I was thirteen years old when George W. Bush won the presidency. My teenage and college years were under the shadow of this dark period of American history, with an imperial president capitalizing on a nation’s collective shock to wage war on nations, civil liberties, and the environment. Such were the only politics, all but stated outright, that I and millions of others my age knew for most of our sentient lives.
So you can hardly fault us for being swept up in the “hope” and “change” whirlwind that blew through our country with Barack Obama’s presidency. Young folks from coast to coast turned out in droves to knock on doors, work phone banks, and register new voters. Even people steeped in radical politics, deeply critical of the American two-party system, got on board. Some volunteered for his campaign, a task in which they had never imagined themselves participating; others decided they would vote for him, despite taking previous positions that they would never participate in electoral politics; many put forth a sharply critical stance in public or print, but one-on-one, maybe after a few beers, admitted that his campaign’s energy was infectious, and they were doggedly attempting to evade the grasp of that excitement—to no avail.
I fell into the final category. I knew all the reasons to be skeptical that Obama would pull us out of the abyss created over the previous eight years (or thirty, or two hundred), but I didn’t want to believe them. This could be different, I thought during the lead-up to November 2008. And on Election Night, I added my voice to the collective cheer that rose up with 200,000 others in Grant Park in Chicago, the new President-Elect’s voice echoing towards us from the other side of the park. This is the beginning of something new, I thought to myself, something better for this country and the world.
It pains me greatly, then, to look back on the first year of Obama’s presidency and realize that my initial instincts were correct. A year in, so many of us who thought this president would be different have come to realize he’s not—and is not going to be.
So many of those doorknockers, phone bankers, and voter registration workers feel so betrayed by a man they thought shared their values. The list of betrayals is long and well-known: expansion of the war in Afghanistan, continued and expanded use of private military contractors like Blackwater throughout the Middle East, drone attacks in Pakistan, expanding the war on terror to Yemen, rewarding the crooks on Wall Street with blank checks coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, the White House’s lackluster attempts to defend the eventually scrapped public option in the Senate’s health care bill, the weak action on reversing climate change—and on and on and on.
Throughout 2008, those of us who made Obama’s presidency possible—the aforementioned energetic young people, along with poor people and people of color and LGBTQ people and feminists and many others—have been told to remain patient, and that the White House can’t fix our country’s myriad problems within one year or one term. The same liberal pundits and cabinet staffers who saturated his campaign with a vision of Obama as Messiah now try to appease disheartened citizens with a more realistic, pragmatic politics. He’s just one man, they say—don’t demand the impossible.
But the truth is, we’re not. Asking the President to throw his weight behind a strong climate change bill is no pie-in-the-sky request. Calling for a health care bill that includes a public option is far from unfeasible. Demanding accountability from the banks and insurance companies who are still afloat only after massive infusions of taxpayer dollars is not unachievable.
Far from calling for the impossible, we have kept our calls firmly within the realm of the achievable, the conceivable, the doable. Yet time and again, we’ve been told the opposite—or worse, we’ve been promised change, only to see the status quo reproduced.
This can’t go on.
We can’t keep repeating these mistakes. We can’t allow ourselves to be silenced by an inside the Beltway logic that claims the United States is not ready for any tepidly progressive change in health care or foreign policy. Obama’s first year in office should be a wake-up call to everyone, especially we young people who put so much faith in his ability to bring change to this country, that change won’t be delivered to us. We have to wring it out of those in power.
Where, then, do we go from here?
LGBTQ activists provide us with one answer. Some have called for a boycott of the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party until the White House makes good on the President’s campaign promises in favor of gay equality—mirroring the demands of October’s National Equality March that drew over 200,000 to Washington, D.C. Their fervent hope for justice denied, they now realize that an Obama presidency does not entail an automatic deliverance of equality—if the president is going to move, we have to make him.
They provide a strong example for other fighters for justice. If we’re going to get the President and the rest of the Democratic Party to act justly, they’ll have to feel the heat as we take our anger public.
There’s no way around it. Organizing to fight Obama might have sounded absurd a year ago as we watched him enter the Oval Office, our hopes high that he would soon deliver a better world. But as we look on as our dreams for a more humane and just world go down in flames over and over again, it appears to be the only strategy we have left.