Four days after the 2016 election, I started to write a letter to President Obama. I needed to process where my head was at and how I got to where I was now. I didn’t finished it until tonight. I share it now here as an open letter to provide the context of where I’m coming from in this blog…
Nov 12 2016
Dear President Obama –
Thank you for eight years of progress. I know you had high aspirations and sometimes fell short due inability to sway republicans and sometimes even democrats to join your position. A staunch supporter, even I sometimes disagreed with some of your decisions as president. But overall, I know that what you’ve accomplished has been overall progress in the right direction and I’m sorry your tenure as president is coming to an end. In light of the disappointing presidential election results, I want you to know that beyond the policy changes you pushed through (some of which are now at risk of reversal), you have had a lasting effect on me and many others like me. You rekindled in me a small flame of the spirit of activism I’d felt as an idealistic teenager.
Growing up in Niskayuna, NY an affluent and largely republican upstate NY town in the Capital District Region near Albany, I considered myself a 60’s throwback, distrustful of government and blind patriotism. I recognized my white privilege even then (though I didn’t call it that). I wanted to believe that I would have been an marching against the Vietnam war and for civil rights, thought those fights were before my time. While in high school, I dipped my toe into activism by writing letters for Amnesty International, circulating petitions against nuclear proliferation, and working on the Hunger Project. I didn’t get in too deep, but I had that interest, but was definitely short on follow-through. Yet, I was proud to be accused by my republican-leaning friends of being a “bleeding heart liberal”.
When I turned 18 in 1982 and registered to vote for the first time I was not a fan of either of the major parties and decided to registered unaligned to any party. I thought then that they were too monolithic and powerful and I did not want them EVER to think I was a “reliable” vote for any candidate with their letter next to their name on a ballot. I wanted to make sure my vote would be one that would be actively fought for, rather than assumed. In this way I was also declaring my openness to hearing two sides of an issue and being willing to change my position if facts and argument warrant. I was determined to always vote according to my conscience, not simply to vote based on party affiliation. And I voted my conscience, sometimes for Democrats, sometimes Republicans and sometimes third party candidates. I voted for Jesse Jackson in 1984. I joined the ACLU.
Somehow though, I lost that fire and interest in any kind of activism. I shifted my focus to studying in college. I attended the University of Virginia. I found myself in the most diverse population I’d ever experienced (albeit still “mighty white” as I’ve heard it described by African American friends) which is a bit ironically considering it’s in the south and the campus was segregated until 1955 and only allowed women to general admission in 197o.
After all, this was the University which Tom Shadyacat attended as an undergraduate and who printed the 1979 poster Are You A Preppie? https://thriftstorepreppy.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/1076/ . This was also the school Lisa Birnbach named one of the preppiest schools in America in her the 1980 book “The Official Preppie Handbook”. So I diversity was not really an expectation, I had. While there, I steered clear of the “politicos” – both the College Democrats and the Young Republicans were establishment and I was anti-establishment (or so I thought). Yet I didn’t actively engage in anything else. I kept my head down and studied and worked my part-time job.
My third year (junior year) I spent a semester abroad in Freiburg, Germany. I loved my time there, I loved the people and the country. While there I was surprised to discover a patriotism I didn’t know I possessed. I started to see differences, though subtle, between the U.S. constitution and Germany’s. But then I moved on…
I graduated and started looking for a job. The closest I got to activism was working as a Kelly Services temp putting stickers on mailers for Hands Across America. I didn’t participate in that, but I can’t say I didn’t know about it.
I got a job learning computer programming for an insurance company in Springfield, MA and when that company encourage volunteerism by allowing “work release” to volunteer an hour a week in the local school, I stepped up to participate. It was incredibly rewarding. But I let my ACLU membership lapse. I was now primarily focused on work – working 50-60 hour weeks. I eventually married and switched jobs and since the new company didn’t have “work release” to encourage volunteering, I no longer had time for that. In retrospect, sadly, I guess I really was part of the “me generation”.
Shortly after our first child was born, I found myself with a failed marriage and an infant to care for. I was luckier (more privileged) than many women in America who find themselves in the same position. I had a good (but demanding) job which allowed me some flexible work arrangements, a good relationship with my ex-husband who was an excellent and engaged father who shared equally in parenting responsibilities, and I knew that I even had a financial and emotional safety net from my immediate family, if I ever needed it. But even with all those privileges, I was still a single mom, working full time, with my nearest family living 2 hours away. I had my own problems. I had the priorities of any parent and a limited reserve of energy. Social or political activism was not in the cards.
