Eight years after he was first elected president, Barack Obama’s Sacramento headquarters is a medical marijuana clinic.
People file into the small building on Q Street between 21st and 20th, see a doctor and file out with a cannabis prescription for whatever ails them. The reviews on Yelp are largely positive.
You’d never know that the same space was once the local office of a political revolution. In 2008, people went there in service of ideas, ideals and a candidate who inspired them. They didn’t get high from a drug, they got high on the idea of a better America, a place where hope, not anger, was the fuel for change.
Back then, Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid was vulnerable for some of the same reasons that caused her to lose the New Hampshire primary last week to Bernie Sanders – her struggle to connect with voters and her turbulent political past.
Obama’s foot soldiers didn’t call what they were working toward a “revolution” in the way Sanders does, bludgeoning the word to death in his campaign for the Democratic nomination. Revolution isn’t just a slogan used by an opportunistic candidate to fire up voters desperate to be told what they want to hear. Real revolution seemingly appears from nowhere. It’s a flame lit by actions not words. It’s aspirational. It appeals to our better angels. And at its best, it builds on shared ideas rather than ones that divide us.
What a difference eight years make in presidential politics. At least so far, the change is not for the better. The racist, misogynistic sideshow of Donald Trump, the vendetta against Wall Street waged by Sanders, the same old same old from Clinton – all of it seems a dismal detour from Obama’s inspiring trip to the White House in 2008.
There is no denying that today’s candidates are drawing big crowds and eliciting different forms of passion. But outrage and resentment seem to be the defining themes of this election season. It’s dispiriting to hear Trump followers cheer obscenities repeated from the podium; they seem to loathe people who are different from them, and Trump encourages them to feel that way. Sanders followers seem angry at institutions and opponents they want to reform or vanquish. Clinton supporters seem angry at Sanders supporters for not supporting her.
In that office on Q Street, Obama’s Sacramento staffers were not angry. Retribution of one kind or another was not their motivation. In the early days of the campaign, when no one was taking them seriously, their idealism seemed quixotic and quaint.
Initially, I didn’t think Obama had a chance against the Clinton machine. But after a few hours inside Obama’s Sacramento headquarters, a crazy idea suddenly seemed real: He could win. A mere 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and less than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, here was Obama. It suddenly seemed like America could elect an African American candidate, despite our racial history.
But to Obama supporters, their candidate was much more than a race or a color. “He is the JFK of my generation, though I think he was better than JFK,” said Kim Mack, who led the Obama operation in Sacramento. “He’s handled himself in a very presidential manner. He’s fair. He’s firm. It’s amazing how much he accomplished with all the BS he has had to endure. I don’t know how he did it without losing his mind.”
The people leading the charge for Obama in that little space where marijuana is now sold hadn’t really been involved in political campaigns before and aren’t motivated now by Clinton or Sanders. “I’m finding it really difficult to engage in the current campaign,” Mack said. “I know people younger than me are very engaged with the Sanders campaign. They like the idea of free tuition. They like the no-nonsense way he speaks.”
Like a lot of Obama supporters, Mack said she feels disconnected from Clinton. If anything, she is leaning toward Sanders but would support Clinton if she were the Democratic nominee. “I can’t put my finger on why I can’t connect with (Clinton),” Mack said. “I know there have been a lot of mean-spirited attacks on her by (the GOP). But that’s not why I feel the way I do.”
Support him or oppose him, Obama – the political candidate – had his message down by early 2008. His imagery and his rhetoric were hopeful and inclusive. Historians will debate whether he achieved his goals in the White House, but Obama the candidate sought to elevate the presidency and America through shared values. Those leading the charge for Obama in Sacramento felt a genuine affinity for their candidate.
Mack spent time with Obama early in the ’08 campaign. She next saw him months later and, to her surprise, Obama remembered that Mack’s son had served in Iraq. “He asked me about my son,” she said, still in awe of the encounter.
Mack currently serves on Sacramento’s planning commission. She made a run at City Council, but is not really involved in politics these days. Her time with the Obama campaign is a memory that grows more distant. But ask her about that night when Obama won the Iowa caucuses – against all odds – and her recollections rush back.
“(The night that Obama won the general election), I was up on stage at the Radisson (in Sacramento) and I turned to see ... people of all colors and ages. There were men and women. Gay people and straight people. People were screaming. Just (from) the pure joy ...”
She has distinct memories of being in Denver at the Democratic National Convention on the night Obama won the nomination. “I went to the bathroom and saw these African American ladies holding each other, crying,” she said. “It really hit me at that moment.”
Chris Young, a Sacramento native and Obama’s Northern California director of finance in ’08, remembers being late to pick up the candidate from Sacramento Executive Airport in August of 2007. Young had almost arrived at Sacramento International Airport before he realized he was driving to the wrong airport.
“I roll up, 10 minutes late. I’m sweating because it’s August in Sacramento,” said Young, now general counsel of GoFundMe. “(Obama) looked at me and (deadpanned), ‘What’s up, Chris?”
Already a successful lawyer, Young gave that up to raise money for the long-shot candidate, though he had never raised money before. After that experience, Young worked for Mayor Kevin Johnson for a time, but returned to corporate law.
“I’m relatively disengaged from the campaign now because no candidate in the race is particularly inspiring,” he said. “We poke fun at Trump, but his hateful message represents a complete disconnect from who we are supposed to be. It sends a message that all the progress we’ve made was for naught, and that is a scary thing.”
Mack, Young and others expect to engage with political process more closely before the 2016 campaign is done. There is too much at stake. But in a sense, this primary season marks the end of a political journey undertaken almost a decade ago by a group of people who optimistically believed in their candidate and their country.
Political players and issues change in American life. But right now, the 2016 campaign is more tabloid than transformative. What stupid thing is Trump going to say next? How can Sanders be an anti-establishment candidate when he has served in Congress for 25 years? Is Hillary Clinton capable of moving people with a message beyond a recitation of her résumé?
In 2008, Obama showed there is a big difference between inspiring voters and inciting them. That spirit drove volunteers to drop everything and help him win the presidency and redeem a more hopeful version of America. It was only eight years ago but that time seems far away.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Feb. 15 to correct information about the Q Street medical marijuana clinic.