An open letter to Barack Obama

Dear Mr President,

I usually have the good sense to avoid making ‘political’ posts on social media, but about once a decade or so, I get an itch to speak up. Back in February 2007, I published one of my first and only political posts on Facebook, explaining my support for you. The internet makes it frighteningly easy to track down those words all these years later.

“I see Obama as being ‘it’ — a growing eddy — a current of water that is flowing in opposition to the rest.” If you think back to February 2007, the rest of the tide wasn’t so pretty.

S0, Mr. President, here we are a decade later, and I’ve got the itch to speak up again.

You see, back in 2000, I got to compete in this high school constitutional debate championship in Washington, DC. Our team argued why the writ of habeas corpus is essential to democracy, and we won. It was, at that point, the greatest moment of my life. I was smitