Across the country this week, we celebrate President’s Day so my blog this week focuses on one of the best Presidents I was a witness to: Barack Hussein Obama, our 44th President. One month removed from his historic Presidency gives us retrospect. And, one month into a Presidency that many of us are alarmed by, ashamed of, disheartened by and ready to fight for what we think is real democracy … we have perspective.
Sometimes we gain our footing and determine who we are by deciding who we are not. We look at what we don’t want to do in order to help us decide what we do want to do. We know light be seeing what dark looks like. Similarly, we have many Presidents to analyze and gain perspective on whether the current occupant of the oval office is serving our country well. We can look at who has done well as President to develop perspective on what the current officeholder is not doing well.
For the 44th President, what did he say that resonated? What did he do? How were his words effective in raising our consciousnesses while also lifting the ideals of what our country stood for? Were his actions a reflection of his words? Did he encourage us to be our better selves and did his Presidential appointments & recognitions and programs & policies result in a better society? Here’s a simple view of how 45 is doing through the words of the 44th President.
And I think reading his words gives us energy for this journey we are currently experiencing. In getting myself ready for 2017 and to have a keepsake of the powerful words of President Obama, I bought the book “We Are The Change We Seek,” the speeches of Barack Obama. The book is edited by Joy-Ann Reid (of AM Joy on MSNBC) and E. J. Dionne, Jr. of The Washington Post. On this Presidents’ Day, I invite you to take energy from the most recent example of what a President should look and act like. I found two of his speeches very compelling and they happen to bookend his presidency. A speech in June 2009 at Cairo University and speech in May 2016 at Howard University. Reading those speeches has given me hope, energy and specific road maps for action in 2017.
My own hope is not blind to the struggle we are now in. Early in the 2008 campaign, Obama said: “Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it and to fight for it.”
From a speech in June 2009 at Cairo University, where President Obama reached out to those of the Muslim faith and also spoke about the importance of valuing differences and democracy:
- “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.”
- “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.'”
- “Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second president, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'” (Now how many of us knew that? I certainly did not and I would bet my pension check that #45 has no clue that Muslims have this much history with our country.)
- “…the challenges we face are shared and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”
- “Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion.”
- “I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations — to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.”
- “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. …Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure.”
- “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”
- “It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. … There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
- “We have the power to make the world we seek…”
To students at Howard University in May 2016, President Obama offered a treasure trove of wisdom:
- “to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers …to your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame ….I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action – because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.”
- “be confident in your heritage … there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”
- “…we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement. We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur.”
- “We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling … the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person.”
- “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes. You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
- “You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.” “As my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position.”
- “There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. …one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life.”
- “Change isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go. Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.”
- On Thurgood Marshall and his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston: “they knew it would not be easy. They knew it would not be quick. They knew all sorts of obstacles would stand in their way. They knew that even if they won, that would just be the beginning of a longer march to equality. But they had discipline. They had persistence. They had faith – and a sense of humor. And they made life better for all Americans.”
- “We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. … Now it’s your turn.”
E.J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid state in their book how President Obama regularly came back to the idea from the Constitution’s Preamble of a “more perfect union.” They remarked that “on his best days, Obama could inspire Americans in large numbers to believe that it was worth marching, worth engaging in a political system they often scorned.” As I looked to celebrate Presidents’ Day, I know that he succeeded in some way because the marching goes on. The union is not yet perfected and we rightly so are not satisfied until it is.