An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I remember the first time I met you. I was talking to my mom in her bedroom for something or the other–I think I wanted a Q-tip. I had just started to get into watching the NBC Nightly News: with our new HDTV it looked like Brian Williams’ blue eyes were piercing me through the screen, and I’d thought that was cool. There had been a segment earlier that night about the Democratic nomination, but I didn’t really know what to think about Hillary Clinton and everything being said about her. Perhaps, in a moment of humility, a rare occurrence for 15 year-old me, I asked for my mom’s opinion on the whole matter. I don’t know exactly what she said about you, but I came away from that conversation knowing that you had a funny name and that you were a “man of the people” because you flew from campaign stop to campaign stop on commercial airlines instead of a private jet. Looking back, I’m not sure if that was true or not, or if it mattered at all. But I liked you for it.

The next time I saw you was at the Democratic debates. Growing up in Fox News-dominated Jacksonville, I didn’t have much experience hearing actual, well-reasoned, progressive policy discussions: it was a revelation for me that people could simply criticize the Iraq War and talk about the importance of combating climate change in front of other people without getting shouted down. I didn’t know too much policy at the time, aside from knowing that climate change was real, NCLB was dumb, abortion should be legal, taxes weren’t all that evil, and the genocide in Darfur should be stopped (it was a big focus for Reform Judaism back then), and on those issues, I liked Chris Dodd and Joe Biden the best out of the bunch. But I liked you third-best. And even I knew at the time that Dodd and Biden weren’t going to be nominated. So I liked you.

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Picture taken by yours truly at the Obama rally in Jacksonville.

Then Iowa happened: you came in first and I was ecstatic. I had a test around the time New Hampshire voted so I missed that media cycle, but one day in my chemistry class we finished our work early and someone convinced the teacher to show the “Yes We Can” video that Will.I.Am made of you. I almost cried, right there in class. I went back to my house that afternoon and watched the video on repeat for maybe an hour straight. I loved every part about that video: your words about political struggle and the fight for freedom; John Legend’s soaring harmonies, the cameos by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nick Cannon; and of course, the woman who says the Hebrew translation at the end of the video, “Ken, anu y’cholim.” Growing up a Jew in the South, I’d heard my whole life about how Jews and African-Americans formed these grand coalitions to fight segregation in these towns that were practically in my backyard, but it always seemed to me like those coalitions were a thing of the past. And yet, here I was, a Jewish kid watching a video made by a black musician with a Hebrew line in it to talk about a black politician who was trained by a Jewish organizer. I felt like I was a part of history, a new grand coalition to remake America into a place where everyone has not just freedom, but equality. I learned the chords to the song on my acoustic guitar the next week, and the week after I made my first political donation ever, $25 to get a Yes We Can shirt. Above my parents’ objections, I wore it to school every two weeks.

At some point during the spring of ’08, I realized you might win. I was super into NBA 2K7 on PlayStation 2 at the time, and I memorized the primary map so that I could play as teams from states you had won, facing teams from states Clinton had won. Every time the Denver Nuggets eked out a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, I felt more confident that your campaign would pull through. And whether or not my stellar video game play was a deciding factor, you did win. The first of many times you would disappoint me came at the DNC that year, when, amidst all those blue balloons at Mile High Stadium, you gave a speech that wasn’t as inspiring as the Yes We Can speech. But I got over it.

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Obama accept the Democratic nomination at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, 2008.

My parents and I went over to my aunt’s house to watch the election returns that year, but we left before the race was called, since I guess it was a school night. When the California results came in and Brian Williams called you the winner, it took everything in my power to hide the lump in my throat from my mom. I almost believed the talking heads when they questioned if we were now in a “post-racial society.” I just knew you were going to be the best President we’d had since Lincoln, or at least Kennedy. How, I wondered, could people not like you and like what you had to say?

The day after, I wore my Yes We Can shirt to school and felt like I was floating on air. I got used to seeing your podium, “The Office of the President-Elect of the United States,” on NBC News. I snuck into my French teacher’s room during lunch to watch the Inauguration. He didn’t mind.

And then, I kind of forgot about you for a while. I had a tough semester at school, and then summer camp, and then college applications, and teenage relationship problems. You would come into my life in fits and starts: my Gmail account, which I had to create for college applications, ends with the number of votes you received in the Electoral College: 365. And I still watched the Nightly News from time to time, so I knew that you’d signed the ARRA and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal early on, and that you were trying to close Gitmo pass universal healthcare. But it was more of a passing knowledge. So when I was with my aunt at a basketball game in the spring of 2010 and she started talking about the budget reconciliation and its relation to the health care bill, I didn’t really know what was going on. I was embarrassed, disappointed that, like so many of my friends, I couldn’t even keep up with the most important bill of your Presidency. That night, I checked out those emails I’d been ignoring from the one political group I’d been involved in, the Religious Action Center. Sure enough, health care was front and center. They gave a number to call for my Senators and a script, and so I made my first political call, then and there, for your bill.

Our relationship changed a lot when I got to college. I started working on campaigns, phonebanking and canvassing, through UNC’s College Democrats chapter, and I met a lot more people who had different, more nuanced opinions about you. In my policy class, I would learn from my center-left professor about how your handling of the Affordable Care Act was a master stroke of policy compromise; later in the day, I would talk with my left-wing English professor about how you’d sold out on your progressivism. I was so torn. I knew, deep down, that you had to be different, special, able to rise above the rest. No other politician had made me want to cry like you did when you gave speeches, and yet, there you were, mired in this partisan bickering and tacking to the middle on everything. I wanted to defend you, but all the smart people I knew were attacking you, and it was hard to rebut them.

