“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
Twilight has dimmed the sunrise in the logo that then-Senator Barack Obama first thought, in the long ago days of 2007, resembled nothing more than the Pepsi Cola logo. That sunrise is now a sunset, and tonight, ten days before he leaves the presidency to assume private citizenship, we listened to his calm, upbeat farewell to us.
It wasn’t until the end, when he said “Yes, we can”, that the totality of his leaving became a shocking reality. The last several months have brought trauma, and the associated emotions – anxiety, uncertainty, anger – have, blessedly numbed us to this loss (we haven’t been anesthetized to much else).
Yes we can.
It carried us through the scariest economic period of my lifetime, and of the lifetimes of most people alive right now.
It carried us through enacting massive legislation that stimulated our economy and, therefore, helped the world economy. The stimulus package wasn’t a handout to create jobs that weren’t absolutely needed; it was designed to invest in bringing our country forward in areas such as digitizing medical records and invest in renewable energy sources, among other critical things.
Yes we can.
It carried us through the bruising, draining fight to get the Affordable Care Act on the books. This wasn’t a law that had the sole goal of insuring the uninsured; it updated the way medicine was provisioned in this country, designed pay-for-performance goals, closed the Medicare Part D doughnut hole, and stopped runaway healthcare spending (which at the time of enactment was some 18% of GDP, if I recall correctly). I’m not going to argue the merits of the ACA with anyone, except to say that for the ungodly amount of money Americans spent then for healthcare, our outcomes were worse, fewer people got care, and costs were rising beyond what employers could handle. And those are facts.
“Yes we can” carried us through heartbreaks like school shootings and the attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords that killed six others. We thought we would be able to achieve some common sense gun measures, and for now we can’t …. but we will.
“Yes we can” kept General Motors open, along with Chrysler, Ford and the smaller auto suppliers, all of whom employ millions of Americans.
“Yes we can” helped kill Osama bin Laden. Normally, the death of one person wouldn’t lift a people. However, what bin Laden brought to us was fear; September 11 made us more fearful and therefore more hostile.
“Yes we can” couldn’t work miracles, though. Some of us are still more fearful and hostile, particularly to anything that’s vaguely perceived to be a threat. The perspective of “we have to get them before they get us” was a holdover from the previous administration, and it didn’t leave all of us, did it?
Barack Obama, though, wouldn’t let us be fearful, or at least those of us who wanted to live looking forward. I cannot think of a single episode where he did not strive to appeal to the better angels of our nature, regardless of his opponents’ opinions.
Because …. yes we can. That’s not a fearful message. At all times, in every way, it is a mantra of hope. Of empowerment. Of shared responsibility and shared rewards. Of working together for the common good. I cannot think of a single episode where he put his needs or ego ahead of the country’s. He always credited the American people with the progress that was achieved.
So it hit me, personally, suddenly and unexpectedly hard when I heard him use that phrase at the end of his address tonight. It brought back the memory of the optimism, altruism and confidence that dimmed a few months ago. But by bringing back the memory, it unblocked the nerve that had become numb, and the fear and pain came flooding back.
Except what he said was that we still can.
So there is hope, particularly with vigilance.
And we’ll be further empowered by knowing that when they go low, we will go high.
I’m going to miss our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President with the big ears and affinity for children. I’m going to miss our energetic, wry and practical First Lady.
There aren’t many people who can fill their shoes, and no one who’s entering the White House does.
So tonight, thanks for reminding us of the truism that is Yes we can.