The Obama Effect: How to Keep Hope Alive in a Trying Time
On Friday, September 21st, former President and veritable grassroots Democratic superhero Barack Obama addressed a crowd of misty-eyed supporters, awestruck children, and everyone in between at a rally in support of Democratic Senator Bob Casey and Governor Tom Wolf. President Obama, obviously, talked about the cruciality of exercising our voting rights in an era where so much of our nation’s founding monomers — equality, liberty, and goodwill — are disregarded. In other words, the former president spun much of the same rhetoric we’ve heard all midterm campaign season long. But for me, a child of the “Obama Golden Age,” this simple speech represented so much more.
I’ve always wanted to be president. I know that sentence sounds childish, spoken like an elementary school student on career day. However, when I was in elementary school, I didn’t want to be president — or rather, I didn’t think I could. Sure, I had all the makings of one. I was bossy, outspoken, and precocious, which is all a second grader needs to make that bold statement legitimate. Yet, when asked that daunting question —“What do you want to be when you grow up?” — I hid my secret desire like a thief hides her takings: behind other, shinier objects. I wanted to be a dancer, and a writer, and, oddly enough, a Secretary of State. All of which were, and still are, true, but also completely false.
Looking back, I now understand why I believed the door to the presidency was permanently locked. No president, until January 20th, 2008, looked like me. Or, presumably, spoke like me. Or came from a similar background. Or cared about the same issues I would later unabashedly champion. They were all geriatric white males, breed from a pedigree of antiquated money, and photographed with an energy of privilege that was taller, handsomer, and more intimidating than those men truly carried. Now, I was an observant kid. I knew my role. In class, I was the line leader because I was the shortest. At home, I was the favorite child because I was the only one. And I would never be president because I was not white, I was not male, I was not monied, and I most certainly was not self confident.
President Obama’s inauguration broke some sort of floodgate inside of seven year old me. Sure, he didn’t bear that sort of sameness my younger self craved. He wasn’t a Latina women with a sharp tongue and even sharper mind. But he was a beacon that stretched the parameters of the presidential job description. Like me, he was mixed, and floated in out of white spaces with the ease of 2006 Tim Duncan making a jump shot. Like me, he was partially bred in New York, and carried the swagger of trips to 125th Street with him wherever he went. Like me, he understood inequality, and made a vocal commitment to lessen it, which was enough for second grade me to think he hung the moon. All of this, aided by the urging of my parents who now had tangible proof that I could be anything I wanted, allowed me to believe I could be president. Or, at least I could say that out loud.
Hearing President Obama speak in person for the first time awoke the tiny, militant Democrat who rents space in my subconscious. Obviously, she was ecstatic to hear her idol address her as the “future of this country” or the “future of democracy” or whatever presidents say to get out the vote. This moment represented the completion of a full circle: I was now hearing the very man who catalyzed my public political wokeness speak at the first political event I went to as a Penn student, the first real marker of my public political wokeness. While I recognize the predictability and sort of greeting card sentiment of President Obama’s 37 minute stump speech, I still find it to be among the most inspiring, astute things I’ve ever heard. I think what makes President Obama’s presence so magical is that for all of us — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, whatever — he represents something deeply personal. For me, it was the moment I realized I could aspire to the highest office in the country. His presence has liberated me to dream a little longer, harder, and bigger and for that I am forever grateful.
This post reflects the opinions of the author and is not necessarily representative of those of Penn Democrats.