President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 was the first time I had ever voted in a presidential race. I was a month shy of turning 17 when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004. Despite being unable to vote at that time, I still followed politics as well as any teenager could. I watched the campaign footage, read the articles, and laughed at jokes on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These were ways I could be a part of the excitement. While I was unable to understand the nuance of many issues, it was the spirit that thrilled me.
When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 election, I only vaguely remembered him speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I didn’t think much of him because there were several other candidates throwing their hat into the ring. After eight years of fear mongering and smear campaigns, it seemed most Democrats were thinking about running to fix the problems of the Bush administration.
Frankly, I didn’t think he had a chance. And neither did my friends. Here was this young, African-American man with the middle name Hussein. There was no way this guy could get elected let alone with the nomination. I didn’t believe America could be ready enough to elect someone who wasn’t an old white man. Still, I watched the primary debates and became increasingly mesmerized by this man. So, when he accepted the DNC’s nomination after Hillary Clinton conceded, I was ready to cast my first vote in a presidential election. And I’ve never regretted it since.
President Obama made a lot of promises during his campaign, but he also delivered on many of those promises. During the first two terms of his presidency, I was in college and working as a master control operator working during the evenings at a National Public Radio affiliate. Every Wednesday and Saturday night, I would listen to the BBC World Service and All Things Considered while I was working alone with a dimly lit studio. I remember, in a breach of decorum, Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” twice when Obama was giving a speech about his plans for the Affordable Care Act. I was afraid that his presidency would be met with stalemates throughout the entire term. So, you can imagine my surprise and elation when I was watching the ACA vote on C-SPAN in my dorm when Congress passed this historic act. I had really liked him before, but this is the first moment where I loved President Obama.
Throughout his first term, Congressional gridlock seemed destine to keep Obama a one-term president. Even Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said as much. It was during the second half of his first term that I moved to Chicago. I was now at the heart of his movement. I would walk by Grant Park and imagine the energy of that historic November evening in 2008. I would even encounter people who were there and even met the man!
Being in Chicago leading up to his 2012 reelection campaign gave me a thrill that has been unmatched in politics since. He seemed to be everywhere. Literally! I was on a walking tour of the Kenwood neighborhood during the summer of 2012 and there he was! Granted, he was 100 feet away and I couldn’t get close to him unlike some other citizens had, but I had seen him in the flesh. I would also be fortunate enough to attend a fundraising dinner where I would meet his wife, Michelle, and subsequently take one of the most hilariously awkward selfies of my life.
After Obama was declared the winner in 2012, I left my friend’s apartment and walked back home. It was chilly and late. The streets were quiet, but there was this electricity in the air. I felt good about the future and what opportunities were going to be made available to myself and others in this country. What freedoms would be granted to the marginalized. What progress we would make as a nation. We were all in this together and it all seemed so perfect.
During his second term, I did become more critical of the president. He was victorious in his reelection and now there was no need to hold anything back. His success during his second term was his to lose. I wanted my president to more of a badass and get shit done. And in all fairness, he did step up his game at being more aggressive to his opponents. In 2008, his message was centered on compromise and bipartisanship. Four embattled years later and he learned that you should just do things your way.
While he did oversee the overthrow and execution of Osama bin Laden and Muammar al-Qaddafi, there were legitimate criticisms to be made about his military strategy. The American public was fatigued by war and his actions were hawkish at times. Promises to remove troops were kept unfulfilled as more troops were sent in. He refused to release Mohamedou Ould Slahi from Guantanamo Bay for almost 8 years. He authorized the deaths of American civilians with the use of military drones. I’m sure these were tough decisions, but I refused to believe these were the policies and actions of my president.
Regardless, I still loved my president. The man I voted for twice. I had just turned 21 when he entered office. Now, I am 29. He has been a role model for me during my 20s. For almost a decade, this man has been a symbol of everything I hope and aspire to be during my formative years; intelligent, compassionate, caring, and empathetic. So, like many in this nation, I was sad to see him give his farewell speech last night.
I was unable to attend the speech in person at McCormick Place, but I watched online. Immediately, I was drawn in and emotional early on when he described first coming to Chicago in his early twenties. That was my story, too! Like him, I came to this city and trying to figure out who I was and what my purpose in life should be. He spoke of solidarity and overcoming challenges with openness; two qualities I have learned to value in life.
His speech was one of the most riveting things I have ever watched and it brought back all the reasons and memories of why I came to adore this man nearly a decade ago. As we are transitioning to a time of anger, confusion, and uncertainty, I am trying to embody the principles I learned from this man. That democracy needs me as well as other people in my community. That while sometimes we’ll lose, sometimes we’ll also win because the process that we value in our democracy will not disappoint us but rather serve us.
I was in tears by the end of his speech. The humility he expressed when talking about how fortunate he was to have the support and his optimism about the future made me realize that this era was coming to an end. But, that means he won’t stop. Ensuring the rights, freedoms, and liberties of all Americans requires the hard work of everyone involved. And Barack Obama is no exception. The man who served a beacon of hope for me while president was going to step down and continue the fight to move democracy forward. We relied on him to bring about change for eight years. Now that he will no longer be president soon, it is up to us to bring about changed.
When Obama finished his speech, Bruce Springsteen’s track “Land of Hope and Dreams” started playing. Springsteen had written the track in 1999 and released a live version on the album Live in New York City in 2001. The song wouldn’t see a proper studio recorded version until it released on 2012’s Wrecking Ball.
I couldn’t think of a more perfect song to follow such a historic and moving speech. Springsteen sings of a train that is heading down unknown track. You won’t know where you’re going, but you know you won’t be back. However, this train carries everyone. The sinners, winners, whores, gamblers, and the broken-hearted ride this train. On this train, fools and kings are equal. All dreams and people are welcomed on this train and you don’t need a ticket to get on board.
The ideals that Springsteen sings in the song mirror Obama’s ideals that guided his presidency. To quote Obama from his 2004 DNC speech, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
Despite our differences of opinions, we’re all on this ride together and I thank President Barack Hussein Obama for his service. Yes we can, we did, and we will continue.