Emotions are sure to run high today, on what’s probably the most unconventional of Inauguration Days we’ve ever had. There will be plenty of time to focus on the incoming administration, but today I want to pay homage to someone I see as being one of the great leaders of our time.
I first came across Barack Obama during the 2006 midterm election cycle, after listening to the many enigmatic speeches he gave calling for change in the midst of the current administration. I had paid very little attention to politics at that time because for me, there was no point – I was a young military officer, sworn to follow the Commander in Chief no matter who held the title, and if I thought the president at the time was not doing a good job, there was no way I could say it without jeopardizing my career. I was also surrounded by hard-core conservatives who constantly reminded me that I, a woman, didn’t belong in Naval Aviation despite my excellent performance in flight school, and that I should be grateful that we were fighting two wars because otherwise there would be no need for “extras” in the military. Speaking up against these accusations only brought me more trouble, so I kept my mouth shut.
Politics was synonymous with hopelessness, so best not to even pay attention.
But then here comes this charismatic young senator from Illinois, with messages of unity and change for the better. His speeches seemed to focus not so much on dragging the opposition down, but uniting for a common good in order to change our country for the better. I remember reading the transcript of one of his speeches and feeling both jaded from my experiences, while hopeful for the future he spoke of. Was this guy too idealistic? Yeah, probably. But I’m idealistic too, and I know the pain of holding on to that spark of hope even while the rest of the world seems to be telling you to knock it off. Perhaps idealism is what we needed.
Still skeptical, I continued to follow his career with interest, and was thrilled to see that a year later, he had thrown his name into the ring to become President of the United States. His message of hope resonated so strongly with me, and even though I couldn’t openly support him, I did as much as I could behind the scenes: I donated, and I spread the word about him to my family so that they could openly support him. During my squadron’s deployment to Iraq in 2008, I stood up to one of my coworkers who’d made a show of opening up others’ absentee ballots for the primary elections, and harassing those who’d requested a Democratic ballot. And on Election Day, still in Iraq, I very nearly cried tears of joy when I heard that Obama had won, even while my coworkers were making racist “Obama bin Laden” jokes and criticizing the “stupid young people” who had voted for him. There may have been people saying horrible things in our country, many of them serving in the military alongside me, but on that day, the good people won.
Eight years later, while I know that President Obama’s tenure was far from perfect, and while there were many decisions he made that I didn’t agree with, I still have nothing but the utmost respect for him. For he is one of those rarest of politicians: one who still cares first and foremost about his people, even while serving in the most powerful office in the world. Whatever missteps he took, I feel that he never lost sight of his end goal, which was taking care of all of us. And when he did hit a home run, it was huge – marriage equality, saving the US auto industry, bringing us back after the recession, all the work he did to fight climate change, just to name a few. Sure, maybe his presidency didn’t accomplish all of the changes we had hoped for. But I believed in his vision for America, and I believe in it still.
So, to President Barack Obama, I want to say thank you. Throughout the years I’ve found you to be such an inspiration, to continue to do good no matter what obstacles others put in your way, to stay focused on helping those who need you, and to never stop fighting.
This country isn’t perfect, but it’s ours. It belongs to all of its citizens, regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. This is one of the places where a person born into poverty can succeed, provided that they have access to the right tools and the knowledge of how to use them. In spite of what others say, our individual differences make us stronger, not weaker. Is America already great? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But this is our home, and if home isn’t worth fighting for, what is?
It is with pride that I return home to participate in the Women’s March on Washington tomorrow, before I head back to Tel Aviv to finish my semester abroad. The expenses and the weekend suffering from jet lag will be worth it. Twelve years ago when I joined the military, I swore an oath to defend against enemies foreign and domestic, and I still hold onto that oath even though I’m no longer a naval officer. Lending my voice to the thousands of others who will also be marching will be something I know I can be proud of, doing my small part to ensure that hope and equality don’t go by the wayside again.