And so it begins, ends and begins again. The pre-fight chatter is almost over. Iowans officially kick off the long struggle for party delegates with their convoluted caucuses on Feb. 1. On the Democratic side, self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton a run both in Iowa and New Hampshire. Though his candidacy seemed a long shot in the beginning, some are now asking if he can pull off an Obama-level surprise.
The Republican camp is a veritable circus marked by comedic personalities with polarizing ideas and sharp axes to grind. Party traditionalists don’t like the front-running Donald Trump. Other insiders hate Ted Cruz so much that they see Trump as the nuclear option to keep Cruz out. Everyone is still trying to figure out what the hell happened to Jeb Bush. Trump’s candidacy also seemed far-fetched at its inception. To the GOP’s chagrin, he has morphed into the unwanted houseguest who ultimately took over their house. Intriguing.
No matter who ultimately prevails, he or she will follow Barack Obama. When Obama is escorted to Marine One after the inauguration, it will mark the end of one of our country’s most historic and controversial presidencies. There was no way it could not have been both given that we’re still wrestling with the consequences of America’s original sins of slavery and racism. Candidate Obama made bold offers of “hope” and “change you can believe in.” The summer before his initial election, I wrote the following in my book “What’s wrong with Obamamania?”:
“He [Obama] emerged like a breath of fresh air on a crisp fall morning. He seemed to be a politician who did not succumb to the pettiness of politics; a black man who was not limited by the constraints of race; a Democrat who just might have a few new ideas. Of course, none of us knew what those ideas were. In fact, few people really seemed to care. All most people occupied themselves with was the idea that this man somehow appeared to be different.”
Eight years later, whether Obama delivered on his hope and change promises (or even tried) is debatable. He certainly has strong supporters and detractors on each side. In my professional role as political philosopher, I have found myself working to both praise and constructively criticize him without behaving like a shallow dilettante, nihilistic critic or unthinking acolyte. It has been filled with difficult highs and lows, but always thought provoking.
Interestingly, setting his political successes or failures aside, the profound symbolic importance of Obama recrystallized for me in a conversation with my 7-year-old daughter recently. As we talked about the impending election (yes, I talk about politics with my kid) she opined, “I don’t want Barack Obama to stop being president.” After I explained term limits she soberly said, “Well, the only person I don’t want is Donald Trump because he doesn’t like people of color.” (Point of clarification: I did not condemn Trump to my daughter. I was surprised to hear it from her. A friend of mine told me her young children feel the same way. It just seems that some bad opinions are forming about Trump and intolerance that are bleeding all the way down to our babies. The Donald should take heed.)
Then it hit me. I said to my daughter, “Wow — you know what? For as long as you can remember, the president has been black. That’s normal to you. My God.” When my child and her peers think of the president, a black man automatically comes to mind. They do not swell with pride when Obama steps to the podium to deliver an address. They don’t see it as odd (as I still sometimes do). It’s simply the way of things for them. That’s awesome. I reminded my baby that there’s a possibility the next president could be a woman. I reinforced the point that a woman had never been president. Her enthusiasm returned as she proclaimed, “Oh yeah! That’s right! I’m gonna vote for the girl!”
And so the primaries begin, Obama’s time comes to an end, and my daughter’s political awareness is in initial bloom. In her little world, she has only known a black president and he may be followed by a woman. I’d say that’s some serious hope and change I can believe in. •
Dr. Ricky L. Jones is chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. He is author of Black Haze and What’s wrong with Obamamania (both from SUNY Press). Follow him on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.