Barack Obama’s farewell address on Tuesday was delivered nearly nine years to the day after I first realized he could become America’s first African American president.
It was raining and cold that day in January 2008. A block from where I work in midtown, Obama’s Sacramento foot soldiers were gathering, preparing to fan out across the state capital, which was supposed to be Hillary Clinton country.
My editor thought it was cute that I was writing about a long-shot candidate and his zealous supporters, given that Clinton seemed certain to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton was thought to have Sacramento locked up because she had rich patrons in her camp, such as megadeveloper Angelo K. Tsakopoulos .
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All it took was one afternoon in a drafty storefront on Q Street for me to become convinced that the once unthinkable could happen. Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Yes, he could. Yes, he did. And now, it’s over.
History will render its judgment on whether the “hope” and “change” that Obama inspired was actually realized. But complex analysis shaped by the passage of time is out of vogue as Obama steps aside. Everyone has a “take” now, and they proliferate on Twitter, the favored platform of Obama’s successor, Donald Trump. Twitter and Facebook were around in 2008, but they weren’t integral tools of public discourse as they are now.
Now it barely seems to matter if your “take” is smart or even accurate or authentic. Now “fake news” is purposely or ignorantly mistaken for real news on social media, and it’s hard to know which is worse. What matters now is being provocative for the sake of being provocative, and that was definitely not Obama’s thing.
That’s one of many reasons, nine years later, that Obama’s most ardent supporters from Sacramento viewed his farewell address with some regret.
“I’m sad,” said Kim Mack, who ran Obama’s Sacramento election operation in 2008. “It is going to be very difficult to see him leave office after being so vested in his election and his tenure in office.”
However one feels about Obama, the people who worked hardest on his Sacramento campaign still view him as their champion. They didn’t feel disillusionment when Obama was unable to break the partisan politics as he said he would. He may have fallen short on several key promises, but the locals who helped him win in 2008 – even though Clinton won the California primary that year – have stayed with the man they view as the president of their lifetime.
“I’ve watched him lead with so much dignity and respect for the office,” said Chris Young, who is now general counsel for GoFundMe, but in 2008 was a key fundraiser for Obama in California. “The first family lived up to its title. They set examples for many families throughout the United States.”
Young was born and raised in Sacramento, played basketball at Encina High School, was an aide to former Mayor Kevin Johnson and remains close to the Obama family. When Michelle Obama first flew to Northern California to stump for her husband, it was Young who picked her up from the airport and showed her around.
In December, Young and his wife, Samania – herself a former Sacramento State basketball player – attended a Christmas party at the White House. It was a bittersweet occasion, as was Obama’s speech on Tuesday and just about anything Obama-related these days.
It can all seem very confusing to those who set aside their personal lives to help Obama reach the White House. Obama’s popularity has been on an upswing – a recent Gallup Poll shows him at a 56 percent approval rating, which is higher than the average for most presidents and definitely higher than most presidents as they leave office. Yet the Democratic Party has been decimated under his watch, losing majorities in the House, Senate and statehouses across the country.
Trump’s popularity doesn’t come close – he’s viewed unfavorably by the majority of respondents in several major polls – but he will take office on Jan. 20 with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.
Obama is thoughtful and measured. Trump is not. Trump promises to undo Obama’s legacy legislation, the Affordable Care Act. Some fear that Obama’s efforts to make the criminal justice system more fair to African Americans and other minorities will be undone should Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., be confirmed as Trump’s attorney general.
Sill, on the eve of Obama’s farewell address, some of his Sacramento supporters said they thought he should have done more of what he campaigned on in 2008.
“I wish it would have been possible to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp,” said Young of the military prison where the U.S. government has detained terrorists suspected of war crimes since 2002. “I wish there would have been more progress on criminal justice reform.”
What happened to immigration reform? What happened to hope that Israel and Palestinians could forge a two-state existence? What about Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan?
The Affordable Care Act has made health care available to 20 million Americans who previously didn’t have it or couldn’t afford it. Yet in the states where ACA is most utilized, Trump won. By his own admission, Obama didn’t do enough to remind people how much ACA had benefited their lives.
That Obama is being succeeded by a person who came to political prominence in part by questioning Obama’s birth certificate is a bitter pill for his supporters to swallow. That Obama bet his legacy on Clinton, who was again beaten by a “change” candidate, is a twisted irony given how hard Obama foot soldiers worked to beat her in 2008.
These developments can be seen as failures for a man swept into office on a wave of hope.
We can say Obama ran an administration that was scandal-free compared to his predecessors. We can say that under his watch, America’s economy came back from the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression. We can say he bailed out the American auto industry, though Michigan went for Trump last year. We can say he’s kept us out of wars in Syria and Iraq, though opponents couch this as weakness.
Vladimir Putin, a dictator who is suspected of killing journalists and dissidents, has become a popular figure among some Obama opponents. How does that happen?
Obama seems to accept these complexities, even as voters seemed to reject them in the hopes of a more black-and-white world.
What does it all mean? What can we say now for certain? That Obama tried to remain true to himself while doing an impossible job during impossible times?
His supporters think so, and I remember being inspired by those Sacramento people who believed early on that he could win and helped to make it happen.
It was only nine years ago, but that time seems far away now.