Barack Obama, Democratic Presidential nominee Senator at the time, speaks at a rally in Progress Plaza on Oct. 11, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK / PAOLO VAIRO)
In the shadow of the sad presidency of George W. Bush, the world was introduced to Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Looking to make an impression for a Senate run from Illinois, instead, the then 43-year-old made a down-payment to a historic future presidential run.
He sounded young, organic and spoke of a hopeful America that, unlike the pro-war president at the time, believed peace was still possible in the world, that illegal immigrants deserved a path to citizenship, that diversity remained America's greatest strength and the role of America needed to be reconstructed so that its best legacy rested in creating institutions such as the Peace Corps and not in never-ending wars.
Choosing Obama to speak at the convention, during prime time and in front of millions, reflected Democratic candidate John Kerry's desire to solidify the electoral loyalty of African Americans whose support did not seem iron clad and could have threatened his lifelong ambition of being president. It also seemed to consolidate the disappointment many felt in choosing one-term Senator John Edwards, an affluent anti-poverty lawyer, as a running mate at a time when a female or a visible minority would have done wonders.
Obama, whose audacious life story and message of hope made mainstream white society not fear him, but embrace him, would go on and win his senate seat against the fringe candidacy of Alan Keyes. Supported enthusiastically by the Kennedy clan, perhaps seen as a continuation of the dream of Senator Robert Kennedy, Obama's candidacy for the presidency would begin the day he became a United States Senator.
I vividly remember when doors were shut in our faces - black Americans telling us that "an African" would never be elected president.
In just four years, "the skinny kid with a funny name and ear" would earn the nomination of his party against the Bill and Hillary Clinton political machine and win the presidency, beating a respected and maverick Republican war hero, John McCain. In becoming America's first black president, he perhaps disappointed author Toni Morrison who, tongue in cheek, named Bill Clinton -- the saxophone-playing son of a single mom -- as America's first black president.
I answered the call to volunteer for Obama when I saw a Carleton University professor volunteer for Hillary Clinton on CNN and described how Canadians can also make a difference in a U.S. election that had become a referendum on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I was in Pennsylvania, having travelled from Toronto, Canada when Obama became America's 44th president. I was one of his millions of followers from around the world stationed all over America.
I joined a delegation of Ethiopian-Americans in Ohio, bused from Washington D.C. in search of the hopeful voice of a man who is essentially part East African, and saw in him a possible destination for all. We were excited and saw our effort as what the civil rights movement was for a generation just before ours. We knocked on doors, spoke at African-American churches, visited immigrant areas where Ethiopian restaurants strived, and helped collect signatures and donations for the campaign. Many times, it seemed, lots of money and the influential establishment favoured the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, threatening to crush our spirits and efforts, yet we believed the impossible was possible.
I vividly remember when doors were shut in our faces -- black Americans telling us that "an African" would never be elected president, that Obama was a Muslim and a terrorist in a so-called Christian nation. They told me and many others to go back to where we came from. In due time, the campaign would be embraced by the electorate, especially among African Americans, whose loyalty of the Clinton's is often unhealthy and concerning.
This became truer as Bill Clinton started musing about outdated notions of black voters, and also started to compare the candidacy of Obama to the candidacy of Jesse Jackson and other black presidential candidates who were more protest candidates than mainstream standard bearers of the Democratic Party.
At the end, I saw and witnessed as America elected Obama as their very first black president in November 2008 and showed the world what was still possible in a nation that has yet to shake its discriminatory past. In the end, historians will not judge Obama as America's best, nor second or third. He was not. He was an average president, but symbolically, he remains a powerful voice for good, and he will still be one when he leaves office. I remain hopeful that he will use his voice to finish the work he started as president.
America is a country that still practices the death penalty when civilized nations are shifting away from it; America's court system remains broken and racism is still an issue in the country. African Americans are still killed regularly by the police without accountability, and so-called illegal immigrants remain second-class citizens while they remain paramount to America's economy.
Abroad, Obama leaves office not negotiating a peace deal in the Middle East. American soldiers are departing Iraq and Afghanistan, but those nations remain engaged in conflicts. Africa is still a sad dumping ground for charitable contributions when open and fair trade is likely to produce better results. But to his credit, Obama has also made a noted contribution by making the American health-care system more accessible to the working poor. He has repudiated torture and affirmed America's commitment to the Geneva Convention, and opened the door to a rapprochement with Cuba.
America's 44th president is best judged by the symbolism of his presidential win of a nation where slavery was once legal, and not only by the substantive contribution he made to progress on various policy fronts. Symbols sometimes remain a powerful of sign of progress in the world.
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