‘Yes, we can’: Thank Michelle for that

Iconic battle cry for change was ini­tially dis­missed by a young Barack Obama as too corny – but his wife dis­agreed

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD - KATIE METTLER

PRES­I­DENT Barack Obama bid farewell to the nation on Tues­day night in the same city where he be­gan his quest for the pres­i­dency, with the same three words that launched it. “Yes, we can,” he said in Chicago. “Yes, we did. Yes, we can.”

The phrase – along­side “change we can be­lieve in”, “Hope” and “fired up and ready to go” – is among the most in­deli­ble slo­gans the first black pres­i­dent em­ployed to con­vey his po­lit­i­cal mes­sage dur­ing the last decade.

“Yes, we can” de­fined his most fa­mous 2008 speeches in New Hamp­shire and Chicago and was chanted at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies na­tion­wide. It ap­peared on cam­paign posters and in­spired a song and a celebrity-packed mu­sic video by artist will.i.am.

And, like some of the nation’s most revered word ar­range­ments, it al­most didn’t hap­pen.

Obama ini­tially thought the al­most lyri­cal catch­phrase was “corny”. His wife con­vinced him other­wise. That piv­otal mo­ment for “yes, we can” came in 2004, when Obama was run­ning for the US Senate in Illi­nois as a long­shot, “se­ri­ously un­der-funded” can­di­date, po­lit­i­cal ad­viser David Ax­el­rod wrote in his 2015 me­moir Be­liever: My 40 Years in Pol­i­tics.

Ax­el­rod, at the time Obama’s cam­paign me­dia ad­viser, had writ­ten, as the very last line of Obama’s very first 30-sec­ond senate cam­paign ad, the words “Yes, we can”.

“The ini­tial ad, nar­rated by Obama, wove his per­sonal his­tory of de­fy­ing the odds – as the first black pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Re­view and on is­sues such as death penalty re­form – into a para­ble about break­ing down bar­ri­ers,” Ax­el­rod ex­plained in the book. “It had strong ap­peal to the black and lib­eral vot­ers on whom we were count­ing. The clos­ing lines tied his per­sonal his­tory to a larger theme.”

“Now they say we can’t change Washington,” the much younger Obama says in the ad. “I’m Barack Obama, I’m run­ning for the United States Senate and I ap­prove this mes­sage to say, Yes, we can!”

Obama taped the ad at the home of a neighbour, Ax­el­rod wrote, and when he read the words aloud dur­ing the first take, the young can­di­date “wrin­kled his face and ex­pressed a con­cern”.

“‘Yes, we can’,” he re­peated. “Is that too corny?”

Michelle Obama, who had an hour of spare time and had come to watch her hus­band film the first ad, lis­tened from a stair­case as Ax­el­rod ex­plained his ra­tio­nale for the fi­nal three words.

Obama was un­con­vinced. He turned to his wife.

“Meesh,” Ax­el­rod re­calls Obama ask­ing. “What do you think?”

Chin in hand, she shook her head slowly, side to side, and said: “Not corny.”

“That was enough,” Ax­el­rod wrote in the book. “My re­as­sur­ance had left Obama still won­der­ing, but he deeply trusted Michelle’s in­stincts and con­nec­tion with peo­ple. Her im­pri­matur im­me­di­ately sealed the deal, pre­serv­ing a tag line that would be­come our ral­ly­ing cry in this and fu­ture cam­paigns.”

In an in­ter­view with the New York Times Mag­a­zine about that mo­ment in 2004, Ax­el­rod cred­ited the fu­ture first lady with the save. “Thank God she was there that day,” he told the Times.

Though Obama’s orig­i­nal story with the phrase be­gan in 2004, its roots as a uni­fy­ing slo­gan for com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ers dates back to the time of Amer­i­can labour leader Ce­sar Chavez, who co-founded with Dolores Huerta the United Farm Work­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, later the United Farm Work­ers (UFW), and first ut­tered the words in Span­ish.

