As Election Day 2008 approached, if you were an urban organic kale farmer, or a crochet enthusiast or a vaudevillian with a new song to sing, and you wanted to support Barack Obama for president, you were in luck.
The streets of New York were crowded with “Walks for Change,” “Bike4Barack” groups, “Karaoke We Can Believe In” sing-alongs, “Get Out the Laughs and Votes” comedy shows and “Art for Change” auctions. The days leading up to the election saw Pasties for Peace, a Cowboys for Barack Wild West Burlesque Show Fund-raiser, a Yo La Tengo fund-raiser at McCarren Pool, and a $1,000 fund-raiser in Dumbo featuring They Might Be Giants, which sold out.
Richie Fife, who helped lead the Obama effort in the run-up to the primary, estimated that 10,000 New Yorkers had contacted the Obama New York office to get involved and that three times that many were out on the streets on their own initiative.
“It was an amazing thing,” Mr. Fife said, and he recalled going sometimes to five different events a night at various clubs, houses and downtown galleries. “It was like going to an AA meeting, except it was at a bar. You would have all these people stand up and say sort of sheepishly, ‘I’ve never been involved in politics but this time I am going to get involved.’ It was almost like a religion.”
The Urban Dictionary called them “The Obaminators” (or, for the females, “Obaminatrixes”) and despite a short lifetime of political ignorance, they helped create in 2007-08 a cultural flourishing tied to electoral politics the likes of which the dreary world of campaign canvassing had seldom seen. It is hard to remember now, but the summer and fall of 2008 in the city were as if an old-timey party convention had met Burning Man, and it seemed like all the political clubs in town had been swept aside in favor of open-mic nights from a generation of supposedly apathetic and skeptical hipsters. They passed around Obama speeches like they were bootlegged concert tapes. They carried around dog-eared copies of The Audacity of Hope. They quoted the 2004 convention address like it was poetry. Even supposedly blasé Williamsburg sported a Shepherd Fairy two-toned Obama poster, with the word “Progress” stenciled in bold font below.
But now the progress posters have begun to wither. A new poster, featuring the president’s image superimposed over Frankenstein’s monster’s face, has been spotted around the neighborhood. The Obama T-shirts—it was, recall, ultrahip if you had a particularly faded one, maybe even one dating back to his Illinois state senate campaigns—have been turning up at the Goodwill and at garage sales. The next election is going to be a tough one that invites a question few campaign officials thought would ever be asked: Can Mr. Obama afford to lose the hipsters? Or was the Obama love last year’s record, now destined to wind up in the used bins alongside so many Conor Oberst CD’s?
“Everybody was taking the campaign’s energy and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a part of this obscure group of citizens, maybe we can raise $5,000 or $10,000 or whatever,” said novelist Amy Sohn, who held a couple of “Authors for Obama” fund-raisers at downtown clubs featuring big name writers like Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. “At a certain point it was like wink-wink—there are some really bizarre fringe groups around.”
Ms. Sohn didn’t sound inclined to enlist her literary brethren again, comparing the Obama presidency to a first novelist who signs a big advance for their roman à clef.
“The best day is the day you get the advance, and then everyone wonders if you were worth it and whether or not you will earn the advance back, which of course, you probably won’t. Then you just become the person everyone paid too much for.”
As the election season approached, David Mahfouda, 29, tied an art project he had been working on to the Obama effort. “Mending Bee for Change,” enlisted dozens of supporters to help sew a 65-foot-by-130-foot American flag. He had been, he said, “not so political, and not so good at being informed,” but he saw that all of the rhetoric he had been hearing about restoring and repairing the country was “embodied by this living and breathing person.”
Supporters sponsored stars and pieces of fabric, proceeds from which went to the Obama campaign. On election night, they braved the November cold and carried the flag from Bed-Stuy and over the Williamsburg Bridge and unfurled it in Union Square, meeting up with a group a hundred or so people who had planned a previctory parade from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Mr. Mahfouda said that the flag is now in his living room and hasn’t been unfurled in over a year. There are no immediate plans to bring it back out again for 2012.
“My intuitive response is that [Obama] hasn’t done a ton,” he said. “He hasn’t really rocked the boat too much.”
The parade was organized by a fellow Brooklynite, Julian Bennet Holmes, then only 17 and too young to actually vote for Mr. Obama. Besides the march, he phone-banked for the candidate during the primaries.
Now, he said, “I’ll vote for him, but I think that he could be a little tougher”
Will there be a parade next time around?
“I haven’t really thought about it. A re-election campaign definitely won’t be as exciting.”
Kimberly Salib, the proprietor of Art Gotham in Soho, asked 300 artists to make a 12-inch-by-12-inch work of art inspired by the election, and auctioned the pieces off in the fall of 2008. She is not planning on trying again either.
“I kind of lost my passion for it all, to be honest with you,” she said. Since the election, she has been audited, and a shaky economy and lack of support for galleries like hers “has made me totally uninterested. I am no longer excited about doing these things.”
Among Obaminators, some moments from the run-up to the election live on memory. They are like this generation’s Woodstock, with those who remember what it was like outnumbering those who actually experienced it.
At a spring benefit at the Hope Lounge in Williamsburg, the hip-hop artist Toothpick performed, slam poetry was slammed, and a stenciling station was set-up outside. Nearly 300 people paid $10 to get in the door, all of which went to the campaign. Colette Whitney and James Johnson, a biracial married couple, performed what audience members remembered as a song-and-dance vaudevillian number that went, “We’re Ready/Right Now/To Fight For/ Obama.”
“It was an exciting time,” recalled Ari Herstand, a singer-songwriter who performed there and who said that the long campaign’s numerous benefit concerts gave his music career a boost. “Everyone was totally amped up and energized. Spirits were high. There was this electrifying energy that night, and in general—everyone was excited to be a part of this movement.”
Asked if he expects a similarly full dance card this time around, Mr. Herstand replied, “No way.”
“That time we felt that Obama was more or less this outsider, this new young proponent for change, and he really engaged the younger, 20-something crowd, and we felt that this was someone very different, someone that was kind of an intelligent, amicable leader that we could get behind.”