Remembering ‘hope’: How the Obamas influenced me from the other side of the world
I was nineteen when Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States. On holidays at the time, I squeezed into a writhing bar packed with tourists from all corners of the globe. The room was quiet as people craned their necks to hear Obama’s proclamation that America and the world had, on that day, “chosen hope over fear.”
As the new President’s address drew to a close, every patron in that bar began to cheer loudly—pride, relief and excitement washing over a group of disparate wayfarers. At that very moment, it seemed the world had its priorities straight.
For an apathetic teenager with little interest in global affairs, the election of Obama stoked a fire in me. I began to hungrily consume news, involve myself in dinner-time debates and enrolled in a politics major at university the following year.
Obama’s election made me understand why other countries, including Australia, sat up and took stock when the United States spoke up. It proved to me that progress was real, and that ‘hope’ — Obama’s chosen mantra — was more than just a hollow slogan. America had achieved the unimaginable. It had defied a deeply entrenched history of racism and elected the nation’s first ever black president. Moreover, he was a Democrat.
And indeed, Obama’s policy legacy is not to be derided. The introduction of Obamacare significantly decreased the percentage of Americans living without basic health insurance, something never achieved by a previous administration. The Iraq war came to an end with the authorised killing of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. Marriage equality was legalised amidst fierce opposition from the Republican Party. And, action against climate change was prioritised with the US committing to the Paris Climate Agreement and leading global discussions. He didn’t achieve everything he set out to do and has, in some cases, been criticised for not doing more on issues like racism, but there’s much he will be remembered for. As he told his final press conference this morning, he’s also still a citizen and said he’s prepared to speak out if he saw the nation’s “core values at stake”.
As he said today:
“I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I’d put in that category, institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press,” he said.
“And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and, for all practical purposes, are American kids, and send them some place else.”
This morning’s comments from Obama were, again, a reminder to me to speak out when I see, hear or learn about something that is not right.
Barack and Michelle Obama quickly became the benchmark of political leadership. Not because they were infallible, but because they were strong, charismatic and fuelled by ideology and ideals that were fundamentally good and honourable. They had a vision for their country and the world, and they fought tirelessly to achieve what they had promised.
The world will miss them
Eight years after watching Obama’s speech in that bar, I see the world is dealt an entirely different hand of cards. I’m left with little of the optimism, excitement and hope I felt as a nineteen year old.
Watching the Obamas leave the White House on Friday to make room for President Donald Trump will be heartbreaking. I feel deeply for the majority of Americans who voted for a different outcome. I fear for what a narcissist with such power is capable of, even in just a short amount of time.
But apathy won’t save the day. In fact, there’s never been a better time to stay informed and speak up. To prove that acts of empathy and unity will prevail against the divisive politics: Brexit, One Nation, Trump. We are capable of more and we deserve better.
We can aim to hold on to the legacy of what Obama promised.“Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”