When Barack Obama was first elected as president in 2008, I was a wide-eyed high school sophomore who knew everything and nothing at the same time. Despite the fact I had not actually cast a vote in the election, I was just as emotionally invested in the outcome — if not more invested — than the adults I knew who had. The night Obama won the election remains a vivid reminder that macroscopic change, however unexpected, is possible. As I sat in my boarding school dorm's common room with 50 other girls glued to CNN and watched the results trickle in, I could feel the guard shifting. When my home state, North Carolina, flashed blue for the first time since 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected, I knew Obama had won. History was made, newspapers were framed, friends embraced, tears were shed: Americans were excited about the future in a way I had not witnessed since before 9/11.
As a rebellious teenager resistant to authority, I sensed that Obama — at the time, a junior senator with almost no experience — was also a renegade. I remember watching the same renegade three years before ignite the Democratic National Convention with his charisma; I remember asking my father who exactly Barack Obama was (he didn't know) and if he would run for president (I thought he should). How amazing is it that a man who almost no one knew and everyone was googling in 2004 suddenly became our president four years later?
Before he was elected, Obama was already a symbol of the great strides America had made in the new millennium and our potential for even more monumental strides in the future. Once he did win, he became a living representation of change as the nation's first black president. My parents, who are not affiliated with a party but typically vote Republican, supported Obama in 2008 (this might have more to do with the fact that Sarah Palin was on the Republican ticket). Like most 15-year-olds who think they know everything, but have a lot to learn, I was still under the impression that the president was Superman and enacting change was as simple as a signing a piece of paper. I hardly comprehended the seedy underworld of lobbying and how resistant politicians are to change. "Constituency" and "filibuster" were just words I had learned in history classes. But even if he was unable to deliver on all his promises, Obama's idealism was infectious and a much-desired antidote to Bush's divisive leadership.
For the first time in my existence, I realized how quickly the renegade is blamed when things fall apart.
It's easy to underestimate that amid all the "hope" and "change" Obama inherited a plethora of nightmarish issues: Guantanamo Bay, a resurging Taliban in Afghanistan, a stock market entrenched in turmoil, colossal debt, gaping unemployment, the list goes on. A mere month after Obama took office, the Dow Jones dropped an unhinging 650 points — the fourth worst drop in its history. While I was rational enough to know the circumstances that caused the recession were out of Obama's control, I began to question whether the junior senator from Illinois was truly experienced enough to stabilize the world's largest economy. Furthermore, if Obama was incapable of confronting economic catastrophe calmly and effectively, how would the rest of his presidency fare? Affordable health care, energy reform, and withdrawing from Iraq seemed like distant pipe dreams. Obama responded swiftly, but certainly not as many wanted him to: he approved the bailout of the banks, he bailed out Detroit, and eventually signed financial reform into law by 2010. For the first time in my existence, I realized how quickly the renegade is blamed when things fall apart.
I watched as Obama grayed, the facade of sanguine bliss dwindled, more people lost jobs, and a man who millions had newly embraced became so reviled that the Secret Service investigated more death threats against him than any other preceding president. Yet during the recession, Obama achieved historic success as well. He signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, giving millions of uninsured Americans access to health care, and he began to wean America off its addiction to Middle Eastern oil by promoting clean energy.
As the economy gradually transitioned from stagnant to making minute gains, Obama was already on the trail for reelection. By this point, I was a sophomore in college who had learned about a fraction of the world's many injustices, but who still had plenty to discover. I still perceived Obama as a rebel, but I was beginning to doubt his seemingly hollow promises. Just as my impatience with Obama had reached its zenith, he visited my university and I had the honor of hearing him speak along with thousands of my classmates. I have never seen a human being captivate a stadium full of people so intently. My stomach did flips throughout his 30-minute speech, my hands tingled as I shook his — even if I could not hear his speech, I may not have noticed because his presence was so electrifying. Despite the target on his back, I was not surprised when he won again in 2012. The American people had not lost hope in his powerful promises, and nor had I. Patience, I learned, was the renegade's greatest virtue.
Being a renegade is not as glamorous as the word implies.
Without the need for approval or reelection, Obama slowly began to deliver on the promises he made in 2008: America is energy independent, the economy is stronger, and unemployment is at an all-time low. A year ago, Obama announced a historic executive order to strengthen existing gun control laws (time will tell if the measure remains under Trump). I have never been more elated with a politician than when I read Obama had both commuted the sentences of some nonviolent drug offenders and became the first seated president to visit a federal prison. However, some chapters of American history remain painfully open: the Middle East grows more ravaged by the day, America's presence is still felt in Afghanistan — where we had supposedly withdrawn from — and Guantanamo Bay is still operating. To be certain, I do not agree with every decision Obama has made, but I also don't see eye to eye with my father 100 percent of the time (I am sure Sasha and Malia would agree). Admiration does not require my approval of every decision. I wish that Obama would end, or at least limit, his ongoing drone war in the Middle East that has killed so many innocent civilians. I wish that Obama would resist aggressive foreign leaders with more than just economic sanctions. I wish that Obama would more dramatically transform the justice system (although I know he would, if it were possible).
Becoming an adult during the Obama era has taught me the harsh lesson of circumstance as well as the power of perseverance. I will always admire and imitate the rebel, but I am more conscious of the position's difficulties than when I was 15. Being a renegade is not as glamorous as the word implies. Those who lead the charge will always be met with resistance, even when the change appears welcomed. Through his tribulations, Obama revealed that even renegades must compromise. Most importantly, Obama's presidency forced me to understand the intricacies of change — how slowly it comes, if at all — and how we must not abandon faith in its possibility.