I am by no means a political pundit. My interests lie almost entirely in pop culture assessment. Yet as January 19, 2017 approached, I found myself realizing that it would be crass if I didn't acknowledge President Barack Obama. After all, he was the man who lead the country through thick and thin over the past eight years. He inspired change that in return influenced our media. He was a beacon of hope for a new generation discovering the potential of a life in politics. It's why he initially won and it's his consistency to providing hope that makes his closure to his time in office bittersweet. With charisma, he lead the country into new and inspiring directions, of which will hopefully resonate for decades to come. He may even be my favorite president from my lifetime. To all of that, I say the phrase that many have used sarcastically but I use sincerely: Thanks, Obama.
I suppose that a few things should be considered as to why Obama's time in office resonated with me. I was 15 when I first became aware of him. It was the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I cannot recall what his speech was, but I do remember sitting next to my father as he said "That man will be president." I never considered the hurdles that came with race, but it was a point that stuck with me despite not returning to prominence four years later. I was now of voting age and a little more cognizant of politics. I can't claim to know every point on how the system works, but I had that interest. In 2008, I voted for Obama in the California Primary. By the Fall, I graduated high school and started college. I was in the journalism class, so I was well aware of the Sarah Palin jokes. I was surrounded by the youth movement that he targeted.
I can remember the day after the election when it was announced that he won. I was in an English class and the teacher dedicated a portion of the class to discussing the potential impact that Obama would have. I wasn't cognizant enough to be critical of the George W. Bush presidency (whose second inauguration I attended in 2005), so I still had bright eyes. I cannot recall all of the points made, but the ones that stood out came from the black students. There was an optimism mixed with hesitance in their answer. They were psyched to see racial diversity in the White House, but worried that all black politicians would unfairly be judged if things went wrong. It seems ridiculous to think of eight years later, but it was a big concern at the time. Ironically, I was in yet another English class the following semester on Inauguration Day when the teacher let us leave early so that we could witness the events. Having another class in 90 minutes, I had to listen to everything over my car radio.
Still, there was this optimism about a man who was so hopeful about the future taking office. To an extent, he became the "cool" president through badmouthing Kanye West and openly discussing his favorite character from The Wire. Even his appearances on WTF with Marc Maron added a certain youth-oriented connection that made him unlike any president before. It would be one thing if he was solely able to recite rap lyrics and recognize memes. He managed to do so much more. Most of all, he was just a great speaker whose presence was always commanding. He found reassurance by not immediately putting down others and having dignity when dealing with foreign affairs. On the home front he did wonders for equal rights, even legalizing gay marriage for every state.
As I've stated before, I am not very political. At most, I am a passionate American who wants to see the best for this country. This was best exemplified in Obama's ability to handle every crisis with criticism and soberness. I may not be able to give a fully formed opinion on his personal achievements, but I can say that I feel like he's left the country a better place than where it was in 2008. It may not always be apparent, but I feel like certain taboos have been openly discussed and the public discourse around thorny topics have advanced with intellect. Some could argue he did too much and progress moved too fast. Maybe I missed some of these steps. Either way, he never lost sight of his goals, which was to inspire hope to America's citizens.
Since this is a pop culture website, I feel it's only right to suggest how he's evolved the narrative of race in cinema. There are many prominent examples to choose from: The Help, 42, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Straight Outta Compton, and most recently with Hidden Figures. These may all be specific to the black experience, but I feel like there has been an evolution over time as to how black lives are represented in mainstream cinema. The Help was a noble film, but relied on painting white people sometimes as comical and dimwitted while the black characters were in some ways martyrs. Then by 12 Years a Slave, it was a discussion of contextualizing history to tell stories about lives other than white men. By Selma, it was about the black community unifying against hatred to stand for something greater: freedom. In Hidden Figures, the characters weren't defined solely by race but their ability to work in an interracial, unisex environment for the benefit of America.
Even if Hidden Figures takes place in 1961, there's something definitive for what it has to say about the Obama era in 2017. Obama's message of "Yes we can" resonates through every line of the script. The acceptance of people's talents having nothing to do with their physical identity is a concept that seems overplayed, but feels prescient to what Obama dreamed of. He wanted everyone to work together to make change. There's plenty of arguments both ways as to whether this was achieved. I for one feel like we're closer to that goal than not. If anything, Obama's farewell address acknowledges that we're not quite there, but let us never stop working to get there.
To me, the Obama era takes on a deeper resonance because his plan worked. I was the right age when he campaigned in 2008 (literally). I bought into that optimism that I still hold. It became clear once again during his last year in office when he held over 70% of campaign promises, gave great speeches, and reminded us what the power of working together looks like. Beyond this, it embodied my formative years in becoming an adult; whether it be starting college, working a job, or even writing for various websites and attending film festivals. These are memories tied to the Obama era that almost makes negative criticism moot. He means a lot because he kept my flame for this country alive.
So as tomorrow ushers in a new president, I find myself choosing not to think of what I'll miss from Obama, but what lasting impact he gave us all. Maybe some more than others will feel moved by his departure. I for one hope that we have a president as cool and professional as him somewhere down the line. Maybe I'll have memories from that era tied to raising family, or hopefully a better job. Who knows. However, Obama was the first president of my life that I was cognizant and aware of almost from the start. I could say that I knew Bill Clinton and George W. Bush with certain awareness, but I was a child who didn't pay attention to all that flimflam. Obama was someone who made me feel reassured in this country's potential. Maybe I'll learn more about him later in life (definitely buying his autobiography), and I can only hope it will be a fond reminder of what he did to make my life, and hopefully yours, better.
So for the last time, I want to say thanks, Obama. I will miss you greatly.