Barack Obama, looking back
More than 10 years ago, while surfing through several TV programs, a special report on CNN caught my attention. A young African-American, accompanied by his wife, was visiting Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and he was being feted along the way to his parent’s ancestral village like a conquering hero just returned from the wars.
The African-American was Barack Obama, at that time the Democratic junior senator from Illinois. By coincidence, my son, a UP College of Medicine graduate who practices in Illinois, had just sent me a book, “Dreams From My Father.” It was an autobiographical work by Obama who traced his life as the son of a black African father from Kenya, and a white mother from Kansas, who met while both were attending the University of Hawaii.
Barack Obama Sr. arrived at the University of Hawaii in 1959, the first African student to attend the institution. He studied econometrics, graduating at the top of his class. In a Russian language course, he met Ann Dunham. They fell in love, were married, and she bore him a son to whom he bequeathed his name. Barack is Swahili for “one who is blessed by God.”
The elder Obama left his family soon after. Only once did he visit his son. This explains the deep attachment of the younger Obama to his mother whom he describes as “the single constant in my life. . . . She was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known and what is best in me I owe to her.” Ann Dunham passed away a few months after the book was published.
Barack Obama went through Harvard Law School on a student loan. He was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. In January 2005, Obama was sworn in as a member of the US Congress, only the third African-American to sit in the Senate after the US civil war.
On one of our visits to the “Land of Lincoln” where our grandchildren were born and raised, Barack Obama was on a tour to launch his second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” Incidentally, the title comes from a phrase his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. had used in a sermon. Obama would use the same phrase in his keynote address before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a speech that brought him nationwide attention and, in all probability, led to the decision to run for the presidency.
We happened to be at a Barnes and Noble outlet in Skokie, Illinois, when it was announced that he would be around the following day to sign copies of his book. Early the next morning, we lined up for the opportunity to get his autograph, and my daughter, camera in hand, was able to record for posterity my very brief meeting with the first African-American who would become president of the United States. At that time, he was a junior senator but because of early exposure at the Democratic convention, he was already being mentioned as a possible running mate of Sen. Hillary Clinton who was gunning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Barack Obama would not only win the Democratic presidential nomination, defeating Hillary Clinton, he would go on to crush the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, the Vietnam War hero who was on his fourth term as senator from Arizona. In the Electoral College, Obama won 365 votes against 173 for McCain. He also won the popular vote count by more than 9 million votes, registering the highest number ever won by a presidential candidate, by garnering 69.5 million votes against McCain’s 60 million.
In his victory speech in November 2008, President-elect Barack Obama declared: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Last November, in spite of strong support from President and Mrs. Obama who both campaigned vigorously for Hillary Clinton, the Republican candidate Donald Trump, who had zero political experience and was frequently reported as losing in many poll surveys, won the hotly contested US presidential election. Trump won 304 electoral votes, against 227 for Clinton. He lost the popular vote count by 2.9 million votes, becoming the fifth person in US political history to become president despite losing the nationwide popular vote. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” resonated well with white, rural, working class Americans who felt they were being left behind, and saw themselves as the forgotten men and women in a nation whose leaders were too engrossed with globalization, often at the expense of their own personal, economic welfare.
Last week in his farewell address delivered in Chicago, just a short distance from where he made his victory speech eight years earlier, President Obama outlined what he saw as his accomplishments: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history. . . if I had told you that we could open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11. . . . If I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
It is for historians to pass judgment on his performance and to make comparisons with other presidents. This is best done after a passage of several years and it won’t be an easy task. For my part, I shall remember him not for any particular achievement (although in my view his presidency was marked by a number of substantial contributions to world peace and stability), but for the manner in which he conducted himself in the highest office of the land, for the inspiring and uplifting tone of his discourses, for his elegant language and, certainly, for his civility in dealing with fellow citizens.
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