more. But he said that governing isn’t easy, especially in our messy democracy.
Obama said that many of his progressive constituents had said, well, if you could have just done it differently, you could have brought about more change. He said that there are thousands of people who think they’re political consultants (everyone laughed and many people around me murmured about how right that is). He drew more laughs when he said that some people argued if he had just done the health care fight a certain way, health care could have been passed in two months.
His speech was mostly reality based and inspiring, but there were parts of his speech that rang hollow to me. He talked for a while about education and how he had stopped cuts to education and made sure costs decreased so everyone could afford to go to college. The couple dozen high school students sitting in front of me cheered wildly. But I couldn’t even clap because though the federal government may be investing in education, the state government is making deep cuts and college tuition has greatly increased. I thought about how those students cheering would soon find out that to afford college, they’d need to take out huge loans, and even then, it might be a struggle to keep up with payments and living expenses.
Obama also talked about infrastructure – a topic he covers that usually excites and inspires me. He talked about high-speed rail and how when European residents come to America, we shouldn’t have to be embarrassed by the state of our rail system. I was tempted to shout at this point (as many people did at various points in his speech) – “why did you cut all funding?” Because in the most recent budget negotiations, the full $2.5 billion funding for high-speed rail was cut from the federal budget. Maybe one day it will be restored, but for now it just seemed disingenuous to get people so excited about the future of high-speed rail when there doesn’t seem to be a federal commitment to funding it.
And of course his talk of how our nation is built on immigrants and we need to accept and embrace immigration didn’t sit well with me, knowing that he’s continued punitive measures and deportation, which costs us money and does little to stop illegal immigration.
All of these notes drew plenty of applause from the crowd though so people at the event apparently weren’t as skeptical as I was.
Ultimately though, I left the speech inspired and feeling at least a bit better about Obama. One thing he said that I’ll keep turning back to when I’m frustrated with his inaction or back-pedaling is that everyone likes change in the abstract; change in the concrete is hard. On some fronts, I think Obama is doing his best, and even where he’s not, I think he has good intentions. It’s easy to complain about elected officials, but it’s important to recognize that leading and governing the country is difficult, more difficult probably than most of us could imagine.
After last night, I can firmly say, I’m in. I still need to work out what that means for me though. This time around, being in might just mean that I’ll vote for Obama and will spread the word among friends. There are a lot of important races in 2012 that will need financing and volunteers, and they won’t have as many resources as Obama so my time and money might be better spent there. Seeing the energy last night and knowing that people like Peggy Moore will be organizing for Obama makes me feel pretty good about the direction the campaign is heading in, and I look forward to re-electing Obama in 2012.