Today, on President Obama’s last full day as President of the United States, some Americans are in a state of mourning. There’s a huge sense of loss for many Obama fans who are now staring down the next four years under a Trump administration.
During his farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10, Obama was met with enthusiastic chants from the crowd who called for “Four more years! Four more years!”
“I can’t do that,” Obama said.
He really can’t. And he really shouldn’t.
It’s important to emphasize that Obama was no saint. He wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t infallible. From early on in his 2008 campaign, rife with platitudes about “hope” and “change,” Obama became an almost deified figure, a Martin Luther King-esque symbol of peace that said: If America can elect a black man as president then, surely, things can’t be that bad after all.
What has become abundantly clear about this country over the last eight years, though, is that there are no quick fixes to the problems of race and gender and class that continue to plague us. The seeds of these problems were planted so long ago and so deeply that it may take generations to see them resolved.
Every American president, from Abraham Lincoln to Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, has faced disdain, criticism and even disrespect from American citizens unhappy with their policies and how they choose to run the country. This is, after all, a part of democracy.
But what made Obama’s presidency different was the both implicit and explicit racialized tone of the disrespect to not only himself but his family. The slings and arrows came in the form of burnt effigies and nooses, grotesque cartoons of the Obamas as terrorists and monkeys in newspapers, racial slurs and epithets.
There were too many instances of blatant hate from both the public and fellow politicians to count, from a Georgia bar owner putting up a sign that read “I do not support the n***** in the White House” in 2012; to the popular slogan/bumper sticker “Don’t Re-Nig In 2012” that went viral during Obama’s second presidential bid; to The Boston Herald’s incendiary “watermelon toothpaste” cartoon in 2014; to the Pennsylvania mayor who compared the Obamas to apes and posted a meme about lynching him in Sep. 2016.
This is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what the Obamas were subject to.
The Obamas never responded negatively to political trolls whose criticisms were steeped in racist ideology. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” But one can only sustain the kind of patience and dignity and grace needed in the face of this kind of disrespect for so long. Eight years, it seems, is long enough.
In her powerful 2016 DNC speech, Michelle Obama spoke about the significance of waking up everyday “in a house built by slaves.”
Her recognition of this fact didn’t mean that she and her husband were ungrateful to be in The White House, though they were accused of this many times. But there was weight to their presence in the White House that went far beyond politics, a weight intrinsically tied to a kind of underlying hatred of the “other” that we weren’t yet fully aware of on the day of President Obama’s inauguration so many years ago.
The Obamas meant many things to many people. To some they meant the fruition of the American Dream. To others they meant the destruction of it. There are millions of Americans who are emphatically glad to see Obama go, who are blissfully excited about a Trump presidency and its vague promise to “make America great again.”
And there are millions of Americans who feel as if a loved one has just died. But no one has died. If we should take anything away from the legacy of these last eight years, it’s that there is no president who can save us from our collective demons. Only we can do that.
For those whose hearts are breaking, it may seem pithy and banal to use the quote: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
But really. Don’t cry. Because the Obamas get to be citizens again, for one thing. They get to move out of the line of fire of an almost constant, condensed stream of racial hate. But also ― we got to witness this. For better or worse. We witnessed a black president. And for centuries to come, children of all races and backgrounds will see his face looking up at them from their history textbooks, and they will take for granted the profundity of it.
There’s actually a streak of that intangible thing called “hope” to be found in the Obama’s departure. For many of us, the prospect of the next four years seems bleak. But if Barack Obama could get through eight years as a black president in America with his sanity and his dignity intact, and even effect a little change, perhaps there is room for some cautious optimism. At the very least, we can try.