I have been keenly following Obama ever since his run in the Democratic primaries. I was new then to American politics (it still confounds me), but the narrative that surrounded him deeply fascinated me.
I read both books he wrote, and any long-form commentary or stories that would surface. I, like many others was disturbed by his decision-making in wars, but I also believed that the presidency comes with a ton of baggage and tradeoffs. What can a person choose to accomplish in 4/8 years, and what are the tradeoffs one is willing to make?
I have left a trail of destruction myself in my personal life – there is almost never a win-win situation and there are many heartbreaks and losses to be endured while pursuing even the most positive outcome. There were so many difficult choices I had to make for myself, much less the leader of the free world.
It is not as if being the president of the United States bestows much decision making power at all.
There was one interview where the reporter asked him why didn’t he sign an executive order to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. I cannot remember the details (nor which interview), but the gist was he believed there was no point making short-term absolutist change, because it would just be reversed by the next presidency. Changing the mass public’s mind and gaining the necessary momentum for a tipping point would take much longer, but it was the only way that it would sustain. That view he took – regardless of whether there was any political game he was playing – permanently shifted my perspective on what it means to make sustainable change.
Last week, gay marriage became legal for all of the United States. It made me appreciate all the steps so many people have taken in order for this to happen. There were prominent activists like Harvey Milk, but in between there were also millions of unseen people throughout decades who bravely stood up to be counted in order for this change to happen.
It is the capacity to take a long-term view, and yet accepting any individual, no matter how powerful, is just one of the many steps in history but also paradoxically understanding that every micro decision matters along the way – that allows humanity to take these grand leaps:
“And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. … But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” – source
That was especially meaningful in context with Obama’s eulogy for the people who died in the Charleston shooting:
”Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court—in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.” – source
The world endures so much, and it is difficult to see progress when we’re encapsulated in so much pain wrapped within a tiny slice of history, but in any given moment we have a choice to believe and act like we can be better, and these choices matter.
I have this tendency to dart between the macro and micro and draw connections between them – and contemplating on the above makes me reflect on my own life.
I cannot see the significance of the present moment, but the present would not have occurred without the seemingly innocuous or disastrous decisions I have made along the way. All I can do is to do my best, accept that I will make mistakes along the way, and yet hold the faith that if I truly believe I will be better, the sum of my entire life will still be a net positive to myself and on the world:
”And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that, if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that, at the end of the day, things will be better rather than worse.” – source