I remember election day 2008 as clear as the blue sky holding the bright sun on that warm November Day. I wore a light blue Obama shirt that read “Obama ’08” across the chest and had a white silhouette of the man whose ballot I had cast earlier that morning. I had gone home for the weekend so that I could vote in person. I didn’t want my ballot to get lost in the mail. It mattered that much to me.
That morning I waited with other people in a line that stretched around the building and down the block. Many of the people with whom I waited could already feel their grasp on their own American dream slipping away. A sapping of the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to avoid the impending economic catastrophe was written upon their faces. Many of the people I waited with were losing their homes, falling behind on their credit card payments, lacking healthcare, recently out of work and concerned with the quality of their children’s education and what that would mean to their ability to compete with an evermore interconnected world in which we lived.
Many of our fellow Americans knew they would likely lose it all in the weeks and months to come, yet on that day they held on to the hope that their vote mattered. That regardless of the dark days ahead, that their vote would elect their choice to guide us through the dark and back into the light. Some voted for John McCain, a majority voted for Barack Obama. The thing is, depressions are indiscriminate in who they affect. Everyone in that line suffered or knew someone who would suffer from the economic collapse in some way or another. Republicans, Democrats, Independents…we were all suffering, we had all lost jobs, and with those jobs, confidence in our societal standing and direction as to where we were going.
The one thing we could all hold on to that day was our ability to choose what direction we saw fit for the future of our country. The one common thread that tied us all together as Democrats, Independents, and Republicans was that we were all hoping for better days. So on that day we waited, patient and with hope, that our right to take part in that most basic, yet fundamental and necessary part of our democracy would bring better days. We waited because we knew that our vote would matter.
The reality, regardless of what hopes we held, was that things would get a lot worse before they even had the slightest semblance of improving. The economy was collapsing and would continue to do so for what seemed like an eternity. The future I had envisioned after college when I arrived 4 years earlier seemed to grow bleaker by the hour. Just 3 months prior to election day I had returned from doing an internship in the United States Senate that I thought would assuredly set me upon a path in public service the second I graduated from college. Yet I failed to read the writing on the wall or grasp the gravity of the depression that was coming.
Not I nor anyone else could have guessed during that shining summer what we would be facing in the course of a few short months. The economy lost over 8 million jobs between February 2008 and December 2009. It started relatively slow, with 86,000 lost in February, another 79,000 in March. By the time the November jobs report came out, the pace had picked up dramatically, with 769,000 jobs lost the month we cast our ballots.
Even with such despair falling upon a crestfallen nation I was still hopeful. I had hope that even though the challenges the country was facing seemed insurmountable, that we had chosen the right man for the job. I hoped that Obama’s mix of hopeful, unifying rhetoric grounded by his real world experiences and influenced by a realistic world view would give him the right mixture of leadership and temperament for a much sought after but highly undesirable job at the time he took office.
I appreciated the hopeful rhetoric about what could be a bright future, mixed with a blunt realism about the state of where the country was. There was no sugar coating the depths to which America had fallen, and Obama didn’t try to sweeten the truth. He spoke honestly about the scale of the challenges we faced, set realistic expectations for America’s recovery, promised nothing less than his best effort, and set forth with a remembrance of how far America had come. He reminded us in his inaugural address where we had been, asked more of us as citizens, and painted a brighter future than the turbulent times in which he spoke.
Eight years later, on the eve of another presidential election of great consequence, I would say that his words on the evening of the 2008 New Hampshire primary in which he lost have been affirmed, that, “In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.” The route between then and now has not always been linear. America has taken its lumps, progressed and regressed in fits and starts, but we are, by most measures, much better off than we were eight years ago.
By no means am I suggesting that things are better for everyone, we know that they are not. Everyone knows someone who is worse off today and can point to that one person or few people and say, you know what, things really have not gotten better. While that may be one person’s experience or the experience of someone that is close to them, their contention is anecdotal.
Much in the same way I cannot sit here and contend that everyone is better off now than in 2008 just because I am. I am one person in a country of over 300 million individuals, each with their own experiences and perspectives. One person, or even a small sampling of people, is not necessarily indicative of the health of an entire country. We cannot judge the success of someone responsible for the well-being of hundreds of millions of people on the stories of a few. Our country, and the outcomes of individual Americans, cannot be painted with a monolithic brush. However, that does not mean that we cannot gauge the performance of President Obama empirically.
So how can we properly judge the state of our nation and determine if we are better off now than we were eight years ago? What can we look at to say that, yes we are better off, or no, we’re not better off now than in 2008? I would say that the only true way is to look at the data in black and white. The following posts will lay out how much better off the country is as a whole today than in 2008 and the last post will explain why your vote matters so much on November 8, 2016.
On Tuesday, maybe more than ever in our lives, we have the starkest of choices between our two presidential candidates. There is no question that the fault between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is about as large of a span you can get between two candidates. Even in 2008 the gap between the divergent policies and paths that John McCain and Barack Obama presented to the American people was much closer together than those being presented in 2016.
I will take an entire post at the end of these to lay out as clearly as possible the choice we have to make on Tuesday, but as for right now, let’s take a look at the things we can quantify to know that the last eight years have been a success without question. If you ever questioned whether your vote matters, whether who we elect makes a difference in our lives, I hope these numbers make you realize that it does matter, that it all matters. That the reason we waited, patient and with hope, is that there is no such thing as false hope in the America we live.