Columns, Opinion

RILEY: Once upon a time in America

Less than a year ago, Bill Clinton angrily remarked that Barack Obama’s candidacy was ‘the biggest fairy tale he’s ever seen.’ This was one of a few comments coming from the former president that suggested this doe-eyed political newcomer was not someone we should seriously consider for the highest office in the land.

It may have been a stupid thing to say back in January, but I couldn’t help noticing how much this past week has felt like a real life American fairy tale. As President-elect Obama waved to the crowd after his victory speech on Tuesday night, the music playing at Grant Park sounded like something straight out of a Disney movie. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the screen faded to black as he walked off the stage and the credits started to roll. As we get up and leave the theater, we’d think, ‘Why don’t these feel-good stories ever happen in real life?”

This time, however, it did happen in real life. The handsome young prince defeated Hillary Clinton, the wicked witch, and John McCain, the evil ogre. Now he gets to move into the big white castle and spend the next few years with the country that fell in love with him.

But unlike most fairy tales, this one didn’t end with ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ At least not yet. Even a politician as skilled as Obama may not have what it takes to satisfy the American public. After all, we can be hard to please. We want to get out of Iraq, but we don’t want to lose. We want to fix the economy, but we don’t want to pay any more in taxes. And on top of this, Obama has to deal with Republicans who seem more intent on reclaiming their Congressional majority than working with the new president.

Maybe it will be different this time. If we’ve learned anything this election season, it’s that we need to give cynicism a rest for’ a while. We have been told time and time again what Americans can’t do. We can’t move beyond our racist history and elect a black president. We can’t vote for a guy with the middle name ‘Hussein.” No, we can’t, and, no, we won’t. But finally, the majority of this country has responded with, ‘yes, we can’ and ‘yes, we did.”

Now there are plenty of those out there who say ‘Obama only won because of black voters who voted for him just because he was black.’ And maybe this was the case for some black voters. But the same is true on the other side, where some voted against Obama simply because he was black. And he did win 43 percent of white voters, which is more than either Al Gore or John Kerry won in their efforts. But none of this is really significant now anyway. Obama isn’t going to be the president of black America. He’s going to be everyone’s president.

All we can do now is give him a chance. There’s no guarantee he’ll live up to our sky-high expectations. While some say Obama could be a modern day John F. Kennedy, there is a chance he could be another Jimmy Carter, who also ran on a message of change but proved an ineffective president. Either way, modern politics is going to be divided into ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama.’ If he is a successful president, it might just change how campaigns are run. Candidates who try to make the argument that experience trumps promises of change and good judgment would be laughed out of the race. We might see more minorities and women run for president than ever before if both political parties decide that Americans just don’t find old white guys exciting anymore.

But if Obama can’t overcome the odds like he did in the election, then we might just end up right back where we started. A candidate running on the message of hope might not stand a chance. Voters would think, ‘We’ve fallen for this once before, we’re not going to elect another Obama.”

As they said in the movie Spiderman, ‘The only thing they like to see more than a hero is to see a hero fail.’ The media are going to be watching Obama like a hawk throughout his first term, waiting for that first crucial mistake that will give us all buyer’s remorse. I don’t know how this presidency will turn out, but I do know that Obama has defied our expectations time and time again. OK, so we probably won’t all live happily ever after. But if we can all feel good about where we are headed as a nation by the time Obama leaves office, then maybe this ‘fairy tale’ will have a happy ending.

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