And no, I’m not talking about the presidential motorcade.
What I saw was people from my near-Chattanooga hometown caring about what was being said by a government official.
The contents of the speech became the small talk subject of choice for many because Obama had visited the area.
But that’s not always the case when politicians speak from locations farther away from Southeast Tennessee.
When I lived in Washington, D.C., for a few months during college, a new word found its way into my vocabulary. Those who paid close attention to politics were often called “wonks.”
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a wonk as “a person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy.”
While I’m not encouraging you to be excessive, most people could stand to be a little bit more wonkish in how they pay attention to politics.
I was in college during the 2008 election year, and the election process became a major point of discussion for many of my classmates and I. After all, many of us were excited to be first-time voters.
Some would even discuss which candidates they were supporting; that is, those who actually knew who was running.
“So, who all’s running for president this year? I heard Obama’s going to do cool things to help college students pay for school,” said an 18-year-old woman who will remain nameless.
That question made me cringe.
Whether or not I agreed with her political views was irrelevant. What disturbed me was that she was an extremely uninformed voter ready to elect a president based on hearsay. On election day, she proudly displayed an “I voted” sticker on her shirt.
Sadly, I have heard similar sentiments from older adults who should supposedly be mature enough to know better.
Knowing better includes making sure one has a working knowledge of who is on a ballot before voting in the next election.
It is usually pretty easy to find information about what people running for office claim to believe. All one has to do to find websites where each politician outlines his or her views is to do a simple online search. If you do not have Internet access, try calling politicians’ offices.
Being an informed voter also includes knowing who is representing you in government right now and listening to what they have to say.
You do not have to agree with President Obama to be aware of what he says to the American people. Your listening is not a personal endorsement. Listening makes you a concerned citizen.
What gets shared from podiums can turn from words to actions. Words can become laws you have to live by.
You may say you hate politics, but what is or is not accomplished through the political process affects you anyway.
The American government has its flaws, and we all know that even the most straightforward-sounding initiatives are met with heavy debate. That is both the curse and the beauty of our style of democracy. Division over important issues is never ideal, but it is good that everything is up for debate, as that is not the case in many countries.
It is important for you to know where you stand on the issues you care about and to know who stands with you.
But being able to have that knowledge requires paying attention to politics.
Sure, it is understandable to want to avoid listening to a speech by someone you don’t like. But it’s important that you do it anyway.
It is our government, and we need to make sure it is working for us.
Politicians are elected “by the people for the people,” and you are one of those people. At the end of the day, they should be working with the people’s interests in mind.
But they cannot truly serve the people they are meant to represent if they do not know what the people want. It is their responsibility to find that out, but you play a part as well.
When a government official gives you the opportunity to share your opinion, don’t be afraid to speak up. Even when they don’t, look for ways to bring their attention to the causes that mean the most to you.
You have a voice. Use it.
Just know that your voice has more credibility and power behind it if you are aware of what has been happening around you.
Ignoring politicians you disagree with does not make them stop doing and saying the things with which you disagree. It just makes you willfully uninformed.
Paying attention to the more wonkish details of the world around you can make you a more informed citizen of your hometown, your state and your country. In fact, you might also gain the ability to help other people stay informed.
Frankly, all local, state and federal governments are made better when they are kept accountable for their actions — both the positive ones and the negative ones. That happens when everyday people start paying more attention to what is happening around them.
Don’t forget to pay attention.