"Hello, Chicago," said the city's newly elected hometown president, speaking to ecstatic Grant Park celebrants four years ago this week amid a backdrop of iconic Midwestern skyscrapers, shimmering in red, white and blue. After Barack Obama's victory rally in 2008, huge crowds of jubilant Chicagoans streamed up Michigan Avenue on an impossibly balmy night. For those of us watching their progression from the sidewalk outside Tribune Tower, the tug of history being made was acute. It felt like something had shifted in the very foundation of Chicago, which suddenly seemed like the center of the new political world. Already there had been speculation as to how a city would have to make some serious adjustments.
The contrast between what happened in 2008 and what was broadcast to the world Tuesday night could not have been more acute, even though the same president had emerged victorious.
There was no "Hello, Chicago" wafting on the breeze. Instead of a warm evening, Chicago had a cold, unforgiving rain. Nobody wanted to be outdoors; even CNN's downtown viewing party looked sparsely attended. But nobody could complain and appear reasonable. The East Coast had it much worse — and was about to have it again.
Obama's formidable campaign had anticipated the likelihood of inclement weather, just as it seemed to anticipate every eventuality in its formidably managed quest for re-election. Those worries, plus the kinds of security concerns that come with a sitting president, led to the choice of McCormick Place for the Obama victory rally. If you were watching the climax of Tuesday's night events on television, it felt like it could have been happening anywhere. Four years ago, everyone knew the locale they were watching.
The big-box anonymity of McCormick Place — its sterile heart — is, of course, one of its great drawbacks as the city's biggest and most important meeting place, its vast convention facilities and numerous softening improvements notwithstanding. But it can host all kinds of events. Its shell can be overcome.
Yet the design of the Obama event was notable in its apparent desire not to send out any kind of visual specificity. The ceilings in the convention center are low, so there were no opportunities for any kind of panoramic sweep. And so awash were the proceedings in great expanses of monochromatic blue panels, the events took on an almost surreal, floating quality. This felt like a movie set, a stand-in for the real thing, a generic victory rally. Even the release of red, white and-blue confetti seemed pro forma, temporarily obscuring the victorious president and his family rather than bathing him in a city's celebration.
Traveling Wednesday, I watched snippets of the scene replayed on scores of airport screens, as they were throughout the world. Tellingly, the text on CNN referred to the locale as Obama's election headquarters, probably leading some portion of the world to assume that he had just come downstairs from his campaign offices.
Four years ago in Grant Park, no one could possibly have made that mistake. Back then, Obama had unmistakably moved from the war room to the great urban outdoors, where sprawling humanity awaited.
On Wednesday, harried people, mostly trying to beat the weather, were squinting at the discombobulating images on their screens as if trying to figure them out, as if trying to discern the mood, the overarching theme and what was being communicated. Although Obama's speech was stirring — more stirring, perhaps, than most any of his utterances during the actual campaign — the backdrop of diverse Americans had the look on television of planted political props, even though they (presumably) were genuine supporters. What the darn thing needed most was a sense of place. It was missing a piece of Chicago's famous heart.
You could argue, I guess, that a speech, a rally and a quick show at the end of a long political night, the tenor of which could not have been predicted with surety, is limited in its import. A tired campaign production surely deserves to be forgiven. And yes, it is absurd to wish for a re-broadcast of 2008. Any such attempt would have fallen flat in the November drizzle.
Here in the tough fall of 2012, the times are different, the mood more sober, especially in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. The events of the night, all of which had unfolded as anticipated, had not produced seismic change as they had four years ago with the election of the first black president.
Rather, they had resulted in the maintenance of, essentially, the status quo of divided government. On both sides, the mood was best described as anxious. The anxiety, be it Republican or Democratic, did not seem to be fully relieved in either victory or defeat.
The semiotics of the moment inevitably were about continuity, not beginnings. There was work to be done, and it was time to get on with doing it.
The anticipated role of Hyde Park as the new Crawford, Texas, has not materialized, for all kinds of good reasons, and is not likely to now, we all belatedly understand. Inevitably, the president's connection to his hometown is now much less acute than in 2008, despite his efforts to the contrary.
Still, who knows when Chicago will get to host another presidential victory rally. And memories are short. So some of us can be forgiven, surely, for wishing that the 2012 Obama celebration had not looked so much like a generic campaign event and more like a great American city and its most successful citizen mutually celebrating a place, a time and a moment in such a way that more folks from around the world might want to visit and, well, put some more of us back to work.
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