By Allyna Mota Melville
Nearly two years out of office, former President Barack Obama still inspires hope.
Obama (D) stumped for Illinois Democrats up and down the ballot Sunday evening at the University of Illinois at Chicago, rallying votes for candidates trying to win the governorship and flip the U.S. House.
The entire stadium, packed with people working on campaigns or simply Obama fans in the state where he began his political career, hung on his every word.
The traditional “Yes, we can!” chant echoed through UIC Pavilion as Obama smiled, 10 years after his victorious presidential campaign.
“The victory didn’t belong to me,” he said. “It belonged to you.”
President Obama stumped for candidates up and down the Illinois ballot, including Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten, candidates looking to flip seats in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both young, dynamic candidates, they looked to ride the wave that Obama’s endorsement would hold for liberal voters.
Obama sharply criticized President Trump and the national Republican Party, using stronger language than he did as president or candidate. He even took off his jacket–to cheers from the audience–when talking about the recession at the start of his first term.
“I had to grab a broom, and we had to get a mop, and we had to clean up their mess,” he said. “And we got the economy growing again.
“There was more job growth in the last 21 months before I left office than in the 21 months since I left office,” he added, “so when you hear the Republicans talking about how good the economy is now, where do you think that started?”
Obama accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote in Georgia and across the country, calling their actions “undemocratic.”
“I disagreed with Republican ideas on a bunch of stuff,” he said. “You never heard me say or do something to prevent them from voting. If you don’t agree with me, you should still vote.”
Aurora resident Lois Bugg Shadrick heard Obama’s message loud and clear.
“It doesn’t really matter what he says as long as the end result of it is people are fired up,” she said. “Each individual has a role to play and can make a difference.”
While Obama will likely never hold public office again, what he means as a Black, vibrant, progressive politician still resonates with young folks in Illinois.
Vanessa Nutakor and Stephon Brown, UIC sophomores, voted for the first time this weekend.
The two nineteen-year-olds got tickets to the rally through the university. Brown rushed the stage when Obama started shaking hands with the crowd, while Nutakor lamented her heeled boots, which she said prevented her from running up to the president.
As Black Americans, they feel a certain type of hope by simply seeing the former Chicago South Side resident.
“There are so many people around here that don’t want us [Black people] to be successful,” said Nutakor. “Obama represents the light at the end of the tunnel. Like, there will be a change someday.”
Nutakor and Brown talked about Obama as a celebrity. They were speechless after shaking his hand.
“He literally was looking in our direction and that was the happiest moment of my life,” Nutakor said. “I can’t express how happy I am right now.”
Brown thought this midterm election was especially important to vote in, given the state of the nation.
“The world is in such a crazy place,” he said. “There’s a feeling in America that things are just getting worse by the minute.”
Voting itself, he said, allows young people the ability to choose their own future.
“If someone offers me the power to make a change to a system, it would be unwise not to take it,” he said. “If filling out some bubbles … if that’s all it takes to make a difference, to even have the potential to make a difference in the world, I think everyone should take that choice.”
Nutakor agreed and felt like there was only so much work she could do until she turned eighteen.
“There’s so much happening in this world and it feels like I haven’t done enough,” she said. “Now that I have the right, I can put an effort towards the change we want to see. I’m tired of seeing people die that are innocent, I’m tired of seeing poor people not able to get the help that they need. Now I can finally do something.”
Young voter turnout for the 2008 election was 51.1 percent, the third highest rate ever. While midterm elections typically have a lower turnout, given that there is no presidential ticket, pollsters expect will be evidence of another young wave in 2018.
At 55, Bugg Shadrick is not a young voter. However, she is still excited to see candidates like Lauren Underwood that embrace the hope and change that Obama stands for.
“So many people are running because they want to make a change,” Bugg Shadrick said. “They’re there to make a difference.”