Most people remember where they were when 9/11 occurred. Even more people can tell you where they were when they got engaged or learned they were going to be a parent. Similarly, people of my generation can remember where they were when Barack Obama—a black man in a sea of white power—was elected 44th president of the United States.
I watched Mr. Obama take the oath of office at iconic Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, a building John F. Kennedy had once visited in his youth. Obama’s unexpected rise through the primaries and his eventual triumph over Hilary Clinton to clinch the democratic nomination was an event that captured the hearts and minds of young people like myself. Being Canadian, deep down I wished I was in the US during the election to soak in all the historic moments that came with President Obama’s victory. As irony would have it, I was living in California when our own political superstar, Justin Trudeau, rode a landslide election to power.
Barack Obama resonated with me in 2008. In 2017, he still resonates with me. I see myself in him not because he was a lawyer like me or leans left on the political scale. Over the past eight years, I observed in him a young man full of vitality that saw his country’s promise in the future, not in the past. I saw in him a deep grace that made politics admirable again. I saw in him a man who did not return other people’s insults and prejudice with his own, but rose above the fray and kept his eye on his policy goals. I saw in him a rare politician not averse to attempting large and measured victories, albeit few, rather than appeasing the electorate with numerous yet meaningless reforms. Obama’s attempt at universal health care may have failed, but he surpassed his seven predecessors by enacting health care reform, even if imperfect. He took on climate change when it was less than popular to do so. He pulled back from foreign wars and disengaged America’s hard power when it was not in the country’s long-term interest. He touted the virtues of sustainable energy, free trade and negotiating with traditional enemies. He was a visionary. And for that he will be missed.
To be clear, I am not oblivious to President Obama’s fallibility. No one, including myself, sees him as a perfect politician, if such a moniker exists. A politician who orders the dropping of bombs from drones onto helpless populations or allies his government with oppressive regimes does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. A man who orders the killing of a 16-year old American citizen without any constitutional authority seems disingenuous when crying over a school shooting. Politics is messy; it is dirty. But amongst all that dirt and filth came a man for one brief moment who gave us hope, and for that I thank him.
We may not see a president like Barack Obama for a long time. The ebullience that filled the US in the 1960s as a result of Kennedy’s election victory dissipated after his assassination. His youth and vibrancy gave way to the insipid politics of the past with Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan at the helm. While Donald Trump is anything but ordinary, he appeals to the past rather than the future. As Aristotle said, the young live in hope because for them their future is long and their past is short; while the old live in memory because for them their future is short and their past is long. For these eight years, for all his faults, his shortcomings, his missteps, his unaccomplished goals, Barack Obama made us young again. He made us hope again.