Watching President Obama give his farewell address speech on Jan. 10 in Chicago, I remembered something.
I have a problem with Obama.
I want to follow that sentence immediately with the clarification that I do love him — and that is what the problem is. In what I read and whom I talk to and what I know to be acceptable political discourse in my own bubble, I know that not loving Obama is just not right. I feel uncomfortable just saying it, like I’m betraying the cool kid who was nice to me.
But I think there’s always something dangerous about loving your president — just as there is danger in hating your president. When we come to see these people — because they are people, after all — as actors who are either entirely good or bad, we make the mistake of seeing them as acting in every situation in that predictable template, forgetting that everyday is defined by choices, and those choices happen for so many reasons that have nothing to do with personality. We forget that often presidents act in concert with people, all with vested interests or different specializations, and that each decision needs to be judged on its own merit.
My problem with Obama isn’t the more traditional, pointed kind that I can tie to a real issue, policy or decision. I have those too, but this one is more persistent, more vague, and it’s partly our fault. My problem with Obama is that we like him too much. That in the midst of liking him, adoring him, talking about how great he is, we forget that he is a political leader. My favorite example is Obama’s success at the White House Correspondents Dinner and the famous “mic drop.” Because I loved that speech, and I read so much about how great it was afterwards. But the Obama administration has a questionable (and others would be less generous in describing that) record with press freedom, and that should have been the conversation we had after a speech that addressed none of that. Our job is to make sure the press is not prosecuted for being our watchdog. And yet we are so enamored by this cool president that sometimes we forget, or maybe we just don’t let it stick to his reputation as much.
And yet, to criticize your president is your responsibility as a citizen. It is the job of democracy to continually hold power to account.
To criticize your president is to care for this country. It is to love the country he loves.
And yet, I consider Obama’s greatest gift to us the very thing that makes him so likable. Not his effortless grace and intellect and wit, but his compassion, his kindness and his endless, tireless capacity to hope and make that hope infectious.
The work of governance is not done solely in these broad rhetorical strokes in which Obama is a master — it is done in the boring news you don’t want to read. But what Obama gives us is an invitation — the invitation to love democracy and governance and the running of this nation. To glimpse the glimmer and the horizon that maybe makes this trek of accountability worth it.
Someone in my class once called voting a gateway drug to democracy — and that’s what Obama’s hope has been to me. The grandeur of politics, the presumption of human decency that Obama lends to us — these are things that make it possible to believe after debates and after failure, that there is still something to fight for.
And that’s been what makes this “skinny kid with a funny name” so special and so vital from the very start — his ability to give us hope. His ability to stand on that stage and say with confidence that “the long sweep of America is defined by forward motion” and to mean it.
And the hope may be irrational. It may be misguided or dangerous. It may even be delusional. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his beautiful article, “My President Was Black,” that hope comes with a price.
But democracy demands collective action, and often collective action is irrational and reckless and a little bit crazy. And it is when we can make that leap, from a rational individual who has very little incentive to work hard at making this democracy work to the citizen whose love for this country makes anything but working for this democracy impossible, that this experiment works.
Donald Trump revealed a lot of hidden sentiments in this country in this election cycle through what he promised — but I think the most revealing thing he promised was to be a “president for all Americans.”
Not everyone in their country felt like Obama was a president for them, just as a lot of us on this campus now don’t feel like Trump is a president for us.
That is both a criticism and not.
To explain, I again rely on Coates, and his article. He writes, “My President Was Black” — and that simple title already speaks volumes. There are so many threads in that article but love is woven right through it. It is not a simple love — the celebration of Obama is interspersed with a real look at his politics and his shortcomings, and yet, Coates writes “my president,” and in that possession is a fierce pride and love.
I’m not even American, and yet it makes sense to me because I love this country and its politics and what it stands for — and because in every way but the technical, it feels natural to say that Obama was my president. I feel a stake in him because I believe he is good and that he acted overall in the best way for this country.
And if he was representative of this country as a whole, maybe he couldn’t have embodied those ideals that made him so great in my view. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt like my president, maybe he wouldn’t have felt like Coates’.
To be a moral leader is different from being a political leader, a representative leader. To be the voice of the people, to act on their behalf is, to me, a different job than being the voice that guides people in the “right” direction, based on a moral judgment.
I largely agree with Obama’s politics, and so there was no dichotomy for me. He was leading by what he viewed as correct, expanding executive powers to accomplish things, and because I agreed, I saw that as representation.
We require judgment and skills of our presidents that we don’t possess, and we look to them to guide the country with their leadership. And in that leadership we look for those who perhaps can see further and better than we could, and we look for someone who is good, whom we can trust, who will make the right decisions. Often that search means we look for someone who can forge new paths, with morals that are high and right.
But that alone isn’t the job of the president. It is also to be representative — and that is different. That is to be a president for all Americans.
What that means in a country so divided is easy to see — it is an impossible job description. I can imagine only the tyranny of the majority or the one percent running the world.
But in his speech, Obama imagined more.
With his speech he imagined an America that has more in common than they realize (maybe he watched the SNL “Black Jeopardy” sketch too) and an America that can stand up and stitch its communities back together — and America that will demand to be represented and will not abandon the hard work of democracy.
And in his speech he gave us the antidote to our problem of cynicism and disenchantment with politics — not simply hope, but a hope that stems from ownership. He asked America to get up, take out some clipboards and get to work. Because there is work to be done, and he believes it can be done, and it is our job to do it.
And that is why, even while it’s so hard to watch the Obamas leave the White House and to see who will take their place, I am excited for Obama.
Because I fervently agree with the ideas that he holds — the very ideas that alienated so much of the country. But what he couldn’t do as president, he can do now as a citizen. Instead of trying to represent his people, he can now focus his energy on changing them — with his hope and his love and his determination, he can be the leader of thought working to convince people.
Because isn’t that what we need, which we forgot in celebrating Obama’s years? That it is not enough to have your ideals and place them in the highest office in the country — you also have to convince others of it. All the time, the fight for rights and ways of thinking is not just about who wins in elections or laws, but about how many hearts you can change.
That is a democracy — a conversation that never ends, that is always trying. And citizens who are always trying, citizens who never stop believing in each other and in the possibility of creating something better, together.
The threat to democracy is taking it for granted — it is forgetting that this land on which we stand was fought for, was paid for, inch by inch, with the best years of hundreds who were wise and brave and hopeful. But it is also taking your fellow citizens for granted — it is also forgetting that not everyone agrees, but there is always a possibility for conversation if not consensus, and that is worth fighting for.
Obama reminded us of that, once again and emphatically, on that stage in Chicago. That to change this world you need to live in it, you need to love it, and you need to see in its cracks the space for something better to break through.
Obama’s farewell speech was quintessentially Obama, asking us to believe, asking us to still have the audacity to hope. To not give up on the dream this country was built on, and to see it as worthy of our best efforts and then some. To let that dream drive us to get up and go out and to do something. And again and again, to have the courage to dream again after a long day of working with reality.
I started watching Obama’s farewell, expecting this great orator to give the one of the best speeches of his life to cap his legacy. And the speech was great. But I don’t believe it was his best speech because it made me realize that I don’t believe it is his last. Because he has just begun a new job, perhaps one far more challenging than being president, and it requires a lot of talking. And nobody is better suited or better prepared because he has been teaching us how to do the job for eight years — that is, the job of being a citizen and making this dream work.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.