Don't let me down, Obama!

Your second inaugural address raised my hopes -- again. But I don't know how much disappointment I can take

By Sally Kohn
January 26, 2013 5:45PM (UTC)
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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the White House. (AP/Frank Franklin)

Dear President Obama,

I was with you from the very beginning. OK, well, not the very beginning. But in December of 2007, I helped organize the country’s first ever grassroots presidential forum — where folks from community organizations shared the stage with you and other candidates and asked all the questions. When that event started, I was backing another candidate. But by the end of the day, you had me.


“This idea of community values,” you said to the audience of farmers and farmworkers and families on welfare, “is not just the cause of a campaign for me, it is the cause of my life.”

And I believed you. Maybe because I wanted to believe you. Maybe because I needed someone in whom to believe. But I believed you.

Sure, I had friends from Illinois progressive circles who warned me that, no matter the rhetoric, you were a proven centrist at heart. They shouted and waved their hands. But I didn’t listen. I was enthralled and excited and brimming with hope.


Never before had there been a candidate for president who was neither a banker nor a politician’s son but a community organizer. Never before had there been a candidate for president who talked about racial justice and equality and opportunity with the same passion and urgency I recognize in my friends and fellow activists. Never before had there been a candidate for president who so robustly defended the role of government and the idea that we are all in it together, America’s sense of collective responsibility inextricably bound with our value for individual liberty. You even took the left-wing movement chant, Si se puede!, and adapted it for your own campaign slogan! At times, your sentiments and ideals seemed as if plucked from my own heart.

Your words raised my hopes. But your actions have let me down.

Mr. President, your first term in office would make perfect sense if it were some sort of socio-political experiment to determine exactly how severely you could disappoint your base without alienating us altogether. Or a complicated ruse to sell Prozac.


I’m not sure what has depressed me the most. First you abandoned the progressive priorities on which you campaigned, from closing Guantanamo to prosecuting bank fraud to addressing climate change. Then you embraced reactionary policies, from drone strikes to spending cuts to record deportations of immigrants. Then, just when you might think that those first two were a potentially brilliant rope-a-dope strategy to divide and conquer conservative opposition so that you had the political capital to stand firm on other issues, you failed to recognize the entrenched nature of the more-extremist-than-ever Republican Party and got rolled over and over again.

But every damn time — from health care to the stimulus to the tax cuts to the debt ceiling --time and time again, I swore it would be different. That this time you would stand up for single payer or stand firm against the Keystone pipeline or make clear once and for all that entitlement cuts are off the table. Every damn time I got my hopes up. And most of the time I was disappointed. Not because I don’t understand the pragmatism and compromise necessary in politics, but because you seemed to loosen your grasp on the core principles and promises that must go hand-in-hand with such compromise.


So let’s be honest, by the time your re-election campaign came around, I had fully collapsed like a deflated balloon into the yawning chasm of your enthusiasm gap. Publicly, I tried to deny that such an enthusiasm gap even existed because I was trying to convince myself more than anyone else that my hope had indeed still been kept alive.

It's been fits and starts since then. The "fiscal cliff" negotiations felt downright emotionally and strategically schizophrenic. And your foreign policy appointments make the Republican Party look diverse.

But then, bookended by the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building, standing firmly in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. before you, you sent my hopes soaring yet again with your inaugural address. In my lifetime, I have never heard and may never hear a more powerful and persuasive articulation of why we band together as individuals to form the national community we call government. You reminded us all that the responsibility of a nation is not just to its wealthiest citizens but to its most vulnerable, and that the tradition of America, what has made us great, is not the few born into privilege and preserved as such through history but the many born to far less greatness who are able to persevere and prosper — that this arc of progress and opportunity for all is what makes America truly great. And you seemed to commit yourself to fighting the great fights of our generation — to protect our planet, to ensure basic rights and recognition for immigrants and gay families, to eradicate poverty and gender inequality, to protect the safety net for everyone who needs it.


Mr. President, my hopes are high. You have made me yet again proud to be an American and proud to have cast my vote in your favor. And I will do my part to fight along with you for the dazzling vision of justice and fairness and the common good that you dangled before the nation’s eyes on your second inauguration. But I cannot be let down again. I don’t know how much more disappointment I can take. I’m tired of signing e-pledges to have your back — and then you back down. If you fight, I’ll fight. But if you back down again, you’ll lose me.

I try hard to be unique, but the fact is I am a typical cynical millennial who always voted for the least-worst candidate most of my short voting history. You were the first person I ever voted for with real and deep enthusiasm. I knocked on doors for you. I donated a small but, to me, significant amount. I bought a t-shirt. I audaciously thought you would live up to the hopes that you instilled in me. And Mr. President, I still believe you can. I am still with you. We all are. For now.

No more disappointments. Don’t back down. Si, se puede!




Sally Kohn

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