Thoughts on the President-elect
ECU Faculty, Staff Reflect on Obama’s Historic Win
By Christine Neff
Whether ardent supporters of a candidate or objective observers of the process, faculty members at East Carolina University closely followed the 2008 presidential campaigns.
Here, several faculty members from a range of disciplines comment on Barack Obama’s win from the perspective of their personal experiences and scholarly pursuits. While their viewpoints can’t fully represent the campus community, they do provide insight to an important moment in the nation’s history.
Mamadi Corra, assistant professor of sociology, noted several dimensions that made the 2008 election an historical one.
In addition to being the first African-American elected to the nation’s highest office, Obama was the first Democrat to win in several states, including North Carolina and Virginia, in more than 30 years. Obama had supporters in most demographic categories, including different ethnicities and age groups. Voter turnout rates were higher, and minority participation increased.
“These demographics may reflect shifts in our society to being more open,” Corra said.
He suggested the Internet played a key role in this change by leveling the political landscape and allowing disparate peoples to connect.
“The Internet has become an avenue, a social movement,” he said. “Will this trend continue? If so, participation in American politics will change in a major way.”
David Dennard, professor of history and director of ECU’s African and African American studies program, said he viewed the election of America’s first African-American president as an unfolding of promises that started with the Declaration of Independence and progressed through the Emancipation Proclamation, Voting Rights Act and other historical documents.
“We think about this long stretch of history when African-Americans have been praying for a better day, hoping that it’s going to come,” he said. “And now, we see what has happened, and it is just unbelievable.”
Dennard said Obama, in his campaign, represented politics of inclusion and spoke to “quintessential American beliefs,” such as self-help, personal responsibility and the value of education. These values were taught to Obama by his mother and grandparents and echoed in teachings Dennard received from his parents.
By speaking to those issues, Obama reached a base of supporters that crossed ethnicities, Dennard said. “This is a kind of coming-of-age experience for Americans…I don’t think we’re going to rush to judgment to say that race doesn’t matter, but this may indicate its historical significance has declined in a big way,” he said.
Election night inspired a range of emotions for Karin Zipf, assistant professor of history at ECU.
Surrounded by department colleagues, she watched as television reporters announced the election of the nation’s first African-American president and was moved by the “enormous historic occasion.” “The historians among us were deeply affected by the moment,” she said.
When she teaches about the 2008 election in the future, Zipf said she will have to include another historical figure in the discussion: President George W. Bush and public dissatisfaction with his administration.
A second president comes to mind, as well. Noting the similarity of today’s challenges to those faced in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s times, Zipf said Obama reminded her of the reassuring Roosevelt. “With the challenges we face, we need a ‘fireside chat’ president today.”
Joyce Middleton, associate professor of English, has relished the “new moment” brought on by Obama’s win, though she wonders what the moment will bring.
“I am constantly hearing the questions, ‘are we post racial?’ ‘Does race not matter any more?’ I think people understand that this doesn’t mean we’re post-racial, but it helps people recognize how much race and race relations have evolved,” she said.
Pondering Obama’s leadership style, Middleton said she hoped his background, both professionally and personally, will help him address challenges with a “true, pluralistic vision.” “That will inspire many people,” she said.
Deborah Thomson, assistant professor of communication, has been studying Obama’s speaking style since his premiere on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention. She even used his speech as a model for what students should strive to accomplish in their public speaking assignments.
“He is one of these great orators that is a very rare presence in American politics,” she said.
Speaking about the media coverage given to the campaigns, Thomson said Obama received more attention than other candidates in the primary or presidential races. “It is fact that his campaign got more coverage than any of the other candidates. You ask, ‘is that fair? Is that balanced?’ The question that is more interesting to me is whether news organizations have to always attempt to be objective,” she said.
Thomson noted how some journalists and commentators let their ideologies show, and even late-night comics and Saturday Night Live actors offered a sort of critique on both candidates’ campaigns. “It’s exciting to see that, in addition to the Katie Courics who are really going for objectivity, you can have the Bill O’Reillys who are ideologically positioned. I think that just enriches the discourse,” she said.
Obama’s campaign drew in a contingent of dedicated volunteers across the country. Here in Greenville, Susan Luddeke, teaching instructor in the School of Art and Design, became involved in a big way.
“I got obsessed,” she said, laughing. “I won’t lie to you. I was volunteering; I was making phone calls. I was canvassing around the neighborhoods and putting up signs.”
Luddeke stayed busy through election night, offering rides to last-minute voters. Once the polls closed, she joined other campaign volunteers in downtown Greenville to watch the election results and celebrate an emotional win.
“It was so big. It was so vast, and after so much hard work, it was exhilarating to know that we had done it. We went from ‘yes, we can,’ to ‘yes, we did.’” she said.
Lathan Turner, assistant vice chancellor for intercultural student affairs, saw that same passion in ECU students who supported Obama. “Students are still on a natural high,” he said. “They have been elated about this election…. This young generation has been able to see a part of the dream come true, a dream their parents or grandparents thought they would never see.”
Turner was impressed by how young people responded to Obama’s call to action and got involved in the political process. He hopes to help students channel that energy to their academic studies and campus and community service projects.
“Young people have shown they can be a powerful force,” he said. “I can imagine this changing students’ lives, and I salute them and look forward to their service.”
Excitement over Obama’s candidacy stretched far beyond ECU’s campus, as Mulatu Wubneh, professor of planning, discovered when he traveled to Africa this fall.
Wubneh visited his native country of Ethiopia, as well as Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia. “In every one of those countries, the first question I heard was, ‘do you think he can make it?,” he said.
Posters and t-shirts featuring Obama’s name and picture could be seen all over, and Africans knew the details of the American presidential race as recent as that day’s news. Never had Wubneh seen such excitement in Africa over the American political system.
Wubneh said the 2008 election, which will bring a peaceful transfer of power between parties, can be a lesson for African countries where ethnic backgrounds and divisions often determine how people vote, causing problems for governance. “When I saw the results, I thought, ‘This country is really great.’ I don’t think it would happen anywhere else in the world,” he said.