Thursday, November 04, 2010

Meeting Candidate Obama, Three Years Later

I met Barack Obama in September of 2007. Before I go any further, I need to qualify that I wasn't granted much more than a handshake. Still, at the time I remember being quite excited at the prospect. The venue was the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta and as one of several volunteers I was assigned specifically to crowd control. A large gathering of people being correctly corralled and directed into the room where the event would be held, I settled in like everyone else to enjoy the presentation. After a lengthy number of speakers that came before Obama, most notably the R&B singer Usher, the candidate himself finally appeared. Unsurprisingly, he was as good as advertised and I found myself nodding along with every point he made. Oprah had but recently endorsed him, though he was still very much in a distant second place to Hillary Clinton.

Three-quarters of the way through his speech, all volunteers were shuttled over to an adjacent room away from the crowds, so that then-Senator Obama could thank us. Visible in every corner of the room were Secret Service members in matching sunglasses and dark suits. Volunteers were divided into small clusters based on precisely where we called home. Communication issues regarding volunteers were unfortunately present and so as a result I felt quite out of place there, having been told to wear a blue shirt rather than a white one.

Later, as the crowds were filing out, and Candidate Obama had long since departed, I would discover that lodging accommodations had been botched, leaving my group frantically scrambling for a place to sleep that night. Plans for what we had been promised turned out to have never been made in the first place. Instead, I ended up spending the night sleeping on the floor of a campaign coordinator's relative, a last minute arrangement that seemed to have been made out of pity.

This isn't unusual. Many campaigns give short-shift to volunteers, which is unfortunate. To them, we're utterly expendable and since money isn't an issue, we take a low priority. It bothers me quite a lot when an air of self-importance is adopted by any member of a campaign wearing a suit, on payroll, and granted a measure of authority. This is I also saw, albeit at a low level. Remember again that at this relatively early stage of the campaign, Barack Obama was down a good twenty-five to thirty points to someone else, who most assumed would be the eventual Democratic nominee. I've seen this same dynamic at play with other campaigns who are running competitive races but still aren't much more than promising newcomers.

Returning to the event, by the time it came to actually meet the candidate, I have to say I was not in the best of spirits. As a matter of fact, I was quite annoyed from being forced to endure a two-and-a-half hour car trip beforehand with a person whose opinions offended me. I'm sure that I probably scowled at the candidate as I offered my hand. His attitude was surprisingly cool and distant, essentially brushing me off. He ignored my handshake altogether, motioning with his eyes that he would only grant me the request if I bunched in tightly to other people gathered closely together. It seemed a bit robotic, really, which I found more perplexing and odd than upsetting. I did shake his hand, but only grabbed the tip of it as he brushed by, on his way to the next group stationed to the left of mine.

For all I know, he may have felt threatened somehow by me. To this day, I'm not really sure what he was thinking. He may have brushed me off as a kind of purely defensive response. But what I do recall vividly is that my personal opinion of Barack Obama was now at odds with the public face I admired so much. This was further highlighted when there was some confusion about where the Senator was to walk next within the room, whereupon he made a few choice sarcastic remarks directed at his staff.

Of course, all this didn't change my desire to vote for him come the day of the primary, but it did grant some insight into who he was away from the stage and the podium, though at the time I didn't know enough about him to connect the dots.
Certainly we're all inclined to have bad days from time to time, but now, more than three years after the fact, I can't help but think I was getting something of an early clue of Obama's response to situations that are potentially hostile and negative.

After the Mid-Congressional elections, everyone's got a theory or opinion about how such promise and power turned so quickly to disappointment. I'm not writing this to posit my own, nor do I want to pile on and be another voice beating up on the President. Kicking a person when they are down is something I'd just as soon avoid, even for Republicans when it eventually becomes their turn again to reap wholesale scorn. But I would, however, like to question how it is that a person's public persona might be at such odds with his private conduct.

Obama the orator has a way of speaking to a person as though he knows you intimately, which is not always how he appears face to face. This fundamental disconnect, if answered properly, might provide much in the way of valuable insight on all sorts of levels. I'm fairly certain that even the most partisan Obama loyalist might have a story or two to tell along the same lines as mine, albeit one unlikely to surface unless the Administration completely self-destructs or the President fails to win a second term in 2012. There may lie no drama behind the curtain, but an chilly lack of oxygen isn't much better.

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