Watching President Barack Obama’s farewell speech last night, a single tear rolled down my cheek. As Obama’s eyes began to moisten and crumple at the edges, his gaze fixed on his wife and family, my husband and I clutched each other too. It felt like the end of an era. Because it was one.
“Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” – BO
Obama was the first president for whom I voted, my junior year of college. When he was elected, my friends and I were in the Rathskeller campus bar, a dank, underground room where coed “bouncers” drew X’s on underage hands, which students promptly washed off in the bathroom. One of our favorite professors – a political science teacher with some notoriety that both belied and betrayed her politics – wore a smile so wide, I thought her face might crack. She circulated the room with a clipboard under one arm, foaming bottles of champagne in each hand. As the tallies rolled in, she marked each one on her clipboard and announced the newest totals to the room. It was a raucous scene, a party atmosphere, a celebration of change we all wanted and yet, so many of us still didn’t understand.
“But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
My college was majority white, upper middle-class, rural. Safe. Most of us came from privileged backgrounds and would go back home to the same at the end of term. But most of us also saw the need for a new regime, for our first African American president, for something we could all believe in. When the television announced his victory, we cried. We screamed. We streamed out into the velvet night blowing air horns and car horns, chanting “Yes we can” and dancing our way back home. I went to bed that night smiling. Things were going to change and even though I couldn’t yet grasp what that would mean, hope felt great in my body.
“But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'”
This past November, I cried again, watching our nation elect a racist, sexist, reality TV sycophant to the office held by Barack Obama. My husband and I watched horrified as the results came in, as the announcers slowly lost hope along with more than half of the nation. We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t want to. This was not a case of liberal tears, of sour grapes or sore losers. This is no ordinary election. This is no ordinary transfer of power. Anyone who says it is, simply hasn’t been paying attention.
“For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.”
As a woman and a member of our rampant rape culture, I wept for my fellow females, binary and non-binary. As a member of a society in which race-motivated crimes are on the rise, I wept for my non-white brothers and sisters. As a journalist, I wept for the dismantling of a free press and the destruction of the fourth estate by a man who dedicates his early morning hours to denigrating the industry I hold so dear and so necessary. And as an American citizen who used to believe in free elections, I wept for our entanglement with Russia and what that means for the future of our country and our world.
“So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.
All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.”
Obama started his campaign eight years ago with a message of hope. Last night, he ended it the same way. These past few months have felt dark and bleak for so many of us, as report after report came out detailing the myriad ways in which our PEOTUS is not only unqualified but dangerous to our democracy. Some of those are substantiated. Some of them are not. All of them are terrifying. But last night, I heard my president talk about hope. About Democracy. About peaceful transfer of power, and keeping our eyes open, our ears to the ground, our shoes laced and ready. Because that’s not the best we can do, as citizens. It’s the least we can do.
“Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
So when the speech ended and my president walked off the stage for the last time, I wiped my tears. I signed off Twitter. And I thought about my friend, Danica Roem, who is following that call by running for elected office in her home state of Virginia. I thought about Kathy Hochul, my first boss and the woman who first introduced me to politics not as a glamorous celebrity throne, but a calling to serve the public in pursuit of the greater good. I thought about all of the people I’ve met in politics, as a campaign worker and a journalist, as a teacher and a citizen. And I realized that most of us – the vast majority of us– still believe in hope. Because of them, I do too. America, let’s get to work.
“Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.”
For those who missed it, watch or read the full speech here.