Why This Matters

November 5, 2008

I want to be able to tell my children what it felt like when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Here goes:

Kids, back when I was 26, I had lost faith in America’s ability to live up to its own ideals. While I fully believed in the values of personal freedom, political agency, human dignity, social justice, and global leadership, the America I had grown up in seemed to only rarely embody those characteristics.

President Clinton was likable enough, but he did little to solve any of the long-term problems facing America and the world, despite a few efforts that ultimately came to naught. George W. Bush, who I was never able to truly call “my president,” trampled all over American values in multiple misguided attempts at confronting the challenges he and his advisers felt were more important. But there is nothing — nothing at all — more important than the things you believe in.

When I look at the monumental problems that America and the world will face in the coming decades (much less in your lifetimes, kids), my greatest desire is for America to be led by someone who has a deep, penetrating vision of what our country should be about, our spirit, our ideals, our sense of national identity — and that they be able to convincingly articulate that vision both domestically and abroad. I want a leader who can tell us why times are hard, why we have to sacrifice for the greater good, and what we are ultimately working towards.

Spending so much time abroad, most of it in China but meeting folks from all over the world there, I always felt that I had to apologize for America. People would ask me, “Why is American doing crazy thing Y?” and I would feel inadequately prepared to answer them. I didn’t know why we were doing it. I didn’t agree with it, plus, even worse, the explanation I had been given just didn’t hold up. It wasn’t even a reasonable decision that I could explain to others. And that is one of the key responsibilities of a leader: giving people a convincing reason for supporting — or at least, not opposing — something they don’t agree with.

But what happened during the Bush administration was America’s core values were being shoved aside for no good reason. By the end of their eight years in office, they couldn’t convince most Americans, much less people in any other part of the world, that their actions were for the greater good. The net result was that America’s so-called “victory” in the Cold War — a window in which our values had the opportunity to shine — was squandered as our country’s good name was dragged through the muck.

All that said, there were two parts of Barack Obama’s speech last night, the speech that marked his victory in the 2008 presidential elections, that indicate why I am so optimistic today, more optimistic about the future of America and the world that I have been in my entire life up until this point:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.

And the second part (though I don’t think you “defeat” enemies so much as overcome them):

As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

I don’t think I can say it any better than that, kids. This is a critical opportunity to make things better, not just for America but for the world. And I truly hope that President Obama will be able to seize this opportunity and exert the kind of leadership that America is in dire need of at this time. Like the people of China and many other nations in this period of great transition, we have lost a clear sense of who we are as a nation. We need to find that before we are lost for good.

Barack Obama presents himself as someone whose personal vision of our national identity, our mission, and our future is very clear. For now, he has convinced me to share it, despite all the cynicism and hypocrisy that I grew up observing and participating in. Let’s hope, for your sake, kids, as well as the sake of all those currently living, that we’re able to realize some of this vision, that we can actually turn this world away from the path it is heading down.

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