I woke up Wednesday morning and immediately felt good. Not only was it my free day, I also knew that once the coffee was made and the dogs taken out, the vitamins swallowed and the email checked, I could sit down at my laptop and watch the State of the Union. President Obama did not disappoint. I sighed when it was over and I noticed once again that I actually felt better about the general state of the world. I had the recurring and somehow strange thought that I can actually end the statement “I love . . . ” with the words “the President”. It’s true. I always have and presumably always will. Of course I, too, have felt some of the frustration others have declared over the years. And I delighted at his successes. At other times I became a reluctant apologist. And then I was a cheerleader again. But I was never a romantic, projecting all my wishes and desires, hearing them into the poetic words of his campaign speeches. You can’t be disillusioned unless you had illusions to begin with.
Way back in 2008 at the peak of Obamaphoria, I surprised one of my best friends by saying ”You know, dont you, that he is very likely going to be a boring president.” She gave me a horrified look and asked me how I could say such a thing. ”Well, he is such a thinker and long-term planner and he’s always going on and on about acting responsibly and making compromises and coming together to find middle ground and do the right thing. Its like listening to Grandpa.” (I hope she has since forgiven me for this first taste of disillusionment.)
My students at the time of the 2008 election were equally incredulous about what I had to say, but in a different way. They couldn’t get beyond their disbelief that Americans would really elect a black man to the office of the presidency. Americans were racist in their minds and nothing I could say would convince them otherwise. And then I had them read the Declaration of Independence.
The discussion started excruciatingly slowly. I dragged them through the significant sentences (I’ll paraphrase here a little to save time):
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . “
. . . that all (rich, white, property-owning, non-female) men are created equal and have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of more property and governments are allowed to exist to protect those rights and the people also have the right to throw the bums out when they suck and replace them with something better.
What follows is a long list of complaints against King George III. One student noted the irony of the current president having the same name as the King - even more ironic were the abuses those two rulers 230+ years apart had in common:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good . . . (Think of King / President / George / Bush’s opposition to social welfare programs.)
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither . . . (Think of President Bush’s position on immigration reform.)
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power . . . (Think of his privatization of many military services and pre-emptive war policy.)
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury . . . (The War on Drugs)
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences . . . (Guantanamo)
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people . . . (Environmental policy – aka “No Tree Left Behind” – or Katrina)
By the end of the class, a fair number of students had seen the light. The 2008 election was about so much more than the skin color of the candidates - it was Americans re-declaring their independence and self-rule. It was totally American (in the best sense of the word) that Obama won that election.
I confess I was a little disappointed that Obama evoked Abraham Lincoln in his acceptance speech instead of the founding principles. It cemented the aspect of race into the historical moment when there was so much more at stake. And if historians can be believed, Lincoln himself believed in white superiority even while being against slavery. It is this kind of double standard in our politicians that drives me (and I assume most of my compatriots) crazy. It is the change we wanted that never came.
And now I will be an apologist again. I don’t condemn President Obama for not seeing the full potential of his election. No one can know what it must have been like for him at that moment knowing the history books would reflect the astonishment of the FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT! FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT! His plans, his goals, his vision for the country - they all came in second to that momentous FIRST. Yet there is so much more to the man than his skin color.
True to the content of his character he played by the rules. Either he didn’t see that it was the rules that should be changed, or he recognized that the time for revolution had not yet come. He did what he could within the confines of the system he lived in.
Six years later, everything seems different. Not in his character, but in his understanding of the times he is living in.
America may have been ready for a black president, but I dont think they were ready for a grown-up one. (Or can someone explain to me why there are so many childish congressmen?) In the first six years of Obamas presidency, it often seemed like he was the only grown-up in the room. And that he was the very last person to realize the Republicans were NEVER going to come around.
Lately it seems he has figured that out.
Things have changed and I am hopeful.