In 2008, our country elected Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President in American history. At the time, he offered something no other public figure could: hope and change. To a future social worker like me, hope and change meant that wonderful possibilities could exist! He was the symbol for a variety of political and social issues with hopes that those issues could be overcome. Many of us had deep admiration for the man who was funny, sensible, graceful, compassionate, an intellectual, a great orator, a loving father, a devoted husband, and an overall good human being. To me, his candidacy promised “one America” and my whimsical thinking of a post-racial United States.
However, in contrast, the past eight years we saw our country deeply divided against itself. When many were ready for and seeking change, others saw their reality turned upside down. When some saw promise, others saw threat. Social progress looked like an unintended hazard. To the disappointment of many and the delight of others, there is the pledge to undo the Obama policies, to erase them as if they had been scribbled down with a pencil on a drawing pad. I believe part of this disagreement comes from the deep divide in our political parties, another part of it comes from president Obama’s leadership style (as his team always maintained that they don’t do theater) and the last part comes from implicit bias. Yet, through it all (The never-ending wars and drone strikes, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, fights to address climate change and national security, efforts at education and gun control, an open Guantanamo and republican obstructionism) this is what held fast: dignity, grace, integrity, and a pleasure to be of service.
In addition, every presidency had debates about race and culture but none quite like the Obama years. For example, we witnessed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an upsurge in white identity politics. We have seen a rebirth in the fight for civil rights, with protests against police brutality and unjustified murders, as well as increasing acceptance of LGBTQIA rights. At the same time, millions of families were torn apart as Obama’s administration deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in our young country’s history. Black and Brown children are still being funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. While all this was happening, we watched president Obama try to walk the narrow road on police brutality, knowing that if he were to voice too much support, he would be attacked with claims that he is anti-police and un-American. And through all of this, I am still not ready to say goodbye because this is much more than people of color and LGBTQIA ever had – the chance to vote for principles instead of against those who offer the most harm, a president who saw US as human beings and not a block of voters, the knowledge that people looked at someone with skin like mine and decided yes, he is qualified to lead this country.
Just as President Obama, much of what social workers try to do is based on actions taken in the political arena. Politics are important to our field and we should be fully involved because legislation, good or bad, will have a huge impact on us and the communities we serve. So, what then can social workers take away from the Obama years? Well, he taught us that it is important to hold onto our principles and ideals that brought us into this occupation, and to embrace the possibilities for change. By modeling this process during his presidency he gave us a renewed economy, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, the Fair Sentencing Act, Federal divestment from for-profit prisons and the appointment of our first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. This is what the social work profession has always been about: social change and social justice. A field devoted to the advancement of humanity and assisting in making positive differences in people’s lives despite enormous challenges. One of the reasons that attract individuals to social work is the wish to uplift people, families, and communities to improve the quality of lives. I am certain that what has been ignited in most of us is our own possibility to become greater than who we are. Something that President Obama spoke of in many of his eloquent speeches.
We live in an era of technological advancements and globalization and for many, this has meant anger, fear and hate. While negative partisanship has always existed, it’s nourished in our online era by people’s ability to locate information from news sources and social-media that feeds and intensify their biases. I believe that one of the greatest disappointments of the Obama Presidency was that the Republicans were unable to separate their political differences from the fact that the president himself is an admirable man. I guess this was a problem for me because I see the genuine goodness in our president and the love he has for our nation. There are many personal heroes in my life: my best friends, professors, a protective brother, and my parents. But I also benefited from the example of a man whose public life showed that we are not defined or defeated by the adversities in our life. During these eight years, things were not easy but his distinctive and unique style has produced a kind of wistfulness in me and I will truly miss the 44th president of the United States of America! On Jan. 20, the political side of me will accept president-elect Trump, but the social worker in me will be saddened by the final signs of President Barack Obama’s farewell. For at an essential time in my life, he illustrated, modeled, and provided me his remarkable ideas of what hope and change could be and for that, I’ll miss him and the example he set for us.
Written by: Constance Dixon