The “Yes We Can!” bumper sticker that seemed to be plastered on every passing car. The “fired up, ready to go!” chant that once rocked arenas.
And, of course, those iconic photos of Black, White, and brown people shedding tears of joy at a victory celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park that November evening in 2008.
These are glimpses of “the unadulterated political joy” that millions of Americans felt 13 years ago when Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first Black president. They also feel like quaint snapshots of what seems now like another country.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic about those moments because Obama has been back in the news. A new documentary series, “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union,” is airing on HBO this month. Obama recently celebrated his 60th birthday at his vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Tributes to the former President have poured in from pundits who argue why Obama still “matters.”
But left unsaid in all of these accolades is an inconvenient question that’s grown even more urgent after a tumultuous year marked by persistent racial divisions, an insurrection at the US Capitol and a partisan divide over wearing masks during a pandemic that’s killed at least 618,000 Americans:
Will we ever believe a political leader who talks about hope and change again?
A different type of hope and change
Some say there will always be an audience in America for idealistic leaders who offer visions of hope and change.
“This is a cycle that America always goes through,” says Melanye Price, a political scientist who specializes in contemporary Black politics and political rhetoric.
“If I didn’t believe that I might as well resign from my job, live off the grid somewhere and prepare for the coming race war.”
She says the US has repeatedly shown the ability to “course correct.” The Obama era was a glimpse of a country whose arc, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., bends towards justice.
“I rely heavily,” she says, “on the Winston Churchill quote: ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.'”
Eric Liu, the author and activist, is one of the most eloquent spokesmen about what makes the US so resilient. In one of my favorite books, “Become America,” Liu writes:
“American history is a record of small groups of people who keep remaking this country over and over, and who reveal to us all that the perpetual remaking is the greatest statement of fidelity to our creed and our national purpose, which is not to be like Russia, white and stagnant and oligarchic, or like China, monoethnic and authoritarian and centralized, but to be more like America, hybrid and dynamic and democratic and free to be remade.”