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Let’s Stay Together: On the Ground at Obama, Jay-Z, and Bruce Springsteen’s Final Push

Barack Obama at his final rally in Des Moines, IA

President Barack Obama’s final campaign rally — the last time, win or lose, he will ever put himself before voters — wasn’t even his highest-profile event of the day. That was earlier Monday, in Columbus, Ohio, where prominent supporter Jay-Z galvanized the audience with a brief performance that included a strategically modified version of “99 Problems” (“…and a Mitt ain’t one”). Bruce Springsteen was there, too. Fresh off a telethon benefiting victims of Hurricane Sandy, the Boss joined Obama in three so-called swing states yesterday, beginning in Madison, Wisconsin, and ending, with First Lady Michelle Obama, in Des Moines, Iowa, where a junior senator with a name uncomfortably similar to “Osama” first launched his presidential ambitions about six years ago.

Held in downtown Des Moines just outside Obama’s original Iowa campaign headquarters, not far from a riverside amphitheater used in warmer seasons for outdoor concerts, the event in one sense might’ve underlined the 2012 presidential election’s oddly inextricable ties to popular music. Springsteen, as in his previous shows stumping for Obama, fired up the crowd with his playful custom-written campaign jingle, “Forward and Away We Go,” this time spicing up his surreal presidential impression by imitating the Leader of the Free World singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (after the second debate, he joked, Obama called singing LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”). Meanwhile, in Fairfax, Virginia, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — appearing without outspoken champion Kid Rock — was name-checking the Beatles, as the New York Times reports. When all you need is love, what use is there for FEMA?

And yet, despite an election that has somehow involved Katy Perry dressed as a human ballot, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan talking up staunch leftists Rage Against the Machine, the president being forced to explain poetic license in reference to a Nicki Minaj mixtape track, the president being asked to choose between Minaj and Mariah Carey, and the cat-in-heat-not-Bat-Out-of-Hell return of Meat Loaf, to try to hang a music angle on last night’s event in Iowa would feel dishonest. An estimated 20,000 people were in attendance, several thousand more than could’ve squeezed in to see Bruce Springsteen’s last show here in 2009, and about a tenth of the city’s official population. Most waited hours, in the early November chill. Surely, some had been here four years ago, when Obama’s first-in-the-nation caucus victory put him en route to become what is so rarely mentioned anymore, what had once been unthinkable: our first black president, in a White House built by slaves.

Unless you were extraordinarily lucky last night, you couldn’t see much. Springsteen, and then the First Lady, and finally the president all spoke at one end of a narrow street in a restored historic district. So even if there weren’t that many people between you and the podium, they were all crammed in front of you, rather than spread out in wide rows like in a theater. Secret Service officers patrolled the rooftops of the buildings enclosing us. A Jimmy John’s location sat there tantalizingly, so close, so many sardines-packt human beings away. A sandwich cannon would’ve been nice, but at least you couldn’t smell the bread to get your stomach rumbling.

We’ve seen an animated GIF showing that Barack and Michelle embraced tenderly. We’ve read that the president shed a tear when reflecting on the 2008 campaign. We couldn’t see any of that. But we heard them. We heard Springsteen gruffly strum a few songs, including “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “No Surrender,” alone with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. We heard the First Lady reflect on the family’s many experiences in Iowa, perhaps most memorably seeing her husband’s face carved in butter by the Iowa State Fair’s famous “butter cow lady”: “Believe me, we still talk about that at Christmas.”

And we heard the president. Hoarser than usual after the all-out rallies of the campaign’s final days, he sounded a populist note at times, invoking consecutively a laid-off furniture worker, a restaurant owner who needs a loan, the staff of a hotel, a laid-off autoworker now back on the job, a teacher in an overcrowded clasroom. And kids. “Children don’t have lobbyists,” he inarguably noted. The mood died down as he went through a few bromides about how “democracy is you” and those around us sadly realized they weren’t going to be able to catch a peek of him.

But then Obama retold his old stump story about that rough morning more than four years ago in Greenwood, South Carolina, and the little, well-dressed woman who would shout, “Fired up.” The others in the room would reply, “Ready to go.” Those of you who watched on TV might know that it’s around this time the president wept onstage, but again, we couldn’t see that. He hinted that this woman, Edith Childs, might be his special guest tonight, but then dashed our hopes in the best way possible: by saying she was in North Carolina, working to turn out the vote. “I’m still fired up, but I’ve got work to do.” One voice, he reminded us, can “change the world.”

It was right about this time, as the crowd hollered the “fired up” and “ready to go” chant back at the president, that the baby in our arms woke up, after having slept soundly through the entire evening of his first birthday. Then the event was over. The presidential motorcade sped off down Des Moines’ Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Elsewhere, Beyoncé had posted a brief note thanking the president. Bob Dylan, in Congressman Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, was predicting a “landslide,” as quoted by the AP. Ty Segall, performing on Late Show With David Letterman, shouted, “Go vote!” And for once, after a bitter and unprecedentedly costly campaign, with or without pop butting its glittery head in, no matter what our politics, it really was about us. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to vote today.