Tonight, President Obama will give a final prime time speech before the nation, this time, not from the Oval Office, but rather in Chicago, where his political career and run for the White house started. I will be watching, especially as someone who served as a canvass director for the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The man has consumed eight years of our lives, so the least we can do is watch him bid us farewell. For me, the campaign and presidency of the Barack Obama is mixed with my personal history.
I got into grassroots community work and activism when I was a freshman in college at West Chester University, just outside of Philly.This was during the early years of the Bush Administration. More specifically, what moved me was the lead-up to the Iraq War. Though I was not enlisted, I had a number of friends from high school who were enlisted, and prior to 9/11, they never thought they’d see much action. They joined the military because they had few opportunities, born in northeastern, Pennsylvania, a struggling coal-mining region. Furious that my friends could be shipped off to Iraq, with no sound reason, I became engaged in anti-war activism around West Chester and the Philly area, quickly learning about the rich Quaker history that was part of the area I then called home. I marched in Washington, Philly, and NYC. For years, even after the war started, we had vigils and protests on campus and downtown. By 2004, I worked on Howard Dean’s campaign and then John Kerry’s, registering voters, knocking on doors, making phone calls. I was struck by President Obama’s keynote address at the DNC and immediately penned an editorial for the college newspaper at the start of the fall semester, telling folks to pay attention to Sen. Obama because it was likely he’d run for president. He was young, charismatic and spoke with a unifying message about uniting red states and blue states. On Election Night 2004, I muttered numerous curses to the state of Ohio for swinging for George W. Bush and costing Kerry the election. We’d have to wait another four years. I was befuddled that a man who could start a war based on false evidence could be re-elected.
That said, I remained engaged, and by the time I graduated college and returned back to NEPA for graduate school and various jobs, I knew that I would side with Obama over Hillary in the 2007/2008 primarily, simply because of the Obama’s early opposition to the war in Iraq. Besides, as a young man, Obama’s optimism, coupled with the energy of his crowds, the ecstatic shouts of “Yes, we can,” that I witnessed when he came to the Dunmore Community Center, was unheralded in politics, at least for my generation. The potential of an Obama presidency was SUCH a stark contrast to the Bush years, to stupid wars, tax cuts for the rich, etc, etc. Obama had the energy to get people out to vote and remake the Democratic Party. So, I signed up to be a canvass director on both campaigns.
That said, I wasn’t afraid to criticize Obama over the years. I thought the Affordable Care Act should have included a public option, pushing the country even closer to a single-payer, universal system. I thought he should have been more forceful in trying to close Gitmo, one of his biggest campaign promise from 2008. His administration should have gone after the banksters and really regulated Wall Street. It’s a sin no one was arrested for the crash and great recession of 2007, and Eric Holder refused to prosecute anyone. Too many times, especially during the first term, Obama was too willing to reach out to Republicans. As a result, he lost major political points, including two crushing mid-terms for his party. The GOP succeeded at making government seem dysfunctional. Yet, his presidency gave health to over 20 million people. He made economic inequality part of the national dialogue. He has also done more to combat the serious threats of climate change than any other president, mostly through executive action. Beyond that, he has a poise and intelligence that will be deeply missed,especially in contrast to the Trump administration.
Leaving office, Obama’s party lacks clear leadership. It is not even certain who the new DNC chair will be. The Dems control only 17 governorships and the GOP has full dominance over 30 plus state legislature. The Dems are also in the minority in the House and Senate. This, too, is part of the Obama legacy, but it’s much more complicated than that and perhaps speak to some of the backlash of having the first black president and what it cost his party politically. Obama has promised to help reshape the party when he leaves office and support the next generation of leaders. That’s good. That is sorely needed. History will also not forget the absurd obstruction he faced, especially following the 2010 mid-term elections. That, too, will be part of history.
During these remaining days of the Obama years, I can proudly say that I worked for both of his campaigns. For a lot of Americans, especially during that 2008 campaign, he made us believe that anything was possible. If we remember the chants of “Yes, we can!” then maybe we’ll remember that this country always functions best at the grassroots level. Obama always understood that. That belief will need to be sustained over the next four years and channeled into communities coming together, being vigilant, and most importantly, being active.