“Before I leave my note for our 45th president, I wanted to say one final thank you for the honor of serving as your 44th. Because all that I’ve learned in my time in office, I’ve learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.”
– President Barack Obama, January 19, 2017
President Obama, today you officially leave the White House and reenter life as a (somewhat) private citizen. After an incredible, yet curious, eight years, you leave a unique legacy to a nation that challenged you both professionally and personally. From my vantage point as an average citizen, I feel you did as best you could do.
First, you took on the most difficult job anyone could have: proverbial leader of the “Free World.” It’s a position riddled with dichotomies: intensely powerful and emotionally draining; prestigious and notorious; riveting and excruciating; honorific and horrifying. With a glaring tone of schizophrenia, it’s not so much a job as it is a role. Chief Executive of the United States of America stretches across the horizon of humanity. No wonder you leave office looking decades older than when you first arrived!
Second – and perhaps most important – you took on this task at the start of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; when we straddled two wars that left us enraged and tired; when the richest, most powerful nation on Earth suddenly had to question its future in relation to its past. And you did it with members of the opposition who awoke each day more determined to destroy you than to ensure the nation’s success.
Your life story is fascinating. Here you are – born of a Black immigrant father who abandoned you almost from the start and a White teenage mother who nurtured you as best as her young age would allow, but who would never see your rise to fame – one individual beginning life under such duress. You attended Columbia College where you majored in political science and English literature. You moved on to Harvard University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education and one of the most difficult to access. You were then president of the Harvard Law Review. Before that, though, you were a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles where a hint to your political ambition became apparent in a speech calling for the college to sever its investments in South Africa. None of these are small achievements.
As president, you helped to salve the damage of the Great Recession with investments in an economy that created 11 million new jobs; the longest such streak on record. Unemployment is now down to pre-recession levels. With exports up by 28% and a deficit cut by $800 billion, the stock markets have nearly tripled, the auto industry is flourishing again, and our reliance on foreign oil stands at a 40-year low. High school graduation rates increased substantially, and Pell Grants doubled. Your administration instituted new federal student loan payment plans; established a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; put in place a new mortgage refinance program; passed a Patient’s Bill of Rights; extended protection for land and water resources; and placed limits on carbon pollution.
If I have any grievances regarding your record, they are few, but noteworthy. I personally don’t care for the Affordable Care Act, as it presently stands. You and your fellow Democrats seemed to spend too much time designing and implementing this law, instead of focusing even more time and energy on the economy. Americans certainly don’t need another tax, when they’re having trouble finding stable employment! I was also disappointed in your response to threats by your Republican colleagues to withhold benefits for the long-term unemployed at the end of 2010, if you didn’t agree to maintain the Bush-era tax cuts; the very items that shoved the nation into economic jeopardy shortly before you took office. I believe you had the executive power to force the dreaded tax cuts to expire as originally scheduled and further ensure benefits for those hapless citizens – people you rightfully deemed “hostages” – remained in place. There were other down moments: “Operation Fast and Furious” and the Benghazi tragedy, in particular. These episodes may haunt you, but they don’t define you.
You withstood the worst personal attacks on any public official I’ve ever seen. From vicious protests by a band of (all-White) conservative students at Texas A & M University to a South Carolina congressman shouting “You lie!” in the midst of your first State of the Union address (something that had never happened before); the Arizona governor jutting her crooked finger into your face and later claiming you intimidated her; and finally to the asinine “birther” movement propagated by the incoming president, you’ve endured extreme social and political animosity. As someone who began following U.S. politics with the Watergate scandal, I can say with 100% certainty that I’ve never witnessed such levels of verbal barbarity and recalcitrance as what your Republican counterparts slung at you.
