Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Slate intern Jonathan Rubin filed this dispatch after watching Obama’s speech last night .

Last night at a rally in Chicago, Barack Obama coined a new catch phrase . While talking about time spent as a young community organizer, he said he was surrounded by “doubt” and “cynicism.” He then offered his usual hope shtick: The task of repairing America seemed insurmountable, he said, but ordinary people are still not only capable of affecting change, they are essential to it. And they always have been. Finally, he brought the rhetoric to a climax. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he said, and the crowd, which had been applauding throughout the night, roared back. Great line, but was it his?

No, and it wasn’t even the first time his campaign used it. California first lady Maria Shriver used the line while endorsing him in Los Angeles Sunday . At the rally, she gave credit to the real authors—the Hopi Indians, a dwindling Native American tribe now living entirely in Arizona reservations.  

Shriver wasn’t the first to adapt the message to politics, either.   The liberal left has used it on anti-government rants on YouTube , as have Green Party members . The phrase has percolated in the black community, as well. Alice Walker used it as the title of her 2006 book— We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. African-American AIDS organizations  have used it, and it was the title of a 2006 hip-hop album .

But it’s most fitting for Obama. He appeals to many of America’s skeptics—he’s young, he’s bold, he’s black, and he seems different. Obama might be trying to take advantage of Americans’ frustration with their government. Obama’s campaign has always been centered around the hope that Americans are tired of waiting for others to save them. His quote makes the American people their own redeemers—putting the onus on them to change the country. He is just a leader, he implies, while they are the troops on the ground. It’s a nice sentiment, even if it also sounds a little like Gandhi’s famous line, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Maybe the next slogan after this won’t come from Hopis or hippies, but somewhere else entirely—like Facebook, perhaps. There, on Obama’s page , a fan wrote this gem:

“Tell yo mama to vote fo obama!”