As we end the year and draw ever closer to President Barack Obama's final days in office (sob), I reflect on his presidency — and what it has taught me, most of all about myself.
I have always admired President Barack Obama, but I would be lying if I said I had always been his greatest fan. To be frank, I was not a huge supporter of his during his first campaign — though I vigorously defended him and proudly voted for him. I supported many of his policy proposals. I also had reservations about him: I worried that he was too focused on bipartisanship and I had all the typical disagreements I have with any Democrat mainstream enough to get elected to the presidency, especially around foreign policy.
I liked him. And I did not like him. Which is a fairly typical place for me to find myself, when it comes to presidential candidates.
Which always leaves me in the funny place of being accused of insufficient support of Democrats from some people, and of insufficient criticism of Democrats from others.
Some readers fixated on my criticisms of his policy as evidence that I comprehensively hated him, while others seized on any positive reaction to his presidency as evidence that I undilutedly adored him. And then there were those who saw both and accused me of confounding inconsistency.
To be honest, I was not sure myself where I would land on President Obama’s presidency, at its outset. I resolved to be fair and honest in my critique of him, willing and eager to share both my reservations and my enthusiasm, hoping to settle on one side or another.
I would now describe myself as an unreserved fan of President Obama, even though I still disagree with him on a number of issues. And I have come to understand that is not reflective of inconsistency, but an acknowledgment of his complex humanity.
And an acknowledgement of my own.
In 2008, right before the election, I wrote that then-candidate Obama, and my constantly mixed feelings about his candidacy and policies, had taught me something important about how I view candidates:
Obama’s candidacy has been, for me, a continuing lesson on what are and what are not mutually exclusive concepts. Being unthrilled about certain policy positions and tactics, sometimes unthrilled even to the point of feeling like we’re taking a step backwards, and regarding his candidacy as yet a step forward in other ways, aren’t mutually exclusive.
Reconciling that with my tendency to view candidates as either singularly Progressive or Not Progressive has been an important learning experience for me.
That’s not a “lesser of two evils” argument; it’s not a comment about compromise, or balance, or taking what we can get, either. It’s about coexistence and complexity, and opening myself up to both in a way I haven’t before — in no small part because I’ve never had the need nor the chance, offered as I’ve been prior to this election only straight, white, wealthy men…
For a long time, I wasn’t quite sure how to work out what to make of this opportunity given to me, to see forward and backward and running in place so vividly all in the same candidate. (I certainly would have had the same problem if Clinton had ended up our nominee.) But moving into a space where I can simultaneously feel desperately excited about the forward, while feeling the usual disappointment and occasional fury about the same old and back, has been good. And liberating.
It feels like the first time you really understand how to keep loving someone even after you’ve seen their flaws.
Four years later, having seen what President Obama’s policies looked like in action — and his diplomatic skill, and his response to obstructionism, and the places where he was pushing for progress as the political culture allowed — all of those expressed sentiments were truer and more active parts of my thinking.
I had, by then, had an opportunity to see this president in action, to watch him fight battles for things in which I believed, too. I paid attention to the ways in which he tried to keep his promises, and how he responded to being thwarted, time and again, by Republican obstructionists. I saw how he was demeaned, often in ugly and personal ways, having to navigate things that his predecessors did not, by virtue of their white privilege, and I saw how he kept going, despite the ways his opponents tried to demoralize him, on many fronts.
Just before his reelection, revisiting my evolving feelings about this president, I wrote:
I hold in my head at the same time that President Obama supports policies that are detestable to me, especially with regard to foreign policy, and supports policies that are precious to me, especially with regard to domestic social justice. I hold in my head at the same time the thought that President Obama will sign off on drone strikes that kill children, and the thought expressed so beautifully last night by Valérie: “Children are coming of age knowing nothing else than a black First Family. My God.”
And that says something about Barack Obama, the man and the president who has weathered incomprehensible levels of racist shit to be first.
Which of those am I supposed to disregard in order to wholly love or wholly hate President Barack Obama?
Those simultaneous thoughts say something about the Office of the President, too, which is suffused with American Exceptionalism no matter which party fills it. …Barack Obama is not just a president; he is not even merely the President of the United States. He is The American President, the head of government and the head of state of a global empire… He is also The American President, the figurehead of a diverse democratic nation, a melting pot, an experiment in pluralism that sometimes has gone amazingly right.
I recognize that many of the things that I like and don’t like about President Obama and his presidency are really symbolic of things that I like and don’t like about my country.
President Obama has simultaneously been a symbol of this country and a symbol of the end of one of its most exclusive clubs.
Despite rumors of former presidents who weren’t quite straight or weren’t quite white, the first 43 of the nation’s presidents were publicly viewed as straight white men. President Barack Obama broke into that straight white boys’ club. And while many of his policies uphold “the establishment” — a subject of much discussion four years after I last visited this subject — the establishment represented by the US presidency is not defined exclusively by economic privilege. It’s also been long defined by the privileged identities of the people who held it.
He has been roundly criticized for upholding “establishment” policies, and thus accused of being a symbol thereof, but Obama has been much more than a mere “symbol” for people who share his identity.
This little Black boy touching the President’s hair and discovering it feels like his is more than a symbol.
This little Black girl losing! all! chill! in the most adorable way about getting to shake the hand of a President (then candidate) who looks like her is more than a symbol.
The fact that there are children old enough to understand the basics of a presidential election who have never known anything but a Black First Family is more than a symbol.
These images challenge the white supremacy inherent to the establishment. Inherent to it, and a key tool in facilitating and upholding it. These images, and the very existence of a Black president, convey a possibility to young nonwhite people with a concreteness that can serve as the foundation of an achievable dream.
Paths littered with obstacles are always easier to traverse if someone has tread them before. In this way, President Obama’s presidency has changed the establishment forever.
And yet there are people who persistently want to overlook this part of his humanity, who insist that his Blackness does not matter. (Often as they simultaneously engage in dogwhistled racism, indicating how very much his Blackness still does matter.)
I always appreciated the import of electing the nation’s first Black president, but I did not fully appreciate, not the way I do now, how very much it would matter to me, would change my understanding of white privilege and white supremacy, to be represented by a Black president.
I did not anticipate how much it would affect me to be able to see a marginalized person succeed, and how much it would affect me to see him fail — nor how meaningful it would be for me in how I view my own success and failures, particularly in spaces where I am a token, a stand-in, obliged to carry the mantle of womanhood on behalf of all women for the judgment of those who refuse to see our individual humanity.
This president challenged me to allow him to be extraordinary and ordinary at the same time, and challenged me to allow the same of myself.
He allowed me to let go of a perfectionism to which I would never hold people about whom I cared, except for politicians and my own self. Which was damaging in both cases. There are no perfect people and no perfect candidates and no perfect presidents. But there are some very, very good ones.
To say President Obama has helped me sit comfortably with a lack of perfection may seem simple, or obvious, or indicative of some flaw in me that I did not come to this conclusion sooner.
But the last election has shown that expectations of perfection are still pervasive (especially with regard to candidates who are not straight, white men). That good and even great candidates may be doomed simply by failing to be perfect, or even by coming to more progressive positions too slowly.
What I learned over the course of President Obama’s presidency is that my early fixation on my disagreements with him often prevented me from finding places of agreement. And those are the spots on which we build progress.
There were, across these past eight years, so many opportunities for me to have agreement with President Obama, who is, ultimately, still far less progressive than I am. Just before this last election, I again wrote about my thoughts on Obama’s presidency:
To insert the requisite caveat: President Obama’s presidency has not been perfect. No presidency is—even when a president doesn’t come into office in the middle of an epic financial crisis with the dual challenge of a reactionary, obstructionist Republican Congress and a centuries-old national legacy of entrenched racism.
And yet, despite these significant roadblocks, President Obama has an extraordinary list of accomplishments of which he—and Democrats—can be proud.
Milt Shook has compiled a list of [then] 358 (!!) of Obama’s accomplishments so far—and it’s not even a complete list. Which is not a knock on Shook’s impressive collation skills, but a comment on how many accomplishments Obama has actually had.
That list largely represents his accomplishments as head of government—but the US President is also head of state, and President Obama has solidified his stature as one of the nation’s most esteemed and valuable statespeople over the last 7.5 years, too.
He has been both reliably competent and unfailingly dignified in foreign relations. If you don’t appreciate how important that is, consider that one of his many accomplishments has been restoring the United States’ reputation around the globe, after his predecessor had been a disastrously incompetent embarrassment.
It matters that we have been able to trust President Obama to be a representative of the nation of whom we can be proud.
Obama’s presidency has informed my realization that what I value most in a political leader is being able to trust that, even if we come to different conclusions, I know they arrived at their position with thoughtfulness and integrity. His consistent good faith efforts have engendered the same from me.
Learning that I can be let down and lifted up by the same president has kept me engaged, inspired me to keep pushing, left me always expecting more.
And as we enter a time in which it will be imperative to keep disillusionment and disengagement at bay, this is a very important lesson indeed.
I am sad that President Obama is leaving office, and even sadder that he is being succeeded by someone who is ruthlessly intent on undoing the good work the Obama administration has achieved over the last eight years. And, at the same time, I am grateful that Obama, in who he is as both a person and a president, challenged me in ways that better prepared me for this very fight.
It is a gift I regret I will have to make use of, and a gift I will appreciate forever. Thank you, Mr. President.