By the time this essay is published, most people in the United States will be fast asleep. No doubt there will be exceptions: some journalists and campaign staffers will work through the night. Perhaps President Obama will sit in the darkness of his hotel suite with the radio and television switched off while he sips a cup of coffee; I imagine that he is the kind of person who enjoys silence from time to time. Presidential campaigns have a notable lack of this: there are so many raucous crowds, so many questions to answer, so many loud ringtones and clicks of cameras, so much dramatic music, so many engines running. It must be a luxury for him to have a moment alone with his thoughts and to partake of a simple cup of java, with its rich scent and steam rising off its dark surface. If he cares to look out the window, he will probably be able to track the progress of the night. The orange sodium lamps and neon lights of the city will drown out much of the starlight. Nevertheless, a few bright specks in the sky will likely be visible, as will the moon. The earth will do one more complete spin on its axis; by the time he sees the moon and stars again, he will certainly know his destiny, and that of the country.
For most, however, sleep will prevail. Farmers in Iowa will snooze in their oak frame beds and cuddle their spouses in order to fend off the bitter November chill. Single city dwellers in New York and Los Angeles will sleep with their arms and legs splayed askew across the battlefield of the mattress. Newly minted Marines, their heads still itching from recent crew cuts, will lay in their bunks, and slumber will bring to them visions of home. Fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters will all be locked into dreams, the one place which seems eternally safe from modern life’s incessant din.
Meanwhile, the first rays of dawn will touch the hills surrounding Bradford and the morning news will be full of last minute analyses. Certainly, the studios in London are being prepared, the pots of coffee set up, and the computers are being readied to collect and analyse the streams of data washing in from across the Atlantic. When the polls open, there will be British and other news cameras on the scene, ready to beam out the first pictures of America making its choice. In my mind’s eye I can see a befuddled, elderly gentleman in a blue parka going to vote and wondering why everyone is making such a fuss.
The markets in London, Frankfurt and Paris will hold their breath and hedge their bets; I can envisage a trader in a white shirt with the collar open and a loosened maroon tie, casting a wide-eyed gaze at a big screen filled with CNN. If Romney wins, he reasons, then investment banks should do well. After all, they were among the largest contributors to his campaign. Obama, in contrast, received a great deal of support from technology companies. Goldman Sachs or Google? Wait, the trader may think, hold back. We will know more soon: but in the meantime, all eyes will remain fixed on America, as if examining the process of voting will somehow reveal the result prior to its actual arrival. Indeed, many will check the internet to see when polls open; come on, come on, let’s start, they think, because the sooner we begin, the sooner we will get it over with. The frustration will boil over: any American expatriate who dares venture into the open will be questioned intently, “What’s going to happen?”
Though I’m now probably more British than American, this is a particularly tense time for me. I recall the last Presidential election: I was living in West Sussex at the time. On that day, I wore an Obama ’08 shirt with a blue cardigan and a “Hope” pin fixed to the lapel. I was busy. I had to go to a seminar on how to best pursue a career in higher education. The convenor, a tall man with thinning brown hair who wore a thick sand-coloured sweater, said to me, “I see where your allegiance lies…I’m afraid as an educator, I have to be impartial.”
He smiled: it was a toothy yet sincere grin. “But,” he continued, “go Obama!”
I was alone that night; I lay on my bed as the results came in, my head propped up on three pillows, as if positioning myself to face the television in this way would be enough to keep me awake. This was overly optimistic: as the BBC droned on, urging patience as they were awaiting the results, I fell asleep. This was to my regret, as I understand the famed novelist Gore Vidal had a hilarious outburst while being questioned by David Dimbleby. It is perhaps the privilege of the esteemed to not be taken too seriously at the right time. In Vidal’s case, he plainly had no idea who Dimbleby was, and furthermore, didn’t care; the response to his befuddlement was well intentioned laughter.
I finally awoke when I heard the sound of a crowd cheering. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the screen: a vast throng had assembled in a Chicago park, the rolling headline at the bottom of the picture indicated that Obama’s victory had been overwhelming. As President-elect Obama strode up to the podium, seeming chastened as well as triumphant, I was quietly hopeful. After his simple, heartfelt speech, I again fell asleep.
The earth has travelled around the sun four times since then and most of us are different people to what we were to a lesser or greater extent; I have fewer hairs on my head and more of what I do possess is grey. I’ve moved to Yorkshire, a place which suits me far better than Sussex ever did. My current work environment is more businesslike: the blue cardigan and Obama t-shirt will remain tucked away in my dresser drawer. The “Hope” pin, however, may make it to my coat’s lapel. My optimism has faded, hope and belief weren’t sufficient in and of themselves to override fully Washington’s backstabbing, dirty dealing and out and out stonewalling. But a lack of forward momentum isn’t sufficient to make me wish for America to press “Rewind”.
We have had four years and four trips around the sun, and while much remains to be done, at least there have been some improvements. For all its faults, access to health care has been expanded. Some vital industries and jobs have been saved. America is no longer seen purely as a nation of insensitive buffoons; Russia’s boneheaded support for the Assad regime is neatly aligning it for the bogeyman role. The American economy is growing at a faster clip than in most developed nations; unemployment, at long last, is headed in the right direction. While Hurricane Sandy was a disaster, at least the recovery efforts are far more competently managed now than they were when Hurricane Katrina struck. Things are better and better should never be seen as the enemy of the good. Yes, it’s not quite the gilded “Yes We Can” romance of four years ago: but to echo another one of the key catch phrases of 2008, I’m still “fired up” and “ready to go”.
Daybreak approaches. The clock radio will sound, echoing with the weather forecast and carrying with it the necessities and obligations of the morning. I will get up, make the coffee, take care of my cats. The dark skies will fade from black to dark blue and then arrange into a pattern for sunrise. America will still be asleep; but no matter what else I do, my day will swing in its orbit. I will keep a news feed on in the background. I will go home. Night will fall. I will perhaps bake a pepperoni pizza I bought at the local supermarket and drink a fine Yorkshire ale. The last voters will file in and out of voting booths across America; my parents in New York may be among them. They may step into the booth, draw the curtains, flick the metal switches beside the names of the candidates they want. Once done, they will each pull a lever to record their selection, simultaneously causing the fabric shroud around them to slide open. Then the polls will close. The results will be tallied; as the moon and stars cast their light down on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually, we will find out what has been decided. Perhaps one compulsion unites so many, American and overseas, Republican and Democrat, President Obama and Mitt Romney: we anticipate this moment to the point we cast ourselves into it in our thoughts. It will come, and while it may not be what we imagine, it retains the possibility of being more than we hoped.