From a Child of the Obama Administration
As I watched President Obama deliver his farewell address, I began to feel emotional. A flood of feelings washed over me; sadness, inspiration, fear, anguish, and hope all engulfing me in the heat of this important moment. I mostly kept it together until the end, but when he declared "Yes, we can!" one last time and beckoned his family to the stage, my eyes filled with tears.
At first, I wasn't sure what had elicited this response. I've never been a strong supporter of the Obama presidency. Time and time again, I felt that he followed a centrist strategy of leading from behind without making meaningful change to address the problems that plague most Americans. He spurned the public option and passed the Affordable Care Act which, despite visceral hatred from the right-wing, can be considered to be essentially a right-wing response to the issue of health care coverage modeled after RomneyCare. He continued to take millions of dollars from wealthy donors, appointed Wall Street bankers to his cabinet, and failed to make meaningful progress in the realm of campaign finance reform. He offered milquetoast responses to the explosive incidents of racist police brutality at a time when his country needed strong and candid leadership. He continued to bomb half a dozen countries, allowing the US to continue to be dragged into foreign conflicts it had no business being involved in. He deported thousands of immigrants, splitting up families and terrorizing communities. He betrayed his "fair trade" promises by pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Then I thought back to the morning after his election in 2008. I was in 5th grade, so I couldn't follow the election very closely, but I knew how important it was when I saw my mother crying while watching a video of his acceptance speech. I remember her telling me how historic this was, and I remember hearing about how revolutionary it was that we, the United States of America, a country built by slaves on land stolen by Native Americans, had elected our first black president.
I thought back to election night in 2012. I stayed up late, later than I should have as a high school freshman on a school night, to see the returns for the first election I ever followed closely. I remember how excited I was to see the blue districts outnumbering the red districts, and how exhilarating it was when the announcers on CNN indicated that they had a new call to make.
I realized that Barack Obama was the president that I grew up with. He defined what the presidency meant to me and, therefore, what politics meant to me. He showed that it meant grace, dignity, intelligence, worldliness, maturity, working to understand different perspectives, and, most of all, inspiring hope.
If I had grown up in a different era, I doubt if I would have been as inspired as I am today to get involved in politics myself. If I had been born 8 years earlier, I would have seen the presidency as representing deceit, incompetence, and ruthlessness. If I had been born 16 years earlier, I would have seen it as representing manipulation, betrayal of ideals, and sensationalism. And, sadly, if I had been born 8 years later, I would have seen it as representing brashness, insensitivity, immaturity, buffoonery, and dangerous demagoguery.
I am a child of the Obama presidency. I was born in the year of the Lewinsky scandal, I was raised through the crucible of the Iraq War and the Great Recession. My fire was lit by Bernie Sanders, and I was called to action by the election of Donald Trump. But above all, I, and the other millions in my generation, regardless of whether they have any interest in politics, have been indelibly shaped by the example that Barack Obama set, both as a president and as a man.
I don't think that history will remember him as a great president. While I do believe that he is the first president since Carter who didn't actively make the country worse (which, in the context of our recent history, is really something to be said), he didn't accomplish anything particularly impressive or remarkable to stand out among the pantheon of White House occupants. As I said before, his administration turned out to be an overall disappointment. However, his true legacy, one that perhaps won't be recorded in textbooks, will be measured by the impact that he left in the millions of young people he inspired and informed. If judged in that manner, he should have a place on Mount Rushmore.