Obama: One Year Later

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(Picture taken at Hotel Congress on November 4th, 2008 moments after Obama delivered his acceptance speech)

365 days ago, today, I was glued to my computer, wracked with anticipation over the 2008 general presidential election. Living in McCain country, I was largely insulated from the Obama-mania that swept the rest of the nation. I had worked for the Obama campaign; indeed, I was one of the founding members of Tucson Obama for America, before it became incorporated into the national campaign.

But, our supporters were still being harassed by local Republicans. McCain bumper stickers were abundant while Obama signs seemed to disappear from street corners almost as soon as they were erected. Obama was polling well, but I still had my doubts. Had the youth GOTV movement done enough? Were American voters ready to elect a president of colour? Would McCain pull the biggest upset in American political history, proving without a shadow of a doubt that there remains a glass ceiling for racial minorities seeking higher office?

But, as evening approached, it became clear: not only had Obama won, but he had won overwhelmingly. The energy and excitement produced a euphoric high in me: I rushed to Tucson’s Hotel Congress, where young and old Democrats were milling in the streets, celebrating the moments before the election was officially called for Obama. Four or five huge televisions had been set up, each showing the live election feed on different channels. Beer flowed into every glass, and the music blared until the wee hours of the morning.

I remember that I jumped out of the car before it had even been put into park, and ran towards the party entrance. Giddy with excitement, I found my friends and nearly tackled them to the ground. I couldn’t stop screaming —  “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” — to everyone I met. I called up a friend of mine (whom I had coerced to vote in his home state of New Jersey) on the cell and greeted him with a chorus of “OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!” in lieu of “hello”. I grinned from ear-to-ear all night, despite the outcome of several local elections (banning same-sex marriage, and the loss of a few contested seats to Republicans).

The adrenaline, the excitement, the optimism for the future I experienced was a feeling shared by a majority of the country that night. For young people like myself, Barack Obama represented overwhelming change for the White House. Obama not only promised to enact tangible change in foreign and domestic policy, he promised to change the tone and tenor of the debate. Gone would be the days of Bush era saber-rattling. 

But beyond the campaign promises — which were more numerous than one could count — Obama was a symbol. He was proof that young people and racial minorities could join together to make a difference against the established status quo. He was evidence that all the sweat, the sleepless nights, and the donated money had made an impact on our collective futures. He demonstrated the importance — the necessity, even — of getting folks to participate in the political process. There was no question this time: Obama was elected with a sweeping mandate, and finally there was light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel that had taken us eight years to traverse.

For Asian Americans, the 2008 presidential election was a watershed moment in our political history. Barack Obama was one of the few candidates on either side of the aisle to make real commitments and outreach efforts to the Asian American community. With a childhood wherein he was surrounded by Asian/Asian American faces, Barack Obama was as much our community’s candidate as any. Consequently, Asian Americans participated and voted in numbers far over-shadowing previous elections, and for one of the first times in recent memory, we were discussed as a viable voting community in national news. An APIA political machine first established during the 2004 Dean campaign re-mobilized for Obama, and produced an amazing relationship between the Obama campaign and the APIA community. Unlike in other communities, Obama’s campaign produced clear, in-depth plans about how the Obama administration planned to improve the livelihood and well-being of Asian Americans, both as first-generation immigrants and as a growing domestic constituency.

In return, countless Asian American celebrities, including Kal Penn, John Cho, and Kelly Hu, took time from their schedules to traverse the country as advocates for an Obama presidency. They spoke not just to other Asian Americans, but to voters at-large, making the case for Barack Obama. On the Internet, those of us lacking the notoriety of a Hollywood celebrity worked tirelessly to blog and organize local events for the Obama campaign. I remember, a few weeks before the election, standing back and marveling at just how powerful the APIA political community has demonstrated itself to be.

Since that night, the Obama bubble has taken a beating. The president’s approval rating has suffered a slow decline since his inauguration, and some setbacks and gaffes have marred the optimism that swept the nation on the eve of November 4th, 2008. But I, for one, remain optimistic. I refuse to give in to those who would turn the word “hope” into a dirty, taboo four-letter-word.

Contrary to the arguments of Obama’s detractors, supporters of the president aren’t idolators. We know we elected a man, not a messiah, to the presidency. I, for one, am patient with the president — he has made mistakes but I think even just changing the attitude of the White House is an amazing achievement. Consider: in Obama’s first year, the recession has taken a turn for the better, diplomatic relationships have been re-opened, and healthcare reform is experiencing a real, and viable, debate.  

Every administration includes its share of bumps along the way. But, I think we must hold on to the hope and optimism we felt a year ago. A year ago, racial minorities of every creed and shade came together to overturn the status quo and make a difference. A year ago, we refused to give up. A year ago, we elected the first person of colour as president. A year ago, we achieved victory and yet, even then, we did not stop working. A year ago, the idealists won out over the skeptics and cynics, and a year from now (or perhaps two, or three, or four) we will see even greater fruits from our endeavours. A year ago, we changed the world.

And, that is what the Obama presidency has and always will signify to me.

The Growing Asian American Vote

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The LA Times has a story out today on a report released by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center detailing the Asian American vote in the 2008 presidential election. Gratifyingly, the report notes that the Asian American voter turnout in Los Angeles County has grown by an astounding 39% in California since 2000, showing the growing importance of the Asian American vote in the state.

