Saturday evening, I, like 35,000 others, waited patiently in line for a chance to breathe rarefied air. For 45 minutes, children attempted to sell me chocolate bars, strangers offered me five-dollar buttons, and American flags flew quietly against the stiff end-of-October wind.
University of Chicago students are not easily lured from their cocoons, but for President Barack Obama many of us were. In my brief 18 years, I had never been in the presence of an American president and here was an opportunity, the sort that I just knew I would have coming to this school, in this city. So at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, I was incredibly excited, for I wanted a taste of Obama’s charisma, his intelligence, and his, well, magic—that same magic that won him the presidency two years ago.
When Obama finally spoke, three hours later, it was just as powerful as I had imagined it. His voice was magnetic, drawing in the energy of thousands as he implored the crowd to vote in Tuesday’s election for Governor Pat Quinn and Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. He touched upon all the big issues of the day: healthcare, the stimulus, keeping jobs on home soil, taxes, and, knowing his audience, student loans. Even his chants of “Yes we can!” and “I need you to keep on believing,” though entirely expected, seemed to be infused with an incredible depth of meaning. Earlier, the crowd had been stirred by Senator Dick Durbin’s evocation of popular Democratic policies and policy goals opposed by the Republicans; repetitions of “but not the Republicans!” were always followed by hearty boos from the audience. These were the highlights of Obama’s first public appearance in Chicago since 2008. At one point, Obama noted his excitement at the prospect of sleeping in his own bed.
It was not, however, a wholly enjoyable rally experience. In just thirty minutes or so, the substance of the rally had come and passed. The other three hours leading up to Obama’s speech undeniably left a bad taste in my mouth. Things kicked off with the band Dot Dot Dot, which played for what seemed like an interminably long time, churning out one bad cover after another, while occasionally asking the disinterested crowd to sing along. I felt as though I had been stranded during the set of an unpopular band at a music festival while waiting for the main attraction. One would expect that what would follow would be perhaps two or three speakers—Daley, Quinn, and Giannoulias would be deserving—leading up to Obama himself. But instead, spectators were forced to endure another seven speakers, not including Common, who at the very least exercised restraint in performing just two songs. Afterward, no one wanted to admit that the majority of the rally had been less than satisfying, but every student I spoke to shared my sentiments about the band, complaining about this unnecessary musical “delight.”
Call me an inexperienced rally-goer, but at the end of those brutal three hours, I was a little tired, very cold, and hungry enough to eat one of the Dots from Dot Dot Dot. All the pomp and circumstance almost ruined the rally for me: As a voter, I wanted to hear from just a few significant speakers but instead I was treated to a buffet of forgettable acts. Perhaps there is a misconception that we, as students representing the youngest voices in this generation’s voters, always need to be kept entertained (hence, Dot Dot Dot) but in reality, we only want to be a part of a community of enthusiastic, informed citizens. I appreciate that Obama connects to America, especially its youth, in ways that make full use of the revolution in communications technology, but there are times in which we only want the meat, not the appetizers or the dessert. Unfortunately, I felt as though the rally worsened Obama’s particular image as a celebrity president and here, it was used as a crutch: A rally for Obama seemed to make very little use of the president himself, as if we would be satisfied just by his presence. However, I cannot single out just this particular rally; I think it was an embodiment of the purely emotional nature, with a little bit of information sprinkled in, of political rallies in general.
My earlier sentiments on the highlights of the rally stand. Yet even those catchy slogans that stuck with me are indicative of a bigger problem: I cannot shake the feeling that Obama’s inspirational comments were just a bit too practiced, almost too masterful, and somehow, altogether ephemeral. In the moment, they were profound, but in hindsight there is not much I can recall that I had not already heard before. Instead of breaking out the well-worn, reliable comments, I wish Obama had risked some brutal honesty for his audience. I wanted—we wanted—to hear the president speak of the reality of our current political climate and the fundamental issues that still have to be faced, and eventually, resolved. A rally can still have a positive tone while keeping a critical voice, and ultimately, Obama could have done so much more with his brief time with his hometown crowd. On the whole, I believe the rally was worth it, if only for Obama alone, but next time, I have high hopes that I will be attending a political rally, not a concert.
Emily Wang is a first-year in the College majoring in English.