What President Obama Taught Me About Hope, On His 55th Birthday
It was the summer of 2004. I was 17 years old and getting ready to turn 18 in September. That was a big deal because on November 2, I would finally be able to vote.
I have loved politics since I was a little kid. If radio is theater of the mind, politics is theater for the soul. It's entertaining and it actually matters. When I was a boy, I always thought about the first person I would vote for. A few years later, I realized I was a Democrat, so that narrowed the choices down.
Back in 2000, I remember going to bed on election night, not knowing who the next president was going to be. When the dust settled (albeit in controversial fashion) George W. bush, the son of the 41st president of the United States and current governor of Texas would emerge the victor.
Despite the huge mess in Florida, the American public really wasn't that into the election. The main reason for this was prosperity. When the '90s ended, America was living high on the hog. The Clinton years lulled us into a false sense of security.
Things were going so great for America, we thought it didn't matter who became the next president. The good times were here to stay. The American public was forgetting something that General Colin Powell knew all too well. On President Reagan's last day in office, General Powell gave the outgoing president his final security briefing. “Reagan asked Powell “How is the world today?” Powell responded “Quiet Mr. President” but Powell later quipped that unfortunately, the world doesn't stay that way.
Nearly eight months into President Bush's first-term, the September 11 attacks would change our country and the world forever. This would change the political landscape too. After 9/11, elections mattered again. The ensuing war that took place in Afghanistan was an engagement the American people overwhelmingly supported — and with good reason. Osama bin Laden, the man who orchestrated for September 11 attacks, was being harbored in Afghanistan with the governing regime in Afghanistan refusing to give him over to authorities.
It was when the Bush Administration turned its attention to Iraq that public support started to wane. Even the weapons of mass destruction line left many scratching their heads.
The 2004 election would play out in front of that backdrop. President Bush would seek reelection to his office and Massachusetts Senator and Vietnam War veteran, John Kerry, would emerge as the Democratic nominee. The war in Iraq would be the top issue of the election.
The economy was yet to hit the fan — that would happen two years later, so the president really didn't have to worry about that. John Kerry — God love him — was about as boring as they come. I've seen documentaries on shuffleboard more exciting than John Kerry. Now don't get me wrong; I liked his ideas. He had some good plans and he was the Democratic nominee so that was my horse.
Since a Republican was in the white house, that meant the Democrats would go first in the conventions. The GOP chose New York for their convention, which was a good strategic move. The objection was to play up how much New York meant to them, especially after the 9/11 attacks. I am not saying the Republican politicians didn't absolutely feel heartbroken for New York; I'm just saying they didn't love the place as much as they were saying. I mean, they were laying it on pretty thick.
The Democrats answer would be a convention in Boston, John Kerry's hometown. Besides the presidential and vice presidential speech, the most important speech is the keynote speech. The keynote basically spells out the entire platform that the party will run on that fall.
For this task, John Kerry selected Illinois state senate candidate, Barack Obama. We all know what happened there: Obama stole the show. He spoke on the hopes we had as a nation and said there's not a red America or a blue America, just the United States of America.
Yes, it was rhetoric, but it was rhetoric at its finest! After that speech, I believe most Americans had the same thought that I had at 17 years old. Man, John Kerry's speech was going to suck compared to this. And boy were we right! Fast forward to election day; with pride, I cast my first ever vote for John Kerry and a few hours later he was defeated.
The four more years chant the president heard at the Republican National Convention had become a reality. What was left for Democrats? What was left for me? I tell you, those were a dark time to be a Democrat. I believe my Republican friends might know that feeling now. But as they say, it's always darkest before the dawn, and that young state senator would win his election and become a United States Senator, and eventually became the president of the United States. It was so improbable that someone named Barack Obama would actually be on a presidential ballot — let alone win that office. But he did.
I'll try not to wax poetic much here, but as an African-American, I always thought that I would be limited in what I can do because of the color of my skin. That's the message people of color got growing up.
Yeah you can be successful, yeah you can have a great life, but there're certain things that are just not for us. When Barack Obama became president of the United States, for the first time in my life, I thought maybe the sky is the limit. Maybe my life could turn out the way I wanted. Many people said many wonderful things that night, but the comment that stands out to me from that glorious night came from an unlikely source: John McCain, the man Barack Obama defeated to become president.
From the platform in Arizona Senator McCain said this,
“But that he [Obama] managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”
I hate to admit it, but I still tear up when I read that because he was speaking about me.
I had once wrongly believed there were certain things that people who look like me couldn't do. Now, I'm not saying that racism and discrimination do not exist, it does. What I'm saying is that despite that, with enough hard work love and grace we can be able to rise to the top.
And I am so happy that my female friends can now share in the belief that they too can accomplish their dreams. Thank you for showing me that, Mr. President.
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