Not an Obituary for the Obama Era

Alex Hahn, Writer

I’ve been a political junkie since 2008, and the dealer who got me hooked was a guy named Barack. Ever since President Barack Obama got me out of class on January 20 to watch his inauguration on a dusty cathode ray tube TV, I’ve loved this man. My teacher mentioned that in thirty years when our kids were studying history, we would be able to tell them we were there, we saw Obama break barriers. That was my introduction to Obama, but my love of him is rooted back much further, all the way back to 2004. When I was six years old, Obama won my heart, it just took me ten years to realise it.

In 2004, Obama did what so many of us, but not enough of us, do well: he spoke. In what I will defend as the best speech of that decade, Obama outlined an American vision, blending the life of his immigrant father and Kansas mother into a universal American story. He spoke of an

America with optimism, unity, compassion and, above all, hope.

That message is one we need today just as much today as we needed 12 years ago. In an era of rising cynicism, Obama cried out for unity, hope and optimism. When I found that speech so many years later, it became my mantra for America. Obama outlined what we should be, what we can be, a nation always just inches from greatness, a nation I can be proud of. That speech is to me what Linus’s blanket is to him. Whenever the world goes dark and America grows more cruel, it is that speech I turn to. It was Obama I turned to. Obama’s word was a light in the increasingly dark world.

It turns out I’m not the only one who Obama made high on hope. When he ran for the presidency I was 10 years old. I was hardly aware that the man I would come to love so much was facing down impossible odds. Obama was fighting The Iron Lady, Hillary Clinton. With twenty years in the public eye, she had experience and name recognition that made Obama look like a high school debate captain, she seemed inevitable. All the Obama had was hope.

But hope was enough.

Obama won. He won the nomination, he won the presidency. He won. Hope won. There was a change coming, an energy even I felt. Barack Obama was a sign that we had moved forward. He sat on the shoulders of so many who had come before, and for the first time in what I’m sure felt like forever, a man had pulled in the marginalized, the forgotten, the maltreated and made them the welcome. These people Obama united had felt things I cannot fathom. They were strangers, outcasts in their home county.

Under Obama, all who were LGBT could finally step into the light, women and blacks made strides in equality, and Muslims felt the fearful eyes fixed upon them blink. There was hope we would finally have the nation Jefferson penned.

But the Era of Obama could only last so long. Eight years later, that hope of Obama seems dim, his charisma spent, all optimism abandoned. I feel it. Many women, immigrants, Muslims, gays, Latinos, African Americans and intellectuals feel it. Obama’s hope for us, his unifying power, was fading; in fact it was being rejected. His presidency slowly drew to a close and we had to look for his successor. That successor turned out to be Trump.

No one in the Obama coalition saw Trump coming, but they should have. While we who were caught up in Barack’s cult of personality drew around the campfire singing kumbaya and preparing for Hillary Clinton’s inauguration, we did not realize that many outside sat in the cold, feeling forgotten, unwanted, and abandoned. History was made, progress was made, but not for everyone. Ironically Obama’s promise of hope and change was fulfilled, but unity was still far off.

We in the Obama coalition were too quick to write off the Trump supporters, these people we had ignored. As our anticipated successor, Clinton, said “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” But those people won.

Is this is a victory for the racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, isolationists? It is tempting to say that. It is tempting to despair while reading the symbolism of a man with a rape case pending against him defeating a woman with thirty years in public service. It’s tempting to say America is deplorable, that the sexists won. But there is more at work here, and if we are to give up, lose hope or move to Canada, then yes, the Obama Era is over.  However, I disagree with the idea that the deplorables won, and I think Secretary Clinton does as well.

No one listens to her full quote about Trump supporters, which is terribly disappointing because the second half of that quote is important. Clinton said most of Trump’s supporters were “just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

This is not a victory for the “Deplorables”, it was a cry of desperation. The other half of Trump’s supporters were feeling forgotten, abandoned and outcast. They felt failed by their country, they felt they were unwanted and uncared for. They felt as if they were the marginalized, the forgotten, the maltreated. In some ways these workers, these desperate people, were that.

Unfortunately, Obama only shifted the spotlight, he did not expand it. Progress was made for many, but not for everyone. In the Era of Obama, America was less picky about who was helped, but it wasn’t helping more people.

The amazing thing about the Obama Era was not that a black man was elected president, the amazing thing was that in the Era of Obama, people cared about others more than themselves. People voted for a man who was going to focus on the plight of the LGBT, the African American, the Muslim, the immigrant. Barack was a candidate for the minorities, the less powerful. Now that those people have been lifted up, Trump’s larger basket, the desperate workers, are asking for their turn to have attention. There has been a return to self-centrism. Welcome back to the Age of Jackson.

What the Obama coalition needs to do now, is realise that there is still more work to do. As Obama said while he was drawing me in, “We have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.”

It’s much more eloquent, but does that sound familiar? We have work to do, and we can work with our next president to finally bring that warm light of America to everyone. Trump has some noble goals, uplifting the worker, ending corruption. Those are goals the Obama coalition should be able to get behind, because they have more work to do.