Through all these years from high school graduation up until 2008, although I remained registered unaligned and still thought of myself as a “bleeding heart liberal”, I was merely going through the motions each election year. I voted, but I didn’t engage in any meaningful way during the period between elections. I paid minimal attention to the issues. I largely ignored my local elections. In 1992 I did make a small contribution to the DNC to see Clinton elected the first time due to my frustration with 16 years of Reagan/Bush conservative policies. I attended a rally in my home town but only because a friend had found out about it and invited me. I liked that Bill Clinton was saying – yeah we have to make change and it’s going to require some sacrifice from everyone — we’re all in it together. That resonated. So a threw a few dollars at his campaign, attended a rally in Springfield, and voted. Other than that I did nothing to advance or help the causes I said I believed in except make the occasional small monetary donation.
Then came your 2008 campaign in 2008. This was different. That lit me up a bit. Maybe it was because things went so bad between the republicans and the Clintons and then the horrible years of Bush. Maybe the political situation was finally bad enough to wake me from my stupor. The financial crisis also had me alarmed, and angered. But your campaign reminded me of how I felt as a teenager and I wanted to HOPE for CHANGE and I wanted to be a part of it.
I followed the election more closely. In Massachusetts even unaligned voters can vote in the primary. I honestly hadn’t decided between you and Hillary until I was in the booth. I believed Hillary would be a good president then. I honestly liked her and trusted her to do a good job. However, after having seen how much the republicans hated the Clintons during Bill’s presidency and the constant attacks throughout that presidency, I felt she was too much of a lightening rod to actually be able to accomplish anything once elected. I chose you instead. I liked your positions and you seemed willing to fight for them. I felt that as a senator, Hillary had sometimes compromise her positions too quickly for political expediency. But honestly, I think the deciding factor was because you were a relative unknown at the time. I figured you’d have a bit of a “free pass” while they did the digging to find the scandal to throw at you. (Unfortunately, history proved me wrong on that free pass idea – although they never had anything on which to hang their hats!)
Once I’d committed, I contributed. I bought a yard sign and put it up (WHAT?!?) – I put a bumper sticker on my car (OMG!) I continued to contribute through the general election. I still was on the sidelines a bit, but I was more engaged than ever before. I wept with happiness at your election and your inauguration. Change was coming.
With the economy near collapse and the disclosure of the behavior of the financial institutions that led to it, and the complacency and permissiveness of regulators that allowed it, I became frustrated and angry. I remembered my feelings as a teenager and felt guilty I’d taken my eye off the ball for so long. I knew I needed to do something, but I had no idea what and now idea how. But I was sure you’d be able to move the ball forward and make some change.
2009 – Ted Kennedy died leaving a vacancy in Massachusetts senate. A Massachusetts resident, I took for granted that we’d elect a relatively progressive in his place. I didn’t follow the race, I didn’t actively support either candidate, though I knew I wouldn’t vote for Scott Brown from the little about him I passively absorbed. It never occurred to me that Massachusetts would ever replace Ted Kennedy with a Republican! I was complacent, of course that seat will remain with the democrats. I voted, but I didn’t engage. Scott Brown was elected. I was shocked. I took heart that at least, as republicans went, he was more moderate than many.
Then 2010 we had Citizens United V. FEC rolling by the Supreme Court. Now I was enraged. I had some hope, though, as I listened to Elizabeth Warren talk about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which you appointed to create the agency. I thought, ah now there will be some real change. But alas, the republicans were able to stall it’s enactment. When the CFP was at risk of not being funded, I heard, Scott Brown may be a deciding vote. What had we done? What had I done? Nothing yet. But I wrote my new congressman and reminded him that even though I hadn’t voted for him, I was a constituent and would remember his position when he came up for re-election. I work for an insurance company and I reminded him that proper oversight and enforcement levels the playing field for my company which I viewed as ethical – so that they could actually compete fairly and remain ethical. Thinking that this argument may persuade him to defend the CFPB and even convince the financial services lobbyists and his colleagues in his party that it was the right position. And wow — he voted in favor and the board moved forward. I know it wasn’t my letter that convinced him. But I thought, it may have been a multitude of letters just like mine that gave him the conviction to vote that way.