That summer, my parents got me the first couple seasons of the West Wing, and I blew through them. And I really believed you were our Jed Bartlet. I decided I wanted to become a political speechwriter that summer, just like Sam. I ended up in DC the next summer, where I got my first taste of the advocacy world and the insider progressive community. I remember going to a Fourth of July party in DC with a guy who interned at the White House, which I thought was the coolest thing, and he showed me that clip of you singing the first few bars of “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser for the 2012 election. I loved how your voice cracked, how you smiled afterward like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Later that night, after I’d seen all the fireworks on the National Mall, it hit me that I smiled because I was proud. 237 years after our country was founded, we had a black President, and that was cool.

And then you won. I have a vague memory that night of running through the streets of Chapel Hill that night with my College Democrat friends, half-drunk and fully delirious from being up since 4 a.m., screaming “We did it!” and “Obama!” at whomever would listen. But afterwards, you didn’t do much. There was Manchin-Toomey, which failed, immigration reform, which fell apart, the Buffett rule, and universal pre-K, which went nowhere fast. And even your accomplishments I was starting to sour on. I wrote my undergrad thesis on Obamacare and its moral implications, and walked away profoundly disappointed in the lack of change that Obamacare would actually bring compared to healthcare systems in most other developed countries. I started reading a lot more around that time: Slate, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, the Times, the Guardian. I saw, for maybe the first time, how your Presidency wasn’t doing much to help so many of the most vulnerable people in our country, the undocumented, the chronically poor, the unions, and I felt betrayed. By the time I moved to DC to work for that same organization I sent my first political email through, the Religious Action Center, I still liked you, but I wasn’t convinced you were doing such a great job.

The first issue I worked on in DC was immigration reform: I went to my first coalition meeting right after you delayed, yet again, your executive action to protect parents of Dreamers. It was somber—I was almost brought to tears by an organizer from United We Dream, who called you “Deporter-in-Chief” and talked about how she had to tell her dad that he couldn’t come out of the shadows until you finished delaying things. I wrote a blog post about how you failed to show moral leadership. After a few months you assented, announcing your executive action late one Thursday night. I stayed at work until 11 that night to watch your press conference and publish my organization’s statement of support—I’ve never been happier to stay at work until 11.

I worked on a few more of your important issues during my time in DC. As a Jewish organization, the Iran Deal was very important for us, and I tried my best to make sure my organization didn’t get in your way as you navigated around Congress and Netanyahu’s Israeli government. I remembered talking with my Israeli friends about the terrifying prospect of a nuclear-capable Iran, and I was so grateful that you took on the project of cutting off their capability before things got bad. I never had any doubt that you cared deeply about Israel and were taking the most pragmatic steps you could to protect it, which is frankly more than I can say about your Israeli counterpart. I knew you had my back.

I also worked on gun violence prevention, which was a whole lot of nothing, through no fault of your own. The biggest mass shooting of that year (I hate how specific I have to be with this stuff) was Charleston, and I’ll never forget watching your eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Hearing you sing the most sincere rendition of “Amazing Grace” this white, Jewish kid has ever heard, I realized that there was truly something very special about you, our first black President. You led me–and our country—through that tragedy in ways that George Bush or Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter couldn’t, and I was so grateful for it.

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Obama gives the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Eventually, I went to work for you! Because of an initiative you thought of with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, I was able to teach English in Malaysia on a Fulbright grant. I was so proud to serve our country—to serve you—in my small way. When I would play basketball with my students or teach a really good English lesson, I would look around and actually believe, in spite of all our terrible colonialist history, and our still-whirring drone assassination regime, I’d believe that our American government could be a force for good in the world. I saw my fellow Fulbrighters, State Department officials, and private American citizens preaching values of inclusion and debate and cooperation and peace, and I realized that we—our country—had something amazing going on here. My students would ask me who my role model was, and I would always say it was you. I wasn’t lying: there are few public figures I trust more to lead me in the right direction.

I started this letter when I was in Malaysia, just after talking to my students about the election process and how Hillary Clinton was likely to win based on these things called polls. I’d imagined tat I’d end the letter with some optimistic nostalgia, talking about how I was excited for the Clinton presidency but sad not to have you, the President who listens to Kendrick Lamar and who knows his way around a Hebrew phrase and who cries at the prospect of youth activism and who gives great fist bumps.

But, elections don’t always work out the way you want them to. Watching the results come in this time, I had a lump in my throat, but it exploded into uncontrollable sobbing, and it wasn’t the good kind of sobbing. I could barely watch the Senate results come in, and for the first time in my life since meeting you nearly a decade ago, I thought about giving up on politics. But you and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gave a few speeches and brought me back from the brink. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I know you’d want me to fight, so I’m trying the best I can.

You left us today, not forever gone but out of the public eye for a while, and I’m feeling the void already. I’m scared, scared for the country and for the marginalized communities that Trump preys on, but also scared that I’m missing a moral compass. Who do I turn to now? What do I turn to? We didn’t agree on everything and you’ve disappointed me countless times, but I could always turn to you to for empathy, perspective, and dignity. You’ve said that the progressive movement will find new leaders and empower new people, and I believe you. I’m waiting for it. I want to be inspired again, as inspired as that 15 year-old kid watching the “Yes We Can” video in chemistry class.

Thank you for being a foot soldier, a guide, a friend, and an inspiration.

Your citizen,

Jonathan

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