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Four months later, on November 4, 2008, I cast my vote for Barack. The two of us went early that morning to our polling place, which was in the gym at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, just a few blocks away from our house in Chicago. We brought Sasha and Malia along, both of them dressed and ready for school. Even on Election Day—maybe especially on Election Day—I thought school would be a good idea. School was routine. School was comfort. As we walked past banks of photographers and TV cameras to get into the gym, as people around us talked about the historic nature of everything, I was happy to have the lunch boxes packed.
What kind of day would this be? It would be a long day. Beyond that, none of us knew.
Barack, as he always is on high-pressure days, was more easygoing than ever. He greeted the poll workers, picked up his ballot, and shook hands with anyone he encountered, appearing relaxed. It made sense, I guess. This whole endeavor was about to be out of his hands.
We stood shoulder to shoulder at our voting stations while the girls leaned in closely to watch what each of us was doing.
I’d voted for Barack many times before, in primaries and general elections, in state-level and national races, and this trip to the polls felt no different. Voting, for me, was a habit, a healthy ritual to be done conscientiously and at every opportunity. My parents had taken me to the polls as a kid, and I’d made a practice of bringing Sasha and Malia with me anytime I could, hoping to reinforce both the ease and the importance of the act.
My husband’s career had allowed me to witness the machinations of politics and power up close. I’d seen how just a handful of votes in every precinct could mean the difference not just between one candidate and another but between one value system and the next. If a few people stayed home in each neighborhood, it could determine what our kids learned in schools, which health-care options we had available, or whether or not we sent our troops to war. Voting was both simple and incredibly effective.
That day, I stared for a few extra seconds at the little oblong bubble next to my husband’s name for president of the United States. After almost twenty-one months of campaigning, attacks, and exhaustion, this was it—the last thing I needed to do.
Barack glanced my way and laughed. “You still trying to make up your mind?” he said. “Need a little more time?”
Were it not for the anxiety, an Election Day might qualify as a kind of mini-vacation, a surreal pause between everything that’s happened and whatever lies ahead. You’ve leaped but you haven’t landed. You can’t know yet how the future’s going to feel. After months of everything going too fast, time slows to an agonizing crawl. Back at home, I played hostess to family and friends who stopped by our house to make small talk and help pass the hours.
At some point that morning, Barack went off to play basketball with Craig and some friends at a nearby gym, which had become a kind of Election Day custom. Barack loved nothing more than a strenuous thrash-or-be-thrashed game of basketball to settle his nerves.
“Just don’t let anyone break his nose,” I said to Craig as the two of them walked out the door. “He’s gotta be on TV later, you know.”
“Way to make me responsible for everything,” Craig said back, as only a brother can. And then they were gone.
If you believed the polls, it appeared that Barack was poised to win, but I also knew he’d been working on two possible speeches for the night ahead—one for a victory, another for a concession. By now we understood enough about politics and polling to take nothing for granted. We knew of the phenomenon called the Bradley effect, named for an African American candidate, Tom Bradley, who’d run for governor in California in the early 1980s. While the polls had consistently shown Bradley leading, he’d lost on Election Day, surprising everyone and supplying the world with a bigger lesson about bigotry, as the pattern repeated itself for years to come in different high-profile races involving black candidates around the country. The theory was that when it came to minority candidates, voters often hid their prejudice from pollsters, expressing it only from the privacy of the voting booth.
Throughout the campaign, I’d asked myself over and over whether America was really ready to elect a black president, whether the country was in a strong enough place to see beyond race and move past prejudice. Finally, we were about to find out.
As a whole, the general election had been less grueling than the pitched battle of the primaries. John McCain had done himself no favors by choosing Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Inexperienced and unprepared, she’d quickly become a national punch line. And then, in mid-September, the news had turned disastrous. The U.S. economy began to spiral out of control when Lehman Brothers, one of the country’s largest investment banks, abruptly went belly-up. The titans of Wall Street, the world now realized, had spent years racking up profits on the backs of junk home loans. Stocks plummeted. Credit markets froze. Retirement funds vanished.
