Dear President Obama,
“Yes we can.” These words stretched across your campaign ads, challenging the American people to embrace a concept that was both hardly new and scarcely felt: hope. The nation’s volatile state leading up to the 2008 presidential election is well documented. Millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs, stock markets crashed, and over 140,000 U.S. Troops were in Iraq fighting a senseless war. All of this occurred in addition to long-term societal issues such as racial injustice and sexism.
What’s often forgotten is that public trust for the government plummeted more under President Bush than any other president in history. We, as a nation, were desperate—for leadership, results, and most importantly transparency. Like the public school students across the nation represented in the 2010 documentary starring Geoffrey Canada, we were “Waiting for Superman.” Perhaps if we recognized that you didn’t wear a cape or change in phone booths in your spare time, we would’ve had more appreciation for the last eight years.
I first saw you at a political event I attended with my grandmother in my home state of New Jersey in late 2005. With no knowledge that you’d soon run for President, I was immediately struck by your charisma and genuineness when you took the podium. I had no interest in politics. Just ten years old, I would’ve much preferred to be playing basketball, watching anime, or sneaking on Myspace than this. Luckily, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. I’d never heard a politician speak with such optimism without sounding like he or she was selling me something. Your passion was evident—a theme that would resound throughout your presidency.
Your energetic campaign, one based on change and positivity, united Americans from a wide array of backgrounds and turned out black voters in unprecedented numbers. Young voters also poured in for the promise of a break from the past, where their voices would matter. We were behind you. Believe it or not, the stakes somehow seemed different than winning or losing a presidential election. This was much bigger than that. As the final votes were tallied, there probably weren’t many eyes still fixed on television screens across the nation. We were already celebrating your landslide victory. Maybe, we thought, things were finally going to be alright.
The synergy formed around this collective win was short-lived. There were Republicans who publicly pledged idleness for the sole purpose of seeing you fail. There were people lurking over your shoulder who wished to do harm to you and your family. The economy was still plunging downward. Immigration and healthcare reform were still pertinent issues without visible compromises or solutions. The dream we’d all pushed so hard for was fading. In fact, most of us had woken up, rolled out of bed, and reached for our toothbrushes by the end of your first year in office. The only question was how to face the challenges of another day.
As you transition from office today, the nation is in a better place than it was when you were sworn in. Marriage equality has been achieved, US Troops have mostly withdrawn from Iraq, unemployment is half of peak Recession percentages, nearly 20 million more Americans are insured, and the world views this nation in a more positive light. Despite its power and privileges, the presidency is quite limited. Many of these changes have not benefited marginalized people.
Wages remain stagnant and there are roughly the same amount of Americans living in poverty. Unarmed black men and women are still being murdered by police without justice being served. In these inhumane acts of violence, the slain victims are often posthumously characterized as criminals instead. Although you’ve commuted over 1,000 sentences, the prison industrial complex will continue to exploit young people of color. Inner city school systems remain unable to serve the needs of these same kids. As a result, communities of color will find themselves entrapped in cycles of poverty for generations to come. Black and brown people around the world continue to suffer from violence and starvation, as gross inequality increases. All of these factors, and our President-elect seems poised to make things worse. While these and other issues often consume me as an activist, I have to thank you. Because of you, I still believe.
November 9, 2016. This was one of the darkest days I can remember. The sliver skyline was nearly as gloomy as my college campus, which had been aired out by a crushing loss the night before. Students shed tears and locked hands in prayers of solidarity. With the election of a man who undermined all marginalized communities and campaigned on hatred, it seemed as though human decency had lost on the ballot. As was the case in 2008, the stakes were higher than winning or losing a presidential election. This was much bigger than that. But as you spoke optimistically during your farewell speech and last press conference, I thought to myself “maybe things are going to be alright.”
For me, you have always personified hope. It’s not because of your policies. It’s not because your swag is on auto pilot. It’s not because you liked “To Pimp a Butterfly”, because you know the words to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, or because your jump shot is (almost) as good as mine. It’s because you also know what it’s like to be followed around a store or profiled by the police. It’s because your lovely wife Michelle, the most highly educated first lady in history, had her appearance insulted and you both maintained your dignity. It’s because you shouldered both the wins and losses, giving credit where its due. It’s because your family handled the White House with unparalleled class and stayed true throughout. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have you in office throughout the entirety of my adolescence. You carry the resilience of our black ancestors in your every step. You are not Superman. You are not Malcolm X. You are not MLK. You are Barack Obama, and your resilience has inspired my and future generations to continue to be proud of who we are and to fight for the change we desire. Can we do it? Well you know the answer to that.