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Thanks, Obama: How The First President I Voted For Shaped My Whole Life

The first time I heard the name Barack Obama, I was a junior in high school and sitting in my AP US Government class.

It was 2004 and my teacher, Richard Burns, made what felt like a bold prediction at the time.

He said he believed Obama could be the first black president of the United States.

This wasn't long after Obama had given the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, an eloquent and impressive speech that put him in the national spotlight.

I was 16 at the time, and about as politically engaged as a person could be at that age.

This essentially meant I got my news from Jon Stewart and wasn't a big fan of President George W. Bush.

Beyond that, I wasn't exactly an expert.

I'd never heard of Barack Obama before my teacher mentioned him.

Memory is mysterious and dynamic. It arbitrarily records both notable and mundane life events.

For some reason, I've never forgotten the first time I heard Obama's name.

Perhaps it was the inflection of my teacher's voice when he said it, or maybe it was the fact he mentioned he could be the “first black president.”

I don't know.

But four years later, when Barack Obama was elected and my teacher's prediction came true, it was one of the first things I thought about.

I recently reached out to Richard Burns, my former teacher, and we reminisced about his premonition. He said,

What I saw in Obama was a person who might help us transcend our racial history.

He was himself biracial, had a non-western education while a youth, came from a state that hadn't faced the scars of racial slavery and represented a generation that had not directly experienced de jure segregation.

Moreover, he had an appealing image – articulate, intelligent, sensible and likable.

Indeed, the Obama of 2004 foreshadowed the man we saw in his campaign for the presidency several years later: fundamentally hopeful, charismatic and a deeply gifted orator.

But he was also someone who couldn't escape his racial identity, both on a personal level and in the eyes of the public and his opponents.

From conspiracy theories over his place of birth and the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement to the tragic Charleston shooting and beyond, race has been a major theme throughout Obama's presidency.

48 Hours Of Peaceful Protests In Ferguson

As the first man of color to hold the highest office in a country still contending with the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, it was always going to be this way.

Immediately after he was elected, the New York Times published a piece with the headline, “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.”

Screenshot of a NYT Headline.

The New York Times

Other publications made similar assertions, along with much of the general public. Looking back, we know that's very far from the truth.

Racism still plays a major role in our society, a fact the president has begun to touch on more and more in the twilight of his time in office.

As the president's tenure comes to an end, it's difficult to avoid reflecting on these things.

This is particularly true in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, which is poised to remake American politics.

Whether Trump's presidency will serve to the betterment or detriment of the country remains to be be seen.

In the meantime, we find ourselves saying goodbye to the Obama era.

Donald Trump and Obama shake hands at the white house

Reuters

Regardless of what one thinks of him, President Obama will always stand as a monumental figure in the narrative of America as the first black president in this nation's history.

But it would be wrong to reduce his legacy to a matter of race.

Presidential accomplishments should be measured on a meritocratic scale.

We could attempt to look back at his time in office from a comprehensive standpoint, but it would be premature to do so.

In many ways, we won't be able to fully grasp Obama's impact on the nation until years from now.

Instead, it's more helpful and appropriate to narrow the lens.

The focus here will be President Obama's legacy for Millennials, the generation that grew up with him and catapulted him to office.

I'm proud to call myself a member of this group.

Barack Obama and Millennials have a special relationship.

President Obama smiling.

REUTERS

I am a Millennial, or at least I am according to the official definition.

Like others from my generation, Obama helped define who I am both as an individual and as an American.

I won't claim to represent all Millennials, as we are the largest and most diverse generation in US history, and it would be foolish to do so.

But my experience with Obama – coming into adulthood with him as my country's leader – definitely shaped my life and worldview in immeasurable ways.

I know I'm not alone.

The night Obama was elected, I was sitting in my college dorm room, anxiously watching the TV for the results, while also awaiting people's reactions on Facebook.

When it was announced he won, campus erupted.

Change is coming to America.

There were tears rolling down people's faces, people picked up instruments and jubilantly played them on the main campus road.

Meanwhile, almost everyone had a celebratory beer in hand. It was college, after all.

And it wasn't just Obama we were ecstatic about, it was democracy.

This is a photo of me reacting to the news Obama won the election, which encapsulates how many young people felt that night.

Obama election night.

John Haltiwanger

It was the first election most of us had voted in, and the majority of us saw our favored candidate win at a time when America was really hurting.

Thus, one might say that the first piece of Obama's legacy for Millennials was a feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves.

In electing Obama, we reminded the world America still had the capacity to change and progress, and we knew our generation would be at the center of this process.

President Obama instilled within my generation a sense of hope and purpose that has molded us into one of the most optimistic cohorts of Americans in our country's short but storied history.

We Are Stronger Together

He was the first president most members of this generation would've been eligible to vote for.

