Barack Obama found his purpose the year he turned 22. He was about to graduate from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Thriller was out, popped collars and Members Only jackets were in, and Ronald Reagan had been in the Oval Office for two years. It was in this environment that Obama decided he would devote his life to working in black communities. At the time, he barely knew what the term “community organizer” meant, even though that phrase would, in years to come, both serve and plague him.
“When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly,” Obama wrote in Dreams from My Father, the celebrated memoir he published in 1995, 12 years after graduating from Columbia University. “Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”
That idealistic philosophy survived Obama’s political ascendancy, persisting through to his final remarks as president last week — despite who is going to be inaugurated on Friday. Many have ridiculed his optimism, or been frustrated by it, throughout his two terms — including me. But dismissing Obama’s impractical hope for healing our political divides risks missing an important lesson of his presidency. By using the strategies of a community organizer, Obama has shaped what an entire generation expects from the office he’s vacating.
Obama had one of the most consequential presidencies since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He rescued the economy, helped tens of millions buy health coverage, and authorized the mission that ended with Osama bin Laden’s death. Those are just three of many accomplishments, which may or may not survive Trump’s administration. But behind the social change that erupted during his time in office — including, simply, a greater awareness of problems that exist — were regular people who felt empowered to speak out.
The colorful, poignant White House celebration of the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage equality in 2015 doesn’t change the fact that Jim Obergefell was the catalyst behind that decision. There is no “It’s On Us” White House initiative to combat sexual assault without the women leading organizations like End Rape on Campus and Service Women’s Action Network. Obama didn’t authorize Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals without being pushed by the likes of Astrid Silva and Erika Andiola. He shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline for the time being, but only after the Standing Rock protests put that issue at the forefront of the American consciousness. And there is little chance that without the invigorated movements for black liberation, led largely by millennial activists, our first African-American president would have empathized so publicly with Trayvon Martin’s family after his murder.
Obama’s actions in these instances were both substantive and symbolic, but they were only made possible by ordinary people who fought for equal treatment. Perhaps all this could somehow still have happened under a president who didn’t support these goals and didn’t give his overt or implicit support to these causes. But that wasn’t Obama. He encouraged these efforts to take action and consistently responded to praise and criticism on these fronts.
Obama’s belief in the possibility of political change isn’t incompatible with a successful politician. So make no mistake, no matter how many years he spent engaging the residents of Chicago’s South Side, Obama is now a politician through and through. He’s one of countless candidates who sloganeer “change” during the course of a campaign. Someone seeking office who doesn’t really have any original ideas (or hopes to conceal a more nefarious agenda) can always claim they’ll “change how things are done.” We just saw this happen with Donald Trump, of course — a man who exploited America’s broad dissatisfaction with government to gain power.
With Obama, on the other hand, it’s hard to find instances in which he sought power for power’s sake, or indulgently used the authority he’ll relinquish on Friday. Surely some disagree, pointing either to his executive actions or his seemingly mechanical implementation of immigration laws that have resulted in a record number of deportations. Others never let go of their rightful criticism of his foreign policy in places like Libya and Syria. I suspect he’s OK with that; throughout the last eight years, Obama has repeatedly sought to empower the public to not only push him to make change, but also to inspire them to make changes of their own.
Obama wrote in his memoir that he based his idea of community organizing on the traditions of the civil rights movement. “Communities had to be created, fought for, tended like gardens,” he wrote. “They expanded or contracted with the dreams of men — and in the civil rights movement those dreams had been large. ... Through organizing, through shared sacrifice, membership had been earned.” This attitude resonated through his meetings with Black Lives Matter activists and those working for climate change. As Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett wrote last year after a meeting with Obama on a variety of civil rights issues, “truthful talk was also a form of action,” and the president was willing to hear that talk unfiltered.
Was he perfect, or even fully consistent? No, as many activists — such as those still fighting for communities like those in Flint, Michigan — would attest. He and his White House could have done more. But we’ll see in the coming years how important it is to have a president who listens to feedback from those who disapprove of him. Obama’s community-based approach to governance helped not only win several victories that improved America, but also gave support and space to those who sought to make it even better.
A new GenForward survey indicates that a majority of virtually all Americans aged 18 to 30 strongly approve of President Obama’s performance and character. But for those young people, encouraged by their twice-elected president these last eight years to speak out and get involved, there are discouraging times ahead. Seven in 10 of those surveyed said they “question President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to democratic principles and worry about how his presidency will affect their lives.”
I can imagine how scared they must be. I was 25 years old and sitting catatonic on my couch on election night in 2000, watching in terror as George W. Bush was declared the winner. Like today, many of us thought we were getting an illegitimate president. In my memory, though, it didn’t seem as though my generation was as animated as this one is. True, there was no social media back then, and the internet didn’t yet have the revolutionary tools of communication and organization we use today. But if the country has changed, it’s not just because of technology. This president also helped make it so.
Young progressives may recall bits of Bush’s incompetence and neglect, but Trump’s victory (or even Bernie Sanders’s defeat in the primaries) represents the first real political setback of their lives. It’s good, then, that they’ve had eight years of training for how to fight back. The cycle of societal progress is never linear; all too often, it is cyclical. The same mistakes are made, and we end up with a charlatan in the White House, ready to send us back to where we began. I’m not sure people understand yet how much the freedom to express dissent will be threatened during Trump’s term. But President Obama’s consequence will be felt most in the voices he has supported and enabled, those who continue to fight and organize to improve an America that has never been great enough.