For the countless organizations that are involved in improving voter turnout for APIAs, this is great news —  a validation of the countless hours spent canvassing and phonebanking Asian American voters to increase voter turnout. But it also underscores to me the importance of GOTV efforts — even with the massive increase in APIA voter turnout in L.A. County, the national voter turnout for APIAs remains 7% lower than the national average.

The 2008 election was also an energizing election; GOTV efforts must also focus now on ensuring that Asian American voters continue to vote — not just in national elections, but in local elections for propositions, city council, and state government.

The report has some interesting findings on top of its “take-home message” that APIA voter turnout has increased in L.A. county. Check out this graph showing voter trends within the APIA community and compared to all registered voters in the region. Unlike the voting population at-large, Asian American voters are predominantly foreign-born and skew older, suggesting that language, immigration, and other concerns that appeal to immigrant voters will have greater impact on our community. Indeed, APALC reports that over 90% of Asian American voters, regardless of country of origin, support improving English language training for immigrants.

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Yet, that foreign-born older voters favoured McCain over Obama — despite McCain’s chronic flip-flopping on immigration that would tend discourage immigrant interests. Could this be a manifestation of the poor outreach the Democratic Party has towards Asian immigrant voters?

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The report also has some interesting data regarding issues that the APIA community voted on. An astounding 90% of APIAs in L.A. county support universal healthcare. Yet, despite data indicating that most APIAs in L.A. county are Democrats, a majority also supported Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage.

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This support seemed to differ based on voter ethnicity and voter age. Not surprisingly, older voters (who tend to be more conservative) supported Prop 8. Yet, the ethnic data is more interesting: while Chinese Americans opposed Prop 8, Filipino and Korean Americans voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning same-sex marriage — perhaps this has to do with the strong Catholic faith in these ethnicities communities?

We must focus our energy on maintaining the increased voter activity amongst APIA voters: 2008 cannot be a flash-in-the-pan. Rather, APIA voters must continue to stay involved in local elections, deciding propositions, city council, school board and state government representatives. This means that GOTV campaigns are still critical for maintaining and increasing our voter turnout. More than ever, we need to ensure APIA voters get out to the polls by increasing voter education, helping them get to the polls, and ensuring that they have adequate language access to voting material. (Incidentally, APALC also reports that roughly 1/3 of Asian American voters experience limited English proficiency, and they also released a report showing that bilingual phone calls and mailers are highly effective in increasing APIA voter turnout.)

And why do we need to vote? Asian Americans have, too often, been discounted during campaign season because we are perceived as being too small a community to effect election outcomes. Yet, in L.A. County last year, a whopping 63% of Asian Americans voted for President Obama (although, to be fair, that number mirrors the county-wide support Obama won in the 2008 general). While Obama won L.A. County handily in the 2008 presidential election, if all 2932,000 Asian Americans who had voted for Obama voted for McCain in that election, Obama’s margin of victory over McCain would have shrunken. And certainly, had Obama carried enough Asian American votes in L.A. County in the Democratic primary, he might have won the region instead of Clinton.

With recognition that Asian Americans wield voting power comes national attention — and more importantly — campaign promises. Recognizing the importance of the APIA demographic, Obama made several campaign promises during his presidential campaign that have since paid off  for APIAs — he has appointed a surprising number of Asian Americans to his administration, and earlier this month he signed an executive order increasing federal resources addressing disparities within the Asian American community.

Long story short — in this pluralistic society, voter apathy is tempting. But, our community can’t afford to fall by the way-side. The Asian American community deserves political attention, and we can only get that by participating in the political process.

Congratulations, John Liu!

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John Liu isn’t Asian America’s singular political leader (do we even have one?), but he’s pretty dang close. Those of us who have been around the politically active wing of the APA community have seen how John Liu, a New York City councilman, is omnipresent in virtually every major political action that our community has involved itself in. Councilman Liu has made a career of encouraging Asian Americans to be more politically involved, more vocal, and more strategic in our demands for improved political representation and civil rights.

This year, Councilman Liu rallied the national APA community in support of his race for NYC comptroller, a position responsible for overseeing billions of dollars of city funds. Yesterday, the votes in the Democratic primary were cast, and when the dust settled, Liu became NYC’s Democratic candidate for this position. And with NYC the left-leaning city that it is, there’s little doubt that Liu and other Democrats who won this tough primary race are going to emerge victorious against their Republican competitors in November.

But the real victors here are the Asian American community, who worked vigorously to help Liu become the first Asian American elected to city-wide office in New York City. Daniel Collins at The Huffington Postsardonically attributes Liu’s win to the APA community’s “hunger” for representationdespite what Collins characterises as Liu’s lacklustre qualifications for the job as comptroller. Nonetheless, Liu has been an incredible advocate for his constituents, Asian American and otherwise, and I personally see no reason to suspect that Liu, power-drunk with the new position of comptroller, will bankrupt the Big Apple. 

Meanwhile, there’s one inescapable fact here: how is it that New York City, with one of the oldest, largest and most vibrant Chinese communities in the country, is only now — in 2009 — capable of electing an Asian American to a city-wide public office? Yesterday’s election results in NYC are a blow to the rampant political underrepresentation of Asian Americans in this country, and I hope that pundits nationwide are finally sitting up and taking notice: in the new millennium, Asian Americans are –as we should be — a political force to be reckoned with.

Act Now! The race isn’t over for John Liu: he goes against Republican opponent Joe Mendola on November 3rd. And while Liu is the front-runner in that race, now is not the time to get lackadaisical. Whether an NYC resident or clear across the country, volunteer for and contribute to Liu’s campaign at his campaibn website.