Barack was the right person for this moment in history, for a job that was never going to be easy but that had grown, thanks to the financial crisis, exponentially more difficult. I’d been trumpeting it for more than a year and a half now, all over America: My husband was calm and prepared. Complexity didn’t scare him. He had a brain capable of sorting through every intricacy. I was biased, of course, and personally I still would’ve been content to lose the election and reclaim some version of our old lives, but I also was feeling that as a country we truly needed his help. It was time to stop thinking about something as arbitrary as skin color. We’d be foolish at this point not to put him in office. Still, he would inherit a mess.
As evening drew closer, I felt my fingers getting numb, a nervous tingle running through my body. I couldn’t really eat. I lost interest in making small talk with my mom or the friends who’d stopped in. At some point, I went upstairs just to catch a moment to myself.
Barack, it turned out, had retreated up there as well, clearly needing a moment of his own.
I found him sitting at his desk, looking over the text of his victory speech in the little book-strewn office adjacent to our bedroom—his Hole. I walked over and began rubbing his shoulders.
“You doing okay?” I said.
“Nope.” He smiled up at me, as if trying to prove it was true. Only a day earlier, we’d received news that Toot, Barack’s eighty-six-year-old grandmother, had passed away in Hawaii after being sick for months with cancer. Knowing he’d missed saying good-bye to his mother, Barack had made a point of seeing Toot. We’d taken the kids to visit her late that summer, and he’d gone again on his own ten days earlier, stepping off the campaign trail for a day to sit and hold her hand. It occurred to me what a sad thing this was. Barack had lost his mother at the very genesis of his political career, two months after announcing his run for state senate. Now, as he reached its apex, his grandmother wouldn’t be around to witness it. The people who’d raised him were gone.
“I’m proud of you, no matter what happens,” I said. “You’ve done so much good.”
He lifted himself out of his seat and put his arms around me. “So have you,” he said, pulling me close. “We’ve both done all right.”
All I could think about was everything he still had to carry.
After a family dinner at home, we got dressed up and rode downtown to watch election returns with a small group of friends and family in a suite the campaign had rented for us at the Hyatt Regency. The campaign staff had cloistered itself in a different area of the hotel, trying to give us some privacy. Joe and Jill Biden had their own suite for friends and family across the hall.
The first results came in around 6:00 p.m. central time, with Kentucky going for McCain and Vermont for Barack. Then West Virginia went for McCain, and after that so did South Carolina. My confidence lurched a little, though none of this was a surprise. According to Axe and Plouffe, who were buzzing in and out of the room, announcing what felt like every sliver of information they received, everything was unfolding as predicted. Though the updates were generally positive, the political chatter was the last thing I wanted to hear. We had no control over anything anyway, so what was the point? We’d leaped and now, one way or another, we’d land. We could see on TV that thousands of people were already amassing at Grant Park, a mile or so away on the lakefront, where election coverage was being broadcast on Jumbotron screens and where Barack would later show up to deliver one of his two speeches. There were police officers stationed on practically every corner, Coast Guard boats patrolling the lake, helicopters overhead. All of Chicago, it seemed, was holding its breath, waiting for news.
Connecticut went for Barack. Then New Hampshire went for Barack. So did Massachusetts, Maine, Delaware, and D.C. When Illinois was called for Barack, we could hear cars honking and shouts of excitement from the streets below. I found a chair near the door to the suite and sat alone, surveying the scene in front of me. The room had gone mostly quiet now, the political team’s nervous updates having given way to an expectant, almost sober kind of calm. To my right, the girls sat in their red and black dresses on a couch, and to my left, Barack, his suit coat draped elsewhere in the room, had taken a seat on another couch next to my mother, who was dressed that evening in an elegant black suit and silver earrings.
“Are you ready for this, Grandma?” I heard Barack say to her.
