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US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in Washington DC. (Charles Dharapak, AFP)
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Pieter du Toit attended former US president Barack Obama's victory speech in Chicago exactly a decade ago. As Americans vote in the midterm elections, much has changed from the high of that day in 2008.
A decade ago to the day America was a vibrant, optimistic and energetic society.
On November 5, 2008 Chicago was abuzz after the night before's massive party in Grant Park on the lakeshore, where Barack Obama delivered his victory speech in front of more than 200 000 people.
Chicagoans had one enormous hangover. Obama, exuding confidence and decency, intelligence and humility, spoke of America's promise and of what he sought to achieve as the country's 44th head of state. He acknowledged the grass roots movement that propelled him to victory and told the crowd – which included colleague Mandy Wiener and me – that the US wasn't a collection of red or blue states but that the country is the "United States of America". He delivered a speech worthy of a statesman and attempted to bridge division.
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Even for a South African just getting a glimpse into a chapter of the grand project that is American democracy it was inspirational. The day before the election we attended the campaigns' last rallies, both close to Washington, D.C., and even though Republican John McCain's was full of partisan rhetoric and full-frontal attacks on Obama it wasn't anything near the nastiness we tend to see these days. (One McCain supporter carried a poster that read: "What's Barack cookin'? It's socialism pie!")
On Tuesday Americans will go to the polls to cast their ballots in the country's midterm elections. The elections are held to elect new congressmen, senators and governors and is separate from the presidential election. But unlike 2008, when the contest between Democrats and Republicans was also fierce, it's hard to see the divide between the parties being bridged anytime soon.
Before Obama's victory speech, walking on Michigan Avenue, even Republicans were grudgingly excited about the prospect of an Obama victory. Standing in queues buying burritos and hotdogs supporters and opponents of Obama spoke with respect of the then-candidate while it was clear all took great pride in the state of American democracy. GOPers we spoke to seemed to understand the gravity of the political moment and were later rewarded in Obama's speech, which besides the focus on renewal was heavily slanted to unity and reconciliation.
After having waded through security manned by secret service personnel we proceeded to the media pen where a strong international contingent was shunted to one side, away from the pavilions occupied by CBS, NBC and the other networks. But the evening's events were directed by CNN and Wolf Blitzer, with loud cheers erupting from the massive crowd with every state called blue by the veteran broadcaster. When the final calls were made shortly after polling stations on the west coast closed Blitzer, on big screens all around Grant Park, said: "CNN now projects Barack Obama will be the next US president… the little known senator from Illinois who appeared from nowhere…"
After Obama's speech we hustled our way into the VIP area, behind one of the broadcasting tents, where we met Soledad O'Brien, who was then working as a presenter for CNN. An ecstatic Oprah Winfrey, one of Obama's biggest supporters, was too emotional to speak and had to be consoled by friends. On the way out we bumped into Rahm Emanuel, who the US press was tipping to become Obama's chief of staff. He was carrying one of his sleeping children over his shoulder when I approached and asked him about the pending Obama administration. He was polite in brushing me off – no chance a South African reporter was going to confirm a story the New York Times had been struggling to!
Shortly after 01:00 on November 5, 2008 newspaper sellers were on street corners with fresh copies of the Chicago Tribune with a picture of a smiling Obama on the front page and a headline which said simply: "It's Obama!" Council workers were also busy hanging banners on lampposts and across streets congratulating Chicago's own, Obama, on his victory while everywhere people were wearing t-shirts with the famous slogan of "Yes we can!"
America on 4, 5 and 6 November 2008, exactly a decade ago, was an open, optimistic and lively country. It was a country tired of the missteps and blunders of the previous administration.
The America of 4, 5 and 6 November 2018, a decade on, is an irritable, angry and insular place. It is a country that seemingly doesn't want to be part of global solutions and one whose politics is based on fear and division.
The midterm elections on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning will show whether or not that is changing.
- Pieter du Toit is News24's assistant editor for in-depth news.
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