The first time I heard the name Barack Obama, I was in fifth grade. It was during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and many of the adults I knew seemed divided between the young, little-known senator from Illinois and an abundantly well-known senator from New York named Hillary Clinton. Even as a child, this much was clear: Supporters of both candidates realized the startling truth that one way or another, history was about to be made in America. The Democratic nominee would either be black or a woman.
I had little interest in politics at the time. I was a kid! My view of the world lacked nuance. I knew we were at war with terrorists. My father told me that the economy was becoming worse by the day. And I knew that the new president would try to fix all of that. But, like many kids, the most important items I was negotiating at the time were basically just getting good grades and thinking about what I would do during summer break.
Obama changed that. At a time when many Americans were cynical and apprehensive, Obama reminded them about the romance of politics. His soaring rhetoric and inspiring backstory not only recalled many Americans to a state of hope, it also brought new Americans into the political fold. I was among them.
I was not yet concerned with policy or party. I was sold by the energy, the devotion, and the inclusiveness. In hindsight, I was enthralled by the pretty packaging. But I was also intrigued by Obama's authenticity. When he gave a speech, it felt like he was talking to me — a young, uninspired, non-voting kid, but an American citizen nonetheless. I suspect a number of young Americans became more interested in politics because of the Obama campaign.
Part of me also realized the historic impact of him winning. He would be the first black president, and that would change the country. I knew about the Civil Rights Era from my social studies classes, but I had little true knowledge about race relations. Still, I did think it was unusual and unjust that we had never had a black president. It felt like the right time to change that.
Obama beat John McCain in a historic election, giving an iconic victory speech in Chicago in front of about a quarter of a million people. I watched that speech, by then quite familiar with Obama's stirring oratory. We listened to the speech in my social studies class the next day. Many students and teachers were ecstatic with the outcome, and I was among them. A few unenthused students lamented his victory, citing talking points they had likely picked up from their parents, but the margin of support was overwhelming. Looking back on it now, I never fully appreciated the political consensus. Almost everyone I knew, saw, or met — even many Republicans — was optimistic about the president-elect.
It didn't last long.
Soon enough, I started to really follow the news, and began to understand how Washington really works. I was troubled by the extent of the conflict between the Obama administration and Republicans. The country was far more divided than I could have ever fathomed, and I learned more and more about that every day. Slowly, I began to lose hope.
My parents weren't very partisan. And as a child, the only "enemies" I could name were al Qaeda and countries like North Korea. But, as I began to read the news, I noticed that American politicians referred to one another as enemies, even if they didn't use that exact word. President Obama was among them. As I reached my high school years, my innocent idealism about his presidency had all but dried up. It all seemed so petty and vindictive, on both sides.
I satisfied my thirst for idealism by learning about times when politics was different. I learned about Kennedy and Reagan and Roosevelt. I had become disillusioned with the Obama presidency, so I searched for answers. Why had a smart, inspirational man who appeared to possess the tools of a great leader and the ambitions of a transformative one had such little success in revamping and unifying America? I realized that it had a lot to do with the times we live in.
When division begins, and individuals in American society begin to capitalize on anger or fear to enhance their power or profit, it is very difficult to stop that force. I saw this in my own life. As the country became more divided, more and more of my classmates became dangerously devout to party and ideology. The division and anger became cyclical. There was distrust, which informed our actions. Those actions, in turn, reaffirmed the other sides' beliefs — that their adversaries were dangerous and needed to be stopped.
Many of my classmates became disinterested in politics as a result. To return to harmony in the halls or classrooms, most lost interest in politics. Polls show that this phenomenon is happening all over the country — young people do not want to go into politics anymore. Consequently, some of the best minds I grew up with now seek to make their mark in business, education, or science. Very few want to enter the political maelstrom.
President Obama could have had a role in combating this, but he became complicit in it. That was when he lost me. Rather than truly challenging the broken machine, he became a cog in it. He remains the eloquent orator and brilliant thinker that inspired me to consider politics as a profession. But the "Hope" we were promised is not the prevailing sentiment, mainly due to a lack of "Change." Looking back at old footage, I hardly recognize Obama. I just cannot summon the feelings I felt during his candidacy.
I believe that President Obama is a man of integrity. And I believe that he was honest about the change he wanted for America. But, at some point during his presidency, I lost the president I acclaimed to a broken political machine. Rather than transcending the unscrupulous system, he thought he could broker it. As a result, he sunk into the mud.
Our next truly great leader will rise above the times and exhibit another way of governing — a way that holds true to the high ground and begins to mend division. We wait for that leader.