© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
In 2008, I did something I'd never done before. No, I didn't start enjoying visits to the dentist. I didn't start wearing women's underwear either. [That began much earlier!] And I didn't stop dreaming about a date with Sigourney Weaver. What I did do, however, was to give money to a politician. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, I admit it. I actually gave a significant chunk of change to someone who was running for election. No one held a gun to my head. I did it willingly. And not only did I do it once, in the Democratic Primary election for the US Presidency, I did it again in the general election. So what was in it for me? Well, in return I got a signed photograph of Candidate Obama and his wife, Michelle, which I promptly stuck on my office wall, after having torn off the half containing him and replacing it with a picture of me!
The Democratic Party's Primary
In the US, the final candidates for the main parties for many elections are chosen via a series of primary votes. In the case of the Presidential Primaries, these culminate in each party's National Convention. For the Democrats, this was held in late August 2008, at which time my main man, Yo'bama, defeated Queen Hillary to become the Democratic candidate.
To vote in the US, one must have US citizenship, and I got mine in May of that year. By then, it was too late for me to register to vote in the primaries for my home state of Virginia. However, I was registered in time for the general election in November. [Unlike some states, when one registers to vote in Virginia, one need not give a party (or independent) affiliation.]
The Russian Connection
As the presidential campaign progressed, I got more interested in being involved beyond contributing money. And then, possibly by divine intervention, I got an email from a fellow member of the international hosting organization CouchSurfing.
Mikhail was born in Russia and had emigrated to the US with his family some years earlier. He was attending the University of North Carolina where he was majoring in Political Science. He had taken a year off from school and had gotten a job with an organization that had been hired by the Obama campaign. He had been assigned to the northern Virginia area for two months; however, he couldn't find an affordable furnished apartment in the area and contacted me to see if I could give him a place to stay until he found his own place.
After a few emails and a phone call, I decided that apart from both of us being immigrants who had just gotten citizenship, he and I were on "the same page" regarding the Presidential candidates, so I invited him for a long-term stay. Most days, he left early and returned very late. However, on several occasions, we did get to talk at length over a meal about how the campaign was going. It was interesting to get an "inside" picture.
In the last months of the campaign, Obama was positively rolling in cash contributions. So much so that he could afford to send many representatives right into the Republican heartland causing the Republicans to expend resources they could ill afford, to defend their own territory. As a direct result, after five weeks, Mikhail was reassigned to another area and he moved out.
The Local Office
The Obama campaign had an area office about three miles from my house, so I went there to offer my services as a volunteer. What they mostly wanted were people to phone voters or to go house-to-house. I was adamantly opposed to both those roles, and said so repeatedly. The campaign had set up a national database website, which tracked all known supporters and potential supporters across the country. With all the money that was pouring in, they could afford—and had—a very sophisticated system. I settled on a job scanning into the database bar-coded information from questionnaires filled out by the phone callers and doorknockers. So for several afternoons each week I sat in a back room doing data entry.
Each day for the five days after I signed up, I got a phone call from the local office asking me when I could "come in and make phone calls". The first few times I politely informed them that I had declined to do that kind of work, and they "promised faithfully to update their list so it wouldn't happen again." From the fourth call onwards, my replies were short to the point of being rude, until finally I said that if they didn't get their act together I'd consider going over to the McCain campaign. That seemed to fix the problem.
The local office consisted of several suites of rooms the use of which had been donated by a local business. Other businesses donated all the food and drinks consumed by us worker bees.
There were Three Young Ladies from Princeton
In the weeks leading up to the general election, the Obama campaign juggernaut picked up a lot of support, and people were falling over each other to volunteer.
Princeton University had a Democratic Party chapter on campus, and members were enthusiastic Obama supporters. However, New Jersey—Princeton's home state—was very likely to "go Obama", so they were looking for a neighboring "swing" state to which they could go and "make a difference". As the state of Virginia was "in play", they came here. [Virginia had last voted for a Democratic President in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson won.]
The local campaign office asked workers to provide housing for the Princeton students. I put my name on the list and was assigned three young women. They arrived on a Friday night and stayed two nights, and they knocked on a lot of doors. Each morning, I got up early to cook them a breakfast that would tide them over for the day, and we also ate together one night.
It was an absolute joy to have them around. They were smart, they had opinions that they could defend, and they were articulate. Unlike many Americans their own age, they didn't use the word like in every sentence. After their visit, I had the distinct impression there might yet be hope for the next generation!
Vote Early and Vote Often!