It’s obvious you tried to restrain your frustration; fighting through the muck of political swamp water. But I still wish you had simply gotten ugly with these clowns. With each personal assault, I kept wishing you’d strip away your professional comportment momentarily and bring forth the worst parts of your personality (the kind that exists in all of us); the nigger and / or redneck sides of you – all in a concerted effort to try to communicate with your adversaries. They didn’t like you anyway. Nothing you did or said could possibly satisfy their pathetically myopic attitudes. If you tried to negotiate and compromise, they dubbed you weak and ineffective. If you dared to raise your voice and talk back to them, they declared you uppity. You couldn’t win no matter what you did. So, why remain polite and dignified all the time? Yes, I realize that’s not your nature. But, in dealing with arrogance and outright stupidity, you occasionally have to jump into the gutter with those fools, merely so they can understand you. I’ve had to do just that in my own professional life and I always hated it. I despised dumbing down my intellectual capacity just to get my point across. It’s nasty and painful to we intellects who understand the value and necessity of good dialogue. But, like cleaning a dirty toilet in your bathroom, sometimes you just have to behave in such a manner to get things done.
And, despite the blatant, unapologetically crude and juvenile behavior your opponents exhibited, you tightened your lips, held your head high and kept your back straight. You let your emotions show on only a handful of occasions; mainly when yet another deranged gunman rained terror on unsuspecting innocents. In other words, you allowed the true nature of your humanity gush forward when it really mattered.
Your poise and demeanor are unmatched among modern-day public servants. You and your beautiful family are emblematic of grace and class. Mrs. Obama, in particular, displayed personal charm and studious refinement; more so than all four of her predecessors combined.
In 2012, I published an essay on this blog entitled “Barack Obama – The Unintentional Martyr”; where I highlighted that your professional troubles were a predictable, almost unavoidable evil; a grueling necessity to compel America to hold up to its promise of dignity and equality for all citizens. You paved the way for future candidates who won’t fit into the pre-ordained mold of what an American president should look and sound like. I suspect if your father had been born in Europe, Canada or even Australia, no one would have questioned your citizenship or your legitimacy. But he was from Africa – the “Dark Continent” – that massive region of Earth that is the birthplace of humanity and whose indigenous peoples had the audacity to expel a cavalcade of brutal European colonists and – gasp! – demand they be treated with the proper deference naturally due to them as human beings.
I understand the hate that a mixed ethnic background incurs from the cerebrally- challenged. I’m White (mostly Spanish, but also one-quarter German) and Mexican Indian. I tell some people I’m justified in criticizing middle-aged White guys because…well, I’m one of them; while I told others who didn’t care for you to just vote for the “White Obama.” My ancestry in the state of Texas extends back to a time before the Mayflower pilgrims had even begun making travel plans. I celebrate my complex heritage because it ultimately spells A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N.
Unfortunately, future history-making presidents will have to face the same barrage of disquieting irreverence: the first female, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, or gay / lesbian Chief Executive. All of them will have their character questioned and their birthright authenticity shredded by those who think America’s sacred promise of opportunity and equality actually applies only to them and their ilk. These prospective White House occupants will be forced to prove their place in this great American society is not defined by other peoples’ ideals.
Sadly, you leave office – and the fate of the nation – in the lap of a maniacal, temperamental, foul-mouthed, proudly bigoted oaf; a cretin who holds no qualms in lambasting anyone who is the least bit different from or disagrees with him, yet seethes about the most diminutive of sleights. He has single-handedly reduced the prominence of the U.S. presidency to 140 character rants.
I’m trying to imagine you entering the White House with a much-younger third wife for whom you left your second wife. My brain cramps as I try to envision you standing before a crowd of thousands demanding they pummel a dissenter into the ground. I can only wonder the reaction you’d get telling a mass of financially-struggling Appalachian Whites, “What do you have to lose?”
I will miss you, Mr. Obama, along with your eloquent words and unimposing determination to make the United States live up to its full potential as a nation for all people. You can rest now, my good man; start building your library; await the days you become a father-in-law and a grandfather; and – above all – get some sleep!