CHICAGO —Barack Obama was at his red-brick home on the South Side when the good news started reaching him early in the night. He was in the fold of his family when New Hampshire became the first swing state to fall his way and when the incomplete but encouraging results from Florida made it seem more likely that the title of president would precede his name for another four years. He was watching television and working the phones at the Fairmont Hotel when Wisconsin went for him, and then Iowa, and soon enough NBC became the first network to declare him the winner, and then other networks and major newspapers followed by giving him Ohio and, with it, the election.
It was 10:19 here when the president learned for certain that he would not be fired and could instead think about getting fired up and ready to go, again. Kisses, handshakes, fist bumps in the hotel room. Nearby, at McCormick Place, where a vast throng awaited him, the dancing began. Ear-splitting, joyous shouting erupted and would not stop as more blue states piled up the electoral college margin.
So much for a long and tense election night.The lingering question was when Mitt Romney would place a call of congratulations, a gesture that did not come until near midnight on the East Coast, as the GOP team in Boston hoped against hope for a miracle that would not come. Only after the call finally arrived, and Romney delivered a gracious concession speech, did the president and his entourage start to make their way to the victory celebration.
President Obama stepped on the stage at 12:36 Chicago time, overwhelmed by cheers. His victory, after a brutally expensive and hard slog of a campaign, continued his history-making story. Now he was not just the first African American president, but the first African American president to win reelection and the third president in succession to be elected to two terms, the first such run since the Founding Fathers’ trio of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, in the era when blacks were enslaved and not allowed to vote.
The night’s convincing early end marked the final act of a campaign-closing, 36-hour drama for no-drama Obama, a passion play tinged with nostalgia, framed by fierce competitiveness and touched, as always with him, by a bit of luck.
Tuesday began with the president crashing to sleep in his old bedroom on the South Side and awakening to the bright chill of a day that would decide his political fate. Up and at it early for a phone interview with a popular black radio program and a conference call on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, the president was out the door and inside the back of his limousine by 8:53, dressed for success in dark suit, white shirt and silver-and-black striped tie as his motorcade wended through the familiar streets of his adopted home town.
In the final hours before the election was decided, as the weather turned dank and drizzly, he stopped by a field office to call volunteers in neighboring Wisconsin, cranked up the vote again with a series of satellite television interviews from the Fairmont Hotel, gunned his left-handed, barely jumping jump shot in a ritual good-luck game of pickup hoops with old pals and a few pros at an athletic club, and picked up the state-by-state scoop from hard-wired political aides (mostly decent weather in key battlegrounds; mildly encouraging exit polls; Sandy apparently more determinative than the first debate; heavy turnout, long lines in key precincts). Another round of swing-state TV interviews occupied him in the late afternoon. Then, in the darkness, he rode home to Kenwood on the rim of Hyde Park to eat dinner and chat with family and friends — and to wait.
“POTUS was loose,” observed Jay Carney, his press secretary, using the now-common acronym for president of the United States. Loose but anxious, as he waited to see whether he and his wife and daughters would keep living in the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington or be sent home to the big red-brick house on Greenwood Avenue in Chicago.
Even nostalgia seems to flash instantaneously in this age of tweets and posts. At the end, as the 51-year-old president and his associates closed their “Forward”-motto campaign journey with one last musical tour of Midwestern swing-state capitals and made the pilgrimage back to base camp, they at times appeared overtaken by a remembrance of things past.
It was only 16 years ago that Barack Obama began his remarkable political rise in the Illinois state Senate, eight years ago that the nation first got to know him with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and five years ago that he started running for president. And now this part of his life, the running-for-office part, was essentially done and gone. Five years, a blip in time, yet now so long ago. He ended his last campaign where he began his first presidential run, in Iowa, at a late-night rally staged in Des Moines at the intersection of Fourth and Locust, across the street from his first campaign office, where, he recalled, “the heat didn’t work for a week” and his young troops had to wear hats and gloves inside.
The waves of nostalgia that enveloped Obama and his team at campaign’s end evoked more than the passage of time. There was also a longing for the magic of ’08, when everything seemed fresh and freighted with promise. Some veterans of that campaign came back to share the moment; some wore ’08 fleeces (like pro football players taking the field in throwback jerseys); stubble beards sprouted in back-to-the-future fashion; the president himself invoked the “yes, we can” chants for one more reprieve. It was all bonhomie and reminiscence, at once heartfelt and a shield from the possibility of difficult news to come.
Bruce Springsteen, who traveled on Air Force One with the president all day Monday and sang at his final stops in Madison, Columbus and Des Moines, put this sensibility in his own lyrical terms when he described the emotions that had washed over him on election night four years ago. “It was an unbelievable evening, when the longings of your heart felt fulfilled,” recalled the Boss. But that was then, he added, and the lesson Obama supporters had learned was that change was “not a tide rushing in,” but a slow movement, “inch by inch, day by day.”
Obama’s own wistfulness — he teared up at his last event — was accompanied at the end by his acknowledgment of all the difficult moments that followed that night in Grant Park when he first strode onto the world stage as president-elect. “The gray hairs on my head,” he said, were testament to what he had endured. He took to using the devastation of last week’s storm as a metaphor for the obstacles the nation faced during his first term. “No matter how hard the storm is,” he said, the country recovered together. One of the questions that only election results would answer was whether Hurricane Sandy, for all its tragic consequences, had nonetheless arrived as a sort of deus ex machina during the final act of the 2012 campaign play, slowing Mitt Romney’s momentum and providing another example of Obama’s luck.
Luck means something in politics only when a candidate knows how to take advantage of it, and Obama has used luck to his benefit consistently throughout his career. He was lucky when a state Senate seat opened up unexpectedly in 1996; lucky when he became part of that body’s majority through a redistricting that was determined by a name drawn from a hat after a partisan deadlock; lucky when Democratic nominee John F. Kerry chose him to deliver the convention keynote speech in 2004, and lucky again when one possibly tough opponent after another either did not run or dropped out during his successful bid that year for the U.S. Senate. Sandy was of a different magnitude altogether, in every respect, yet it appeared to fit the pattern.
That Obama believes in luck, or at least holds to the superstitions of the typical jock, was evident in his determination to play basketball Tuesday, as he did so many times during the 2008 primaries to while away an hour or two as he awaited election results. The players he brought in for this final campaign game wove together many of threads of his life, including, among others, Mike Ramos, a pal from his teenage years on the varsity team at Punahou School in Honolulu; Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law and one of Princeton’s all-time scorers; Marty Nesbitt, his closest friend from Chicago; Arne Duncan, secretary of education, a Chicagoan who played varsity ball at Harvard; Reggie Love, the former Duke player who served as his body man in the White House for the first three years, and the big ringer, Scottie Pippen, a star from the championship years of his beloved Chicago Bulls.
The president managed to have Pippen on his team. The lanky lefty captain sank a few shots, according to others, and Pippen sank many more. They won by some 20 points. For all of his apparent ambivalence about some aspects of the game of politics, a characteristic that worked to his detriment during the first presidential debate, Obama always maintained a fierce will to prevail, whether in basketball or elections. The night ended with one last win, in his last campaign.