Where does one begin when discussing our 44th president? Do we start with the fact that he was the first Black man to be addressed as “Mr. President,” in a country that once enslaved and exploited people who looked like him? Do we remember that he was the offspring of an interracial couple, six years before the Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage nationwide? Do we discuss his failures in Syria, his hard won successes in health care, his passivity toward Wall Street regulation or his drone policy?
There is no shortage of opinions about the Obama presidency, just as there is no shortage of opinions about any presidency. But to compare the Bush or Clinton administration’s blunders and mistakes to those of Obama’s is erroneous. There was no Iraq or Katrina under Obama; neither were there Bush-era gaffes like “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me — you can’t fool me again.” Nor did Obama preside over ill-thought-out policies like mass incarceration, or lie to a grand jury by proclaiming that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Obama wasn’t able to live up to many of his promises. By his own admission, his election did not signal the emergence of a post-racial society. But as David Leonhardt ’94 wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday, Obama has been the most successful Democratic president since FDR.
How has Obama achieved this success? Obama is smart, though some may not care to admit it. A graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Law School, where he was the first Black Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review, he would go on to be a community organizer, a constitutional law professor, a state senator, a U.S. senator and the president that we all know today. An examination of Obama’s speeches illuminates clear ties to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., which we can further trace to great philosophers like Thomas Aquinas.
But being the smarter candidate doesn’t necessarily win elections — just ask Al Gore and Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. Obama was successful because he wasn’t just a wonk — he happened to be a very handsome, charismatic, personable and inspiring wonk. He has been the subject of Internet memes, he has sat Between Two Ferns and his oratorical abilities are continually impressive. He wasn’t just a leader in the courtroom or in the lecture hall; his personality was accessible where it mattered most: in the public eye.
In fourth grade, my parents let me skip a day of school in order to go see then-Sen. Obama speak at a local university. As a volunteer, my mom even got to shake his hand and drive in his motorcade. On election night, we ordered pizzas and sat in front of the television to watch the results. We cried as Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha stood triumphant in front of a roaring crowd of thousands.
I’m sure millions of people cried that night, because Obama’s success was our success. He is relatable on so many levels: He is at once the underdog outsider and the cool insider; a jokester and a man of contemplation; a man who can shoot hoops and win policy victories. He came from nothing and become the biggest something imaginable. He is the American Dream — born into adversity, with nothing but talent, hard work and a little bit of luck. This was the president we grew up with — the only president my generation has ever truly known.
Regardless of our political ideology, it is safe to say that with Obama, we felt secure about the state of the union. I have never questioned the future of the country more than I do now, and I know that my peers share this feeling.
I fear we haven’t fully appreciated what we have, and that we will only cherish it after tomorrow. For eight years, our nation had a leader who inspired so many, including me, to believe: yes, we can. For that, I can only say: thanks, Obama.
Adrian J. Rivera is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .