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Barack Like Me

Harvard and the unfortunate case of the star-crossed Obamaphiles

By Lucy M. Caldwell, Crimson Staff Writer

Far be it from Harvard students to put aside political mindedness on account of preparing for final exams. Hundreds of students in the College have recently found time to take up a new cause: protesting the placement of final examinations on Jan. 20, the day of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Over 30 exams have been scheduled for Jan. 20, and more than 2,000 Harvard students have exams that day. At last check, the Facebook group, “Petition for Make-Ups of Harvard College Exams on Inauguration Day 2009,” was pushing 300 members. The group’s accompanying petition had garnered nearly 600 student-signatures. “Harvard should let us participate in this historical moment to the fullest extent,” Kyle de Beausset '08-'09, a Crimson editorial writer and frequent student-activist who is leading these efforts, wrote alongside his online signature on the petition. One Facebook group member likened the protestors’ struggle to a fortune cookie she’d found on the ground outside the Harvard Science Center, which read, “[W]hen spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” An inspiring rallying call for these poor, disenfranchised Harvard students. Their main man Barack would be proud.

According to the petition’s central text, “Inauguration Day is a federal holiday (for DC-area employees) and, more importantly, a deeply meaningful time for Americans all over, young and old, Republican and Democrat. This year is an especially historic moment in which we deserve the right to fully participate, and we are asking for institutional support from Harvard College and the Registrar’s Office to do so.”

Excusing the gag of supposed bipartisanship, what makes this inauguration so “historic” for petition-signers has nothing to do with what one might guess. It has nothing to do with Barack Obama being the first black man elected President of the United States. His blackness is inspiring, but his meteoric rise to power has been an experience fairly different from that of a typical African-American leader. As an icon of African-American progress, Obama’s story is anomalous—he had a white mother and was raised by his white grandparents; he is not descended from slaves, but rather from a Harvard-educated Kenyan.

No, Obama’s election is exciting to Harvard students not because of his blackness—it’s exciting because he’s their guy. An unprecedented number of Harvard students worked on Obama’s campaign, and more meaningful still, he is cut of the same cloth as they are. On the campaign trail, he was the candidate who got grief for arugula-eating. He’s the husband in a lawyers-in-love marriage, his family is considering adopting a rescue-dog, and he plays recreational basketball with his white-collar friends. Obama champions Harvard students’ conception of what the world should be like—in Obama, the Harvard types have finally found a president who shares their notions of how best to proceed in this age of global terrorism and economic instability. Roundtables with mass-murdering dictators? Wonderful. Wealth redistribution across the board? Excellent. Never mind that these aspiring Harvard politicos have never taken part in major lawmaking. Neither has their pal Barack.

The old quip goes that if you’re a conservative at 20 you have no heart, but if you’re a liberal at 40 you have no brain. This may be reductive, but there’s some truth in it yet. The sort of impulses that drive Barack Obama in policy-making are the same as those that drive young people to form such strongly left-leaning political positions. The impulse comes from a lack of experience and from a lack of faith in the experience of predecessors. The view presumes that virtually all of the political leaders that have come before now have either failed to realize something obvious or, worse, are too misguided or self-serving to seek solutions that prioritize anyone other than themselves. It is precisely because of this view that so many Harvard students and their contemporaries are hoping to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration: We’ve miraculously chosen one of our own.

Far more tragic than these cries of passionate jubilation sounded from within Harvard Yard are their echoes beyond the College gates. Many pundits have dubbed Obama a modern Lincoln or even the next FDR. As Eleanor Clift, a long-time journalist and pundit who is nearly 70 years old, gushed on the McLaughlin Group last week, “Yes, Barack Obama is obvious [as the Biggest Winner of 2008]. But I would like to broaden it a bit, because I think it’s the restoration of democracy in this country. The people have truly spoken, and spoken loud. And I think his election really helps restore America’s standing in the world. It’s a lot to expect from one human being. But he always said it wasn’t about him; it was about us. And so that’s my story, and I’m believing it.”

Have the believers prepared themselves for the disappointment they will experience when the honeymoon winds down? The President-elect has already evidenced some surprising departures from his previously audacious and hopeful self. Immediately after being elected, Obama began giving speeches in which he emphasized that the struggles ahead might be harder than expected. And though transparency is supposedly trademark Obama, some journalists have noted that Obama has begun to take on habits of his predecessor Bush, who is notoriously tightlipped. In the wake of the recent Blagojevich scandal, Obama has snapped or clammed up when asked for details about his team’s involvement in the investigation. He’s begun adding old-timers to his cabinet and deploying Clinton White House staffers. Could it be that even the beloved Obama, Crown Prince of Change You Can Believe In, is giving up the good fight? Harvard students may need a day off to grieve that historic moment, too.

Lucy M. Caldwell ’09 is a History and Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears regularly.

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