Posted by: cousindampier | 19 October 2016

The Obama Era, I Miss It So

By Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama’s Inauguration

 Eight years ago – almost to the day – I was at a Citizen Cope concert in Bethesda, Maryland. I was lucky to be there – my girlfriend at the time had grabbed tickets for my birthday – but I’d begun working for a progressive political consulting firm ahead of the 2008 elections and it was not the quietest of times.

Three weeks later, we’d had a role – very small, but a role – in getting Barack Obama elected as President. (More importantly, we’d helped downballot progressive races throughout the country, getting issues passed or candidates elected). And I discovered that election days were a little anti-climactic, because as the east coast results began to appear we had less and less to do. Eventually we retired to a bar in Adams-Morgan, drank Miller Lite, and watched America elect Obama.

Tonight is the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in three weeks – the longest three weeks in the history of America aside from that time it took William Henry Harrison to die of pneumoniai – it will all be over, and the eight years of the Obama era will have passed far too quickly.

**

My peers in age and I can mark out our lives in three phases: the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras. More to the point, those eras have corresponded with distinct life changes. My first memories are from the early 1990’s – I was seven when Clinton took office. By the time Bush was inaugurated I was 15 and beginning to learn to drive (I also have a distinct memory of staying up late the night of his election to figure out if I should colour Florida red or blue on my homework assignment. That wasn’t the worst of it – I got Nevada wrong).

The Bush era was a different kettle of fish. His first term was high school; his second was college. I was ‘coming of age,’ though I have no idea what that means and refuse to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ to find out. There was 9/11 and Iraq and the thought I might join the Navy and arguments about Bush and Kerry. They were political arguments of the type and scope which only high school kids can have – overly moralistic and not very nuanced.

The summer of 2008 I graduated college. Obama didn’t secure the nomination until after I graduated, because my friend Katie was still in Oregon or South Dakota or some random state. Soon after, the 2008 Hillary campaign ended and Katie was back and working for a private consulting firm and she started to ask me if I wanted to come to work.

I said no. I was a new graduate, and who wasn’t going to hire me to research Iraq and Afghanistan?

She kept asking.

No. The Brookings call was on the way!

She asked again.

I said yes, with just a little bit of “please?” mixed in, and to her word, Katie got me out of there that night and took the heat.

The three weeks between the concert and election day were the most exhausting, exhilarating, crazy and rewarding weeks of my life. I wasn’t really in charge of any aspect of any race – the only time I recall making a decision on a campaign was when Katie had been up for something like 30 hours and was trying to get some sleep on a couch. But that feeling you get working to get someone elected, working to get some random small ballot measure passed, staring at results of phone banks and trying to determine the next day’s strategy – its a spark that spreads, very quickly, into a fire.

Politics and voting is often derided, and sometimes justly – look no further than Congress overriding a Presidential veto only to immediately try to figure out how to override its override. But Congress isn’t really the problem. In 2014, members of congress were re-elected at a 95% clip, though the institution as a whole had an approval rating of 11%. The lesson, obviously, being that my congressperson is perfect and its all you idiots out there who should figure it out.

No theory really covers why politics is so unpopular. Maybe the system is broken. Maybe it is elitist – in that the horizontal movement is between the elite and public office. Maybe the money is too much – check out this Planet Money investigation which revealed former Idaho representative Walt Minnick’s statement that he needed to raise $10-15,000 per day. PER DAY. During the working week, he had to raise enough money to subsist a middle-class family for a whole year.

Or maybe it is because each generation has their superstars, their careers which call out for a larger purpose. Growing up, the names thrown about – Gates and Buffett and Jobs and Oprah and Zuckerberg – they were all people who ran multi-million dollar businesses.  The business generation began in the 1980’s, with Reaganomics, and peaked in the early 2000’s. Before that, it was artists and musicians, birthed in the 60’s and peaking in the 70’s. Today, its probably Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs.  It hasn’t been politics for a generation.

This is why I will miss Barack Obama – he made politics cool again.

**

In just under four months, 44 will be gone and 45 will be inaugurated, and the Obama era will be over. It already should be over, except he keeps doing fun things like letting Stephen Colbert interview him and pulling a Kobe Salute at Correspondents Dinners.

I don’t necessarily like everything he’s done. Obamacare needs some fixing and the sheer number of drone strikes is disconcerting, much less the bystanders killed, and we still don’t seem to have a coherent strategy in the Middle East. There’s a lot I do like as well – he got health care passed, oversaw a massive economic re-growth and put Joe Biden in a position to speak publicly multiple times per week, which is just a fantastic concept.

