Monday, November 07, 2016

Eight Years To Life: What Will Barack Obama's Next Move(s) Be?

Photo by Joe Mac

This old photo was taken from the stage on November 6, 2012 at C’est What? in Toronto. An older post recounts the night in more specific detail, but for the context of the current musing: the band was dipping in and out of the back room watching the 2012 U.S election results trickle in. Barack Obama was seeking re-election against Republican Mitt Romney. I used a Sharpie to draw stars and stripes across my hands in solidarity with our friends to the south.

Photo by Joe Mac

By the time we were summonsed to take the stage, the official outcome had not yet been determined. Our opening number had me splatting out the lyrics to The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” as we segued into “She Leaves" (remember "She Leaves"?!?!). Immediately following the song’s final crash, I asked the audience to let me know if the identity of the next President was announced during our set and I would be doing my best to make out their faces beyond the blinding stage lights in my eyes.

Following the live debut of the now-staple “Shattered Hearts,” I picked up the guitar and Devin drilled us into the shotgun drum into of “Boomerang," with only one song to follow. Halfway through the second verse, beyond the (fittingly red, white, and blue) stage lights, the hands waved, cell phones raised, pointing at their screens, accompanied by voices yelling and mouths mouthing the word “OBAMA” above the verse’s spacious refrain. Just as the second chorus dawned upon us, the tidal “Heeeeeeeey” was replaced by a bellowed “Ooooobaaaammaaaa!!!!” in the most joyous wail I could belt out. True to form as a National Geographer of the beast known as Paint, Joe Mac captured the exact moment my uvula was dangling vibratingly for all to see with his lens. I’ll always love that photo.

I remember watching Barack Obama’s inaugural election speech on a half-broken television set in East Vancouver when he was first elected President in 2008. After eight years of George W. Bush, the tragedies of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the dramatic plummet of the American economy, Obama’s induction was not only necessary but welcome. His words struck a chord in a way that my grassroots half-dishevelment with the system of political change at the time were able to let their guard down and hear a certain magic that a head of state had seemingly not articulated in my lifetime, shy of the great Nelson Mandela. I will never forget hearing Barack Obama (while only partially seeing, as it was not only the picture on the television screen that was foggy, but my welling up eyes as well) so eloquently say,

I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation… This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change…. It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

It was unfathomable to actually hear but exactly what I always felt, with a seemingly archaic idealism for 2008, the role of an elected representative was intended to be: to recognize her or his role as an extension of the people through dialogue and responsiveness, and to request (and remind) citizens that it is indeed up to all of us to the make changes we wish to see. A President isn’t Superman. All of our hands need to get dirty to get things accomplished. Obama's call-to-action reminds me of Bono’s assertion that being partisan interferes with progress when seeking meaningful change; that in order to move forward on issues and practices that will contribute to increased humanity, health, and harmony, we must be willing to work with everyone regardless of political stripes. An elected official who takes an ideological stance and refutes dialogue (Rob Ford comes to mind in the local context of Toronto) will be a barrier to progress. And this gentleman, the first Black President, was prepared to listen every step of the way and allow us (of which, as a Canadian, I generalize to global citizens) to lead the way. He may have been about to start driving the car, but he made it very clear that we would have to provide the directions. Whether or not we would, that would be the test (and ultimately the challenge).

The following day, I attended a Board of Directors meeting for the North ShoreRestorative Justice Society in North Vancouver, BC (on which I sat as a member as an extension of living in the community at the time and having a long history in my then-young -- hopefully still? -- life of fighting for truth and reconciliation at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels in Canada). One of the elder board members told a story of being a young Black man in America and not being served in a restaurant for reasons he didn't even need to expand upon. He broke into bittersweet tears when he said he could not believe that he had lived to see the day a Black man became President.

As we are, in 2016, now on the eve of the first woman taking the highest office in the United States (congratulations in advance, Hillary!), many lament that Barack Obama will no longer be with us -- as though him leaving office after the mandatory two-term maximum (implemented in 1951 as the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution) is somehow the end of his career and presence as a global and political citizen.

But this is hardly the end. Former Vice President Al Gore, in helping advance a major effort against climate change, said that he was able to be significantly more effective as a citizen activist without the confines of the political system to turn decisions into targeted action with specific, swift, tangible, and meaningful outcomes. Through this kind of lens, the advancements Barack Obama made within the structure of the Presidency were all the more gargantuan; in fact, we may be hard-pressed to find another President since Confederation (and even beyond that to George Washington) who was able to effectively ratify as many large-scale initiatives as he did from 2008-2016. Many on the cynical or dare I say nihilistic end may not feel it now, but Barack Obama’s legacy and work as President of the United States will be studied for centuries to come as the pinnacle of Presidential effectiveness.

Imagine, then, without the limitations of blanket Republican dissent on every proposal he champions, just how effective a human and political rights player Barack Obama will be capable of being in the years to come. Whilst his time as the most influential public servant in the world is coming to an end, his contributions to human progress have only just begun.

And I for one can only not wait to see what he does from here, but look forward to finding ways that I can gladly join the movement.
It's interesting how Democratic Presidents tend to continue their work as public servants or advocates in some capacity after they leave the Oval Office, but Republicans seem to retire to ranches and take up golfing. The volumes spoken about priorities is astounding.

Good luck at the polls tomorrow, friends to the south. The world will be watching!