As you walk into my living room at my mom’s house in Baltimore, you’ll see a collection of family photos underneath my college diploma. My mom is so proud of me, so happy to show off the framed artifacts of the happy family she helped build. At first glance, the tallest photo is from my senior at the Naval Academy. Me, her son, smiling in my parade dress.
However, there is one photo that towers above mine. It is—you guessed it—a picture of our 44th President, Barack Obama. I always used to kid with my mom that because his picture was higher, she loved the President more than me. Of course she loves me more, but I also know the importance of that iconic photo taken at Grant Park on November 4th 2008, and what it represented for her.
I love this country, and I loved serving this country. But I also acknowledge that it has a complex past when it comes to African-Americans. The ugliest part of America’s history is its history of slavery, which was outlawed only to be replaced with Jim Crow legislation. In the 1960s, so much blood was spilled and shed during the Civil Rights Movement just for African-Americans to have equal rights, a quest that we’re still fighting for. So, electing our first African-American president felt like such an achievement. Such an important milestone on our way to the promised land.
I attended the inauguration in 2008, a firm supporter of President Obama from when he announced his candidacy in front of the Illinois State Capitol. Not only did I like the policy ideas President Obama was proposing, I liked the man himself. He was smart, cool, and moved between multiple worlds with grace and ease. He looked just as comfortable at a fish-fry in Iowa as he did in the South Side of Chicago. Most of all, he was (and still is) a huge optimist, resolute in his belief that we are more than just a “collection of red states and blue states.” We are the United States of America. Emphasis, his.
Throughout his eight years, I followed his Presidency intently. I was proud during his achievements (and there were many of them):
For every foreign policy success, there were greater missteps. This is evidenced by what we see in Syria and throughout the Middle East, in nationalist and anti-immigrant policies in Europe, and in Russia. Domestically, I wish he could have done more to heal the tensions between the law enforcement and African-American communities after the very public killings of unarmed African-Americans by police officers.
But the job is difficult. I’m not making excuses. I simply recognize that there are many competing policy priorities, and that it’s slippery out there.
That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates described the president’s grace and personal decorum. For example, during his first State of the Union, when South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouted out “YOU LIE!” while discussing whether immigrants would be insured under the Affordable Care Act. While we can only wonder what was on his mind, President Obama took only a breath, and then calmly continued his address.
Can you imagine what would have happened if he spat a retort back at the Congressman, the way our current President-elect goes after anyone who dares defy him? But Obama never lost his cool. Despite a Congress that refused to work with him, that openly tried to deny him a second term and any legislative success. Despite talking heads and radio broadcasters and others who spewed hateful vitriol his way. President Obama never stooped down another level. He truly seemed to believe that we as a nation “are not as divided as we seem.” To quote the First Lady, “when they went low, he went high”.
Perhaps most importantly, while taking on the copius duties incumbent upon the President of the United State, he proved a devoted husband and father. He remained completely untarnished from major scandals that have affected other Presidents, and restored dignity to the White House. He truly is a role model, both inside and outside the Oval Office, for me and many others.
Throughout the final weeks of his tenure, I’ve thought about President Obama and and the legacy he leaves. Despite an incoming Trump administration threatening to eliminate many of Obama’s signature policies which he enacted, he remains nonetheless optimistic about the future. He encouraged Americans to “climb out of their skin” in order to understand our differences with others. To find common ground that unites us.
I also think about that photo in my house. I know that the smaller family pictures will change over time, but I’m confident that picture of the President will always be there. I’ll always look up to Barack Obama, and I’m truly thankful for that.