When Occupy Wall Street emerged in 2011, I thought – this is it – this is the sea change the country needs. We need a revolution – not a violent one, but a revolution of thought and engagement to remind our elected officials that the 99% have more votes than the 1%. I was following and tweeting and very inspired that we may see real change against the powerful party system. I was inspired…I was going to hit the streets and join them….but then I was afraid. Now, there were acts of violence — both by the police against the peaceful protesters and factions within the protesters against police, property, others. There were stories that the movement was being co-opted by nefarious organizations, that the police and FBI and who knows who else in the government was keeping the movement under surveillance, that those in opposition were infiltrating the movement to cause violence in an effort to discredit it. The stories spun out, what was the truth? I couldn’t be sure.
That fear, that lack of confidence in the real intentions of the movement, that fear that the politicians and the powerful really were bought and owned by the 1% and would suppress that movement through any means necessary including infiltration and violence… it kept me from fully engaging. I made the occasional financial donation to the cause, but remained a “lurker”, a witness, a commenter, a tweet-er and a post-er but not really an active participant. But I was hesitant to share my affinity for that movement with anyone close to me. As summer moved into winter, the occupations were dispersed. The movement remains in many forms for different areas of focus, and I continue to follow — from a distance. Because of that engagement I ended up on loads of email lists and started signing petitions again. I would periodically speak out on Facebook or Twitter when something caught my eye.
I now was following politics more and engaging a bit. But I was still not sure what I could really do influence to make a difference and bring about change. I and I’m sure many others though we’d done our part by electing you but the progress (or lack there-of) was up to the politicians now.
So when the mid-terms rolled around and you hadn’t accomplished yet everything you’d promised (though you did keep us from the brink of economic collapse) people were disappointed and disengaged or decided not to support your party anymore. We managed to rally to keep you in the White House at re-election. But the division was growing – something still wasn’t right. I got interested in Move to Amend, still a bit on the fringes but with strong belief we need to make this change in the constitution. I renewed my ACLU membership – and began paying closer attention to these issues — net neutrality, privacy, policy brutality, private prisons, abuse of power, infringement on voting rights, civil rights, marriage equality, government transparency…. how had I forgotten all the good they do?
Then you lost control of congress – though you didn’t really have control before that, either. You couldn’t win the fight on your own, but at least you were doing the best you could with the power and influence you could wield. You called on your original supporters. Repeatedly. To such an extent it was a common late-night talk show joke. And consistently, you always took the high road when others were attacking you personally as well as politically. I was disgusted with congress but I tried to support you.
When reacting to polling question “is the government going in the right direction?” I’d want to say hell no! Those pollsters and pundits, they would interpret that “no” answer as an indictment of the your presidency.
But what I would mean is that congress is doing nothing but being obstructionist, they should be working together toward compromise. In my view, the president should be setting tone and being aspirational, and congress should be doing the hard and dirty work of finding a way to get as close to that goal as possible through debate, discussion and compromise.
Instead it was all turned upside down – republicans just say no, democrats would concede some point expecting a concession from the other side, but nothing came. It was always one sided — that’s not compromise that’s contempt. Republicans are now deciding what can be discussed, what appointments will be debated and voted on, and what actions they’ll take — too often in direct contradiction to the sentiment of the people. How is that happening — ah, their constituents must not be engaging — they only hear from the lobbyists.
Then came Bernie…and I was inspired to engage again. I really loved his message, but I was hesitant to get behind him early in the primary season. I wasn’t sure – was he just going to be a spoiler like Jesse Jackson? Or was he the real deal? So I held off contributing until pretty late. I again found myself with that choice between Hillary who I truly respected and Bernie who inspired me to believe that my youthful idealism may not be out of style. I finally committed to him, but not in time to help him win Massachusetts. I was disappointed he didn’t win the primary, but I recognized that his success had an influence on the platform and threw myself behind Hillary.
As you can imagine, the 2016 election gutted me. However, your example, your presidency continues to give me hope. I’m committed and engaged. I joined the Women’s March on Washington last weekend. And I’m committed to be more active, to do real work this time around.
So, as you adjust to life as a civilian again. As you look at how crazy this country is getting. Do not despair that your legacy is in danger. Your presidency stands in stark contrast to the Trump Presidency to inspire and fire up millions of others much like me, who if not for YOU, may still be complacent and disengaged.
Thank you, President Obama for your class, your eloquence and above all for instilling in me the Audacity of Hope