Never one to overemote, my mom just gave him a sideways look and shrugged, causing them both to smile. Later, though, she’d describe to me how overcome she’d felt right then, struck just as I’d been by his vulnerability. America had come to see Barack as self-assured and powerful, but my mother also recognized the gravity of the passage, the loneliness of the job ahead. Here was this man who no longer had a father or a mother, about to be elected the leader of the free world.
The next time I looked over, I saw that she and Barack were holding hands.
It was exactly ten o’clock when the networks began to flash pictures of my smiling husband, declaring that Barack Hussein Obama would become the forty-fourth president of the United States. We all leaped to our feet and started instinctively to yell. Our campaign staff streamed into the room, as did the Bidens, everyone hurling themselves from one hug to the next. It was surreal. I felt as if I’d been lifted out of my own body, only watching myself react.
He had done it. We’d all done it. It hardly seemed possible, but the victory was sound.
Here is where I felt like our family got launched out of a cannon and into some strange underwater universe. Things felt slow and aqueous and slightly distorted, even if we were moving quickly and with precise guidance, waved by Secret Service agents into a freight elevator, hustled out a back exit at the hotel and into a waiting SUV. Did I breathe the air as we stepped outside? Did I thank the person who held open the door as we passed by? Was I smiling? I don’t know. It was as if I were still trying to frog-kick my way back to reality. Some of this, I assumed, had to be fatigue. It had been, as predicted, a very long day. I could see the grogginess in the girls’ faces. I’d prepared them for this next part of the night, explaining that whether Dad won or lost, we were going to have a big noisy celebration in a park.
We were gliding now in a police-escorted motorcade along Lake Shore Drive, speeding south toward Grant Park. I’d traveled this same road hundreds of times in my life, from my bus rides home from Whitney Young to the predawn drives to the gym. This was my city, as familiar to me as a place could be, and yet that night it felt different, transformed into something strangely quiet. It was as if we were suspended in time and space, a little like a dream.
Malia had been peering out the window of the SUV, taking it all in.
“Daddy,” she said, sounding almost apologetic. “There’s no one on the road. I don’t think anyone’s coming to your celebration.”
Barack and I looked at each other and started to laugh. It was then that we realized that ours were the only cars on the street. Barack was now president-elect. The Secret Service had cleared everything out, shutting down an entire section of Lake Shore Drive, blocking every intersection along the route—a standard precaution for a president, we’d soon learn. But for us, it was new.
Everything was new.
I put an arm around Malia. “The people are already there, sweetie,” I said. “Don’t worry, they’re waiting for us.”
And they were. More than 200,000 people had crammed into the park to see us. We could hear an expectant hum as we exited the vehicle and were ushered into a set of white tents that had been put up at the front of the park, forming a tunnel that led to the stage. A group of friends and family had gathered there to greet us, only now, due to Secret Service protocol, they were cordoned off behind a rope. Barack put his arm around me, almost as if to make sure I was still there.
We walked out onto the stage a few minutes later, the four of us, me holding Malia’s hand and Barack holding Sasha’s. I saw a lot of things at once. I saw that a wall of thick, bulletproof glass had been erected around the stage. I saw an ocean of people, many of them waving little American flags. My brain could process none of it. It all felt too big.
I remember little of Barack’s speech that night. Sasha, Malia, and I watched him from the wings as he said his words, surrounded by those glass shields and by our city and by the comfort of more than sixty-nine million votes. What stays with me is that sense of comfort, the unusual calmness of that unusually warm November night by the lake in Chicago. After so many months of going to high-energy campaign rallies with crowds deliberately whipped up into a shouting, chanting frenzy, the atmosphere in Grant Park was different. We were standing before a giant, jubilant mass of Americans who were also palpably reflective. What I heard was relative silence. It seemed almost as if I could make out every face in the crowd. There were tears in many eyes.
Maybe the calmness was something I imagined, or maybe for all of us, it was just a product of the late hour. It was almost midnight, after all. And everyone had been waiting. We’d been waiting a long, long time.
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