My life in the US started in Chicago, a city well known for "interesting" political activities, especially during the time of its great Democratic Mayor, Richard J. Daley. I first heard of the slogan "Vote Early and Vote Often" there.
In Virginia, voters can request to vote before Election Day if they have any one of a number of "hardships". As I would be working more than eight hours on voting day, I was eligible to vote the week before, and I did. And I was very glad as that meant I did not have to stand in a long line for hours in the rain, as did many people on Election Day.
The Big Day
On November 4th, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as required by the Constitution, the big day came. I reported to my local office at 7:30 am and received my marching orders. Throughout the morning, I was to deliver bottled water and Obama-related promotional materials to volunteers staffing the desks at various voting places in my home county. If electronic equipment that relayed back exit-poll information malfunctioned, I was to bring back paper records. And if it started raining—which it did—I was to deliver rainproof ponchos to the volunteers.
For about five hours, I made numerous trips to different areas. However, as the day progressed, more and more volunteer drivers showed up and there was nowhere near enough work for all of them. So I gave up my slot and helped in the office instead. One of the main tasks we'd been told to prepare for was that of picking up people without transport and taking them to their local voting place. However, I heard of no such requests all day.
The polls closed at 8 pm. Everyone in the office was upbeat and talking about attending a big function nearby; however, I decided that a hot shower and an early night were in order. Besides, the Presidential election results wouldn't be known until the next morning. [Apart from the Presidency, Virginia was choosing a Federal Senator for a 6-year term. The very popular and eloquent former Democratic Governor, Mark Warner, won that race handily.]
I was in bed by 10 pm and asleep by 10:01. What a day!
The Glow in the Aftermath
Two days after the election, I headed off to Japan for an extended business trip with some vacation days added as well. I flew to Tokyo and spent the night there in my favorite ryokan (inn) in Ueno Park. The next day, I boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and got a window seat. Soon after, an older gentleman boarded and sat next to me. He had some English-language magazines including one with a photo of President-elect Obama on the cover. He was a university professor who still taught in Japan and who had studied and taught for some years in the US.
We started talking about the election and I told him of my activities as a volunteer. Well, his face lit up, he stood up in the aisle, bowed towards me, and shook my hand vigorously, all the while saying "thank you". Later that trip and during subsequent trips abroad I got a similar reaction as people "welcomed the US back into the international community of nations". The damage done by George W. Bush and his team, to US prestige around the world, was starting to be repaired. Yes!
At the time, I gave Obama my support and I even invented a slogan, GoBama! However, he seems to have forgotten about me. He doesn't call and he doesn't write. My guess though is that he hasn't forgotten my contact information, and that he'll come looking for me again in time for the 2012 Presidential election.
A byproduct of my efforts is that I seem to be permanently on the Virginia and national Democratic Party mailing lists despite the fact that I am not a member of the Democratic Party, or any other party for that matter. I'm one of those independent types who have the audacity to vote on the merits of the individual candidate.
The US has fixed-term elections, which means that we know the Presidential election will always be on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years, and that the new President will be sworn in at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on the following January 20th. As such, the President-elect has about 10 weeks to put in place a transition team to get ready to take over the Executive Branch of Government. The President-elect and some of his team get to sit in on meetings at the White House and at various government agencies. They also start to vet and select their nominees for cabinet positions (which must be approved by the Senate). It seems to me that having 10 weeks to "get up to speed" before taking office in any country is not only useful, but also necessary. However, in many (most?) other countries it seems that the new leader is sworn in within days of winning the election. That is, they have next to no transition period, which I find very surprising.
So, now that President Obama's honeymoon is well and truly over, what do I think of his performance to date? I definitely think he was the right person for the job, and, frankly, I don't pay much attention to his ratings or the mainstream media. He certainly inherited some big messes and a few new crises have landed on his plate since the election. To be sure, he's made some missteps, but that's fine with me. No amount of preparation can get a President-elect completely ready for the job. He's a quick learner and he's not afraid to delegate to the good people with whom he's surrounded himself. And I am delighted that he can speak intelligently at length on any topic of substance. [When his predecessor was in office, I was constantly embarrassed by his lack of ability to talk "off the cuff". His supporters claimed that was fine with them because he spoke just like them. My response to that has always been that I think we should expect a lot more from a leader of the free world!]
Oh, by the way, as I was working for the campaign and "spreading the word", people kept asking me why I supported Obama. I looked them in the eye and very seriously said, "Because he and I have one very important thing in common. We're both in love with his wife!"