(Aside: Skip the “Bernie could win” debates. Imagine a Biden-Trump debate. Think of what we’ve missed, America. Think of the comedy we’ve missed.)

It’s not that he was a cool guy – that rationale is a terrible way to judge both presidents and potential flatmates. It was the how. The entire time, Obama was a politician and never tried to hide that; but he was so damn good that we often forgot. Go watch Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with him in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It’s funny, but the whole thing is an appeal for the ACA. He understood how to appeal to a growing generation of voters, and he was so charismatic that he made us laugh in the process.

However, the simplicity of being a politician doesn’t do him right. There were moments where he seemed approachable. Not ‘one of us,’ but someone we could aspire to be. He was amazed by the same things we were. He had intense sports fandom. He sang happy birthday to his daughter. He was – and is – a really great dad. Obama’s charisma stemmed from his sense of self. He was, by all accounts, humble enough to have that quiet confidence which we all aspire to have, the detachment which allows him to keep calm and come through in the clutch, ranging from debates to three pointers.

Aside from his graying hair, he never really seemed to let the job get to him, and he dealt with some incredibly complex and difficult issues.

He remains a brilliant speaker, and anybody who decries that needs a reality check. America remembers the words of Presidents. In my first grade class, the Gettysburg Address and the Constitution were taped to the wall. Not only do we remember words of Presidents, we remember morals – “I cannot tell a lie,” and “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and “Slavery? What slavery? I don’t know what you speak of,ii” and “Don’t boo – vote.”

His speech on race during the 2008 campaign will be remembered and read. (He also looks so young as to be another person. Coincidentally, this is also a debate topic on Fox and Friends next week. Headline: BARACK OBAMA BODY DOUBLE?). His press conference after Sandy Hook was good. His speech at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was brilliant, and that was before he sang Amazing Grace. And Selma somehow tops all of those.

America is very fundamentally different now. Society is more open and less constrictive. Health Care has been breached, and there is probably no going back – only modification. We are only partially embroiled in war, instead of totally embroiled. The economy is in such better shape as to also be unrecognizable (another Fox and Friends topic this week).

When the legalization of gay marriage was upheld, the White House was bathed in rainbow lights. He brought the science fair to the White House, declaring “if we are recognizing athletic achievement, we should also be recognizing academic achievement.” Apparently, the fair was one of his favourite events.

The man danced tango in Cuba, which gets lost in the shuffle of crazy things Obama did. For my entire life, and most of the lives of my parents, Cuba was the Elephant Graveyard – we don’t speak of it and we don’t go there. Then, suddenly, the President of the United States of America was there watching baseball and dancing tango, and that does not get nearly enough press.

**

In January 2009, a few friends of mine and the same girlfriend who bought the Citizen Cope tickets – and who had stuck with me even though I was, quite literally, barely home for six weeks – came over to sleep at my house. The next morning, we put on every piece of clothing we had and trekked through the absurd cold to Obama’s inauguration. Inaugurations are held in front of the Capital Building, but it was too crowded to slip in there, so we kept walking.

And walking.

And walking.

We settled in somewhere on the far side of the Washington Monument. This is more than a mile away from the steps of the Capital, and still more people packed in behind us. Nearly two million people attended Obama’s inauguration, and if he had an outgoing party there would surely be as many.

Perhaps Obama appeals to me. While my favouite Presidents are Republicans, I lean left. He was a young President who understood how to appeal using the internet; a brilliant speaker and a good comedian. Perhaps I have a bias because he is my generation’s President – my President.

But that doesn’t weigh down the fact that he will leave office as an incredibly popular President, and someone I – and millions of other Americans – look up to. Those months in 2008, I knew he was a politician but I was caught up in the lights and flash and cult of personality and I didn’t understand what that meant. Now, having seen Obama the President, I get it. He is a politician, and that term does not have to be dirty. He worked hard to sell the issues he cared about. He worked hard to find solutions where there were none, which is an underrated skill in a leader. He not only dealt with tragedy, he worked to find a larger theme of what it meant to be American – the sense of American exceptionalism, not found in American actions abroad, but found in our equality at home.

He wasn’t perfect, but no President is – and he was, and is, my President.

And I hope his legacy is not as the ‘cool President’ – not at all. Instead, I hope is legacy is the President who made politics cool again.

i Everyone dreaded a John Tyler Presidency.

ii Attributed to Millard Fillmore.

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