“Si, se puede,” he said dur­ing his 25-day, Fast for Love in 1972 af­ter the Ari­zona leg­is­la­ture passed a bill spon­sored by the Farm Bureau deny­ing farm­work­ers the right to strike dur­ing har­vest sea­sons.

Just a few days into his strike, weak­ened and bedrid­den, Chavez, with Huerta by his side, was briefed by Latino labour and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers fight­ing the bill. They told him the grower lobby was too strong and ef­forts to fight it were fu­tile. “No, no se puede!” they told him. “No, no it can’t be done.” Still in bed, Chavez lifted his head from the pil­low and whis­pered: “Si, si se puede!” “Yes, yes, it can be done.” “Dolores Huerta im­me­di­ately un­der­stood the sig­nif­i­cance of the words and made the slo­gan the ral­ly­ing cry for the farm­work­ers’ cam­paign in Ari­zona,” the Foun­da­tion wrote, adding that “si, se puede!” went on to be “adopted world­wide, in­spir­ing ad­vo­cates of ev­ery­thing from other labour strug­gles and com­mu­nity em­pow­er­ment to civil rights and im­mi­grant rights.”

Obama’s 2008 use of the more col­lo­quial trans­la­tion of the phrase, “Yes, we can”, is prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar it­er­a­tion of the ral­ly­ing cry. At a cam­paign rally in Ne­vada that same year, his crowd chanted the Span­ish ver­sion – “Si, se puede!” – and the can­di­date chimed in, a move that drew some crit­i­cism at the time be­cause the UFW had en­dorsed his Demo­cratic pri­mary chal­lenger, Hil­lary Clin­ton.

But the Ce­sar Chavez Foun­da­tion told TIME in 2008 that it didn’t mind Obama em­ploy­ing the phrase: “The foun­da­tion it­self is com­fort­able with him us­ing the slo­gan Si Se Puede and so is the UFW to a cer­tain ex­tent,” said Paul Chavez.

“Be­ing that the UFW is very strongly for or­gan­ised labour and they have a very strong com­mit­ment to the Clin­ton camp there was some con­flict in­ter­nally. The way that it played out was that, as long as any in­di­vid­ual, whether it’s Hil­lary, whether it’s Obama, main­tains and sup­ports the stan­dards of what the slo­gan is... we’re com­fort­able with it be­cause we re­ally feel that it shouldn’t be lim­ited to just one camp.

“It’s a battle cry, a call to action whether it’s to vot­ing or get­ting out and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the po­lit­i­cal process.”

Years later, when Obama was hand­ing out the 2012 Pres­i­den­tial Medals of Free­dom, he cred­ited Huerta with coin­ing the three-word phrase that de­fined the UFW move­ment and now his own as­cent.

“Dolores was very gra­cious when I told her I had stolen her slo­gan, ‘Si, se puede’ Yes, we can’ ,” Obama said dur­ing the Medal of Free­dom cer­e­mony. “Knowing her, I’m pleased she let me off easy, be­cause Dolores does not play.”

Obama re­vived the Span­ish phrase once more in an ad­dress to the Cuban peo­ple in March.

And, in Chicago on Tues­day night, the pres­i­dent book­ended his pres­i­dency with the sig­na­ture words – with a nod to the theme of “change” that res­onated with many Amer­i­cans dur­ing his eight years in of­fice.

“I am ask­ing you to be­lieve. Not in my abil­ity to bring about change – but in yours,” he said. “I am ask­ing you to hold fast to that faith writ­ten into our found­ing doc­u­ments; that idea whis­pered by slaves and abo­li­tion­ists; that spirit sung by im­mi­grants and home­stead­ers and those who marched for jus­tice; that creed reaf­firmed by those who planted flags from for­eign bat­tle­fields onto the sur­face of the moon; a creed at the core of ev­ery Amer­i­can whose story is not yet writ­ten: “Yes, we can. “Yes, we did. “Yes, we can.” – The Washington Post

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