Not to mention, he entered office at the onset of the Great Recession, which affected Generation-Y more than any other.

Indeed, President Obama is fundamentally linked with Millennials, as we were the determining factor in his initial election victory.

In what has been characterized as a complete realignment of American politics, a vast majority of Millennials (66 percent) voted for Obama in 2008.

We were disillusioned, angry at the Bush administration and desperate for a deviation from the status quo, and Obama encapsulated that.

The election of President Obama in 2008 marked a progressive shift in American politics, which was spearheaded by Millennials.

Perhaps the biggest indication of this is the fact members of this generation who identify as Republican are decidedly less conservative than older segments of the GOP.

Millennials overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in 2012 (60 percent) and, in spite of the fact she lost, 55 percent of this generation voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while Trump garnered just 37 percent of the Millennial vote.

In many ways, the president is indebted to Generation-Y, and you can't discuss his legacy without focusing heavily on his relationship with this group.


The audacity of hope.

I was among the massive crowd that attended Obama's first inauguration in January 2009.

Anyone who was there will likely recall the incredible sense of solidarity and optimism that permeated the capital that day.

It was freezing out, but the historic character of the occasion made potentially getting frostbite feel worth it.

But perhaps we were too hopeful and naive in the beginning.

President Obama inauguration

John Haltiwanger

President Obama's first inauguration.

John Haltiwanger

President Obama came into office at the onset of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, and in the middle of two ugly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The War on Terror was and has continued to be an inescapable debacle for the president.

On January 23, 2009, just three days after he was inaugurated, the president launched his first drone strike in Pakistan.

That initial strike set the tone for his approach to perceived existential threats abroad. The use of drones and drone strikes would become quite standard for him in terms of counterterrorism.

On the domestic front, he spent much of the early part of his first term attempting to stabilize the economy while pushing for health care reform.

In 2010, the year I graduated from college, the president signed the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law.

Many people my age may not have thought too heavily on this.

A lot of us didn't feel the immediate impact, because, as the part of the law, we could stay on our parents' health care until we were 26.

Instead, we were more focused on the fact we couldn't find jobs.

In the days leading up to my graduation, headlines read, “Job Market For Class Of 2010 Worst In Recent Memory.”

The American Dream has felt broken for many Millennials since the Bush era and throughout Obama's presidency.

In spite of how hard many of us worked in college, we've ended up with astronomical levels of student loan debt and without jobs or employed in the service industry.

There's nothing wrong with such work, of course, but when you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education, you expect to end up somewhere with a higher return.

After I finished school, I ended up bartending and moving back into my parents' home for almost a year before I found a job that matched my education.

This period of my life, albeit short-lived and decidedly less difficult than the struggles many other Americans face, temporarily shattered my self-esteem and left me quite bitter about the state of the country.

My post-college experience typified what it's meant to be a young person in the Obama era, which doesn't paint a very positive picture.

Living with a parent is the most common young adult living arrangement for the first time on record

The burden of unemployment has been the greatest challenge my generation has faced throughout Obama's presidency.

At present, around 12.8 percent of Millennials are unemployed – over twice the national average.

When reflecting on his legacy, Millennials will likely always wonder what the president could've done to change this.

Still, in spite of Republican attempts to undermine it, Obamacare has helped more Millennials than we likely give it credit for – 2.3 million young adults gained health insurance coverage between the enactment of Obamacare in 2010 and the start of the initial open enrollment period in October 2013.

Regardless of its merits, however, Obamacare has been a consistent point of contention in American politics throughout Obama's tenure.

While it's helped millions of marginalized individuals obtain health care, one wonders if it was worth the cost in terms of the schism it's contributed to in our society.

Trump has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Whether he will succeed in this endeavor is open to question, but the most significant legislative achievement of Obama's time in office hangs in the balance.


Bipartisan bickering has driven Millennials away from political parties, but they still love Obama.

obama in

REUTERS

The second half of Obama's first term saw the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and the cessation of the Iraq War.

Osama bin Laden had orchestrated 9/11, one of the worst national tragedies in US history and a deeply traumatizing event for many members of this generation.

But the Iraq War, a dubious response to that event, catalyzed disillusionment for many young people, as it was predicated on falsities.

Like many Americans, I knew people who were killed in the 9/11 attacks.

The deception that preceded the invasion of Iraq dishonored the memory of the people who lost their lives on that awful day.

President Obama promised to bring the war to an end as part of his initial campaign, and he made good on that.

But even as he did, a war between the nation's political parties continued to gain steam domestically.

It's fair to argue the country hasn't been this divided ideologically since the Civil War, and regardless of the president's often futile attempts to promote bipartisanship, Obama's legacy will always be tied to this.

2016 furthered this schism in massive ways.

Our Generation Is Fed Up With This Election

So, it's no surprise many Millennials now identify as independents, as the political divisiveness that's defined the Obama era has been distasteful, embarrassing, counterproductive and deeply damaging to the nation's progress.

