By Charles K. Poole
I’m tough on politicians. That’s because I’ve worked in politics and for politicians, so my perspective about what makes them tick is defined by having seen and heard too much while dealing with their ilk over the years. When Barack Obama, not long a senator, announced he was running for president I was skeptical. Very, skeptical. For me, it was another guy following the script defined by predecessors, all of whom made their names allegedly representing people they’d soon forget when and if they got elected. It was a cynical view, yes, but not so much when you’d learned, as I had, that people who go into politics rarely live up to expectations. And given the system they’re given to work with, how could they? That thing about power corrupting people, and absolute power corrupting absolutely? It’s a real thing. We have all of world and American history to prove that point.
With Obama’s announcement, let’s just say I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. I needed more reason to support him than his interest in the job and the fact that we shared a certain melanin content, after all, to warrant giving him my vote. I’ve worked with and around a lot of politicians who look like me and allegedly ran for office on a platform of inclusivity, with a unique appreciation for what it means to be Black in America, but I can tell you that it simply is not true that they always have the best interest of that constituency at heart.
While I wasn’t against him, I wasn’t an eager supporter, either. And though his vision for the country was wonderfully thematic and heartwarming, I’d heard similar promises made before. He was going to have to work if he wanted to convince me that he was anything more than just another position-seeker.
As he campaigned and primaries passed and the election drew closer, I still wasn’t a cheerleader, but was certain he was a better choice than his primary opponents, and, ultimately, his Republican opponent, as well. I voted for him. So, when he won enough primaries and emerged as the front runner, I prepared myself for an historical moment that I saw culminating with his nomination during the Democratic National Convention, and watched the proceedings with an awareness of how important a moment in history his nomination was. My heart swelled. My imagination expanded. And I held tightly to what I was seeing, feeling, and experiencing so I could remember and be inspired by the events for the rest of my life. I figured he’d be considered the first African-American to be nominated by one of the two major parties for president, and that would be that.
But then the unbelievable happened. Barack Obama won the general election and became the 44th president of the United States.
I cried when the president-elect accepted the result of the election and then gave a powerful, inspiring speech about unification and hope that spoke to me, and reminded me that his election was the fulfillment of a dream I never thought I’d live to see. It was a dream realized that I wished my ancestors had lived to witness. And when the entire Obama family took the stage, I lost it. The power behind image of the new first family and the significance of that picture-perfect moment pushed me beyond the limits of self-control, and a flood of tears infused with joy, inspiration, hope, possibility, and pride burst forth. It is a moment I’ll never forget.
The company for which I worked at the time, where I managed a multicultural sales, marketing and communications group, wanted to develop an advertisement we could place in national magazines recognizing the historic election of the nation’s first African-American president, and it became my task to create it in less than a week. Buoyed by a very real sense of history and my very personal sense of pride and inspiration, I drafted the ad copy, referencing the election in a way I tied to the company’s Great Kings and Queens of Africa program, which featured paintings by African-American artists that honored the contributions of celebrated African kings and queens, so as to keep their legacy alive through education, awareness, and artistry.
It was a work assignment, yes. But it was also an opportunity to frame, as a Black American, what Barack Obama’s election meant to me and millions of others. I still keep the framed copy of the ad, included with this post, in my office. It’s a reminder that that while change takes time, nothing—absolutely nothing—is impossible. I captured that feeling with the ad’s tagline, which read: “There’s a King, Queen . . . and President in Us All.” It remains one of my proudest professional achievements.
Still, I had reservations. After all, I knew what would happen after the honeymoon was over. The inauguration came and went, and the new president came to his post really trying to work with everyone, but the approach didn’t work because there were a lot of elected officials who simply had no intention of working with him.
For the first two-and-a-half years of Barack Obama’s presidency, I remained proud but was not happy with his approach to governing: I thought he spent too much time playing nice with folks who played hard ball with him from Day 1. I believe had he set a different tone early in his first term, much he wanted to accomplish in the latter half of his first term and throughout his second would have met with different outcomes.
Politics teaches an important lesson best summarized by Henry Kissinger, who once said: “America has no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” Paraphrasing that in terms of the early Obama presidency, it would have read, “Presidents have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” Obama’s message of hope was on-point and viable, but politics requires something more than hope to get things done. It took him quite a while to learn that.
Still, even as I disagreed with his approach, I appreciated what he attempted to do and what he was to achieve. Somewhere in the second half of his first term, finally, he found his voice, his power, and when he did he began to redefine everything. And he did it all under the most difficult circumstances I’ve ever witnessed any president (and his family) in my lifetime endure.
As much as he accomplished while getting absolutely no support from congressional leadership, it is the personal example he and his family set for which I will always remember President Obama and his family. This one-time cynic, who vocally demanded he be a stronger, more effective president early in his term, has become, over the years, someone who—in witness to his efforts and the way he went about leading—grew to believe and trust in the man. I appreciated what he represented as a symbol for all the world to see, one that proved, once and for all, that the reach of people of color, or any minority group, never exceeded our grasp. We’ve always had what it takes to be and do anything. Barack Obama has now removed all doubt, no matter what anyone says or chooses to believe.
The entire family, for that matter, has done the same. The Obamas are grace, personified. Strength, realized. And they are real people, too. They love good music, know how to throw a helluva party, and as the president’s final term comes to a close, they have given us all plenty of reasons to reminisce about the days of the Obama presidency, and how easy his occupation of the White House will pass into history as the good old days for those of us who will remember, and the children who grew of age knowing only Barack Obama as President of the United States as a new, chaotic, directionless, smoke-and-mirrors administration replaces his own Jan. 20.
In the latter second half of President Obama’s first term and throughout the second, he led this country with experience, heart and soul when—given all the headaches and hardships a less-than-grateful American people rendered unto him—others may have simply coasted on their lame-duck status. He played hard ball, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but always giving as good — or better — than congressional leadership gave him. And he always did it with style, with eloquence, with a level of consideration and thoughtfulness of which his opponents are simply incapable. Indeed, President Obama reminded America and the world about all the things that really make America great while others pretended our best years were somehow behind us. He did it under attack, while being disrespected, and at the hands of Americans who are better off today because Barack Obama was president, but too ungrateful, bigoted, partisan, or racist to admit it.
I will miss knowing he’s in office, for now I fully recognize his greatness. I recognize his growth as a leader, and as a man. And yes, I am thankful–so very thankful–for all he has done and, in leaving office, what he reminds us we—the American people—have left to do.
Barack Obama wasn’t a perfect president; there is no such person in this nation’s 400-plus year history. But indeed, he was a great president. Not a great Black president, but a great president, period.
There are those who will challenge that assertion or outright deny it, but I know what I know. And now that he has served this nation and served it well, I only wish for the president, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha some well-deserved peace. Time out of the public eye. A chance to go to Target, and as much time visiting Hawaii as they can handle, all without cameras, partisans, and the uninformed masses judging them differently than they’ve judged virtually every one of his predecessors.
While President Obama’s departure saddens many, I do not count myself among them. He earned the right to a life in which everything positive and possible comes his way after making a real and lasting difference in the world. He is among a very limited group of people who can authentically say that he has, and say it supported by plenty of tangible proof that history will smile upon. That truth will define his legacy—a truth by which all his successors will be measured. They will soon find out what a tough act he is to follow.
On behalf of a grateful America and the millions who know what you’ve done and sacrificed for us, Mr. President, thank you for your service. Well done. Well done, sir.