The president shouldn't be blamed for this entirely, but he is inherently connected to it nonetheless, which he eluded to in his final State of the Union address,

Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise…

Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention.

And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter…

Too many Americans feel that way right now. It's one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.

One might argue the Obama era has produced a generation more distrustful of government than any other in recent memory.

The ultimate impact of this remains to be seen, perhaps it's just a consequence of youth.

Still, no other generation loves Obama more than Millennials. He is our president.

Screenshot of a graph about Obama.

Pew Research Center

President Obama leaves the White House with the admiration of my generation, and his perspectives will continue to influence their vision of what America can and should be.


The world stopped hating America as much because of Obama.

I was in grad school in Scotland during the 2012 US presidential campaign, and watched the election results in a pub full of international students.

When Obama came on the TV, they cheered.

When Romney appeared, they booed.

While there are certainly people outside of the US who dislike President Obama, there's no question he helped revitalize America's global image.

Screenshot of a graph about America's global image.

Pew Research Center

In short, he made us cool again after eight years of Bush.

This was definitely a huge part of Obama's appeal for young people, who played an instrumental role in the president's reelection – as they had in his initial victory.

Regardless of the fact more young people are unmooring themselves from institutions and political parties, most have consistently voted Democratic while Obama has been president.

Screenshot of a graph about Millennials.

Pew Research Center

From the way things stand right now, it's conceivable President Obama, with the help of inspiring figures like Senator Bernie Sanders, has cemented an affinity for the Democratic Party among a majority of Millennials.

If this continues to be the case, Democrats owe him a tremendous debt.

With that said, the formative experience of growing up with President Bush also impacted the political leanings of this generation.

So, one could say both presidents contributed to the liberal sentiments of my generation in their own ways.


A groundbreaking presidency with an uncertain legacy.

President Obama leaves the White House with a high approval rating, and it's not hard to see why.

He will not only be remembered as the first black president, but the first president to support same-sex marriage – and the one to see it legalized nationwide.

He will go down as a president who championed criminal justice reform, cared deeply about the environment and consistently advocated for gender equality.

He helped prevent a second Great Depression and the US did not experience a terror attack on the scale of 9/11 during his tenure.

He reminded us that we don't make peace with our friends, but our enemies via the Iran nuclear deal and rekindled relations with Cuba.

He preached tolerance in the face of hatred and often forced America to be self-critical about the many shortcomings of its past and present, which are too often connected.

In spite of facing unprecedented levels of obstinance from Congress, President Obama always carried himself with a level of calm and dignity that more than befitted the office he served in.

He was hardly a perfect leader and could be criticized on everything from his approach to whistleblowers to his often hesitant approach to foreign affairs.

Still, there is no denying the US is better off today than it was eight years ago.

Much of Obama's legacy is threatened by Trump's polar opposite approach to the vast majority of issues we face as a nation.

But, perhaps more than any other group, Millennials have an opportunity to continue what Obama started.


Talkin' 'bout my generation.

Barack Obama speaking at National Museem of African American History and Culture.

REUTERS

We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

On the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in one of the defining moments of his presidency, President Obama delivered a particularly bold and poignant speech, which, quite appropriately, focused heavily on social justice.

Speaking on the young men and women who participated in the historic march, the president stated,

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge is the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.

It's the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.

It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what's right and shake up the status quo.

…If Selma taught us anything, it's that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.

As Millennials seek to define Obama's legacy, they must also recognize their own civic responsibility.

Far too many in this generation have failed to exercise their most fundamental right and duty as citizens: voting.

Graph about Millennial voting habits.

Brookings

This nation is a grand experiment, an unfulfilled idea, a notion yet to be realized.

What makes it exceptional is not what it currently is, but its sheer potential.

If Millennials hope to steer this nation in a direction that suits our progressive outlook, we have to participate in the political process.

With that said, perhaps Obama's greatest legacy for Millennials is the instinct that drove him to politics: audacious hope in a young and vibrant nation.


Yes we can.

President Obama waving goodbye

REUTERS

There's a framed poster in the hallway outside of my old room in my parents' home.

It's a compilation of images from newspapers around the world announcing Barack Obama won the 2008 election.

The poster features the unforgettable slogan of Obama's initial campaign, “Yes we can.”

Years after those words captured the heart of a nation, as I sat in the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and listened to the president's DNC speech, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I heard thousands of people chant them once again.

President Obama's America is unapologetically optimistic and is a nation of “we,” not “I.”

This is the America I want to live in, and will continue to fight for.

The future rewards those who press on…I'm going to press on.

President Obama helped set me on this path.

So, without irony or humor, I will end this by simply saying: Thanks, Obama.

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John Haltiwanger

Editor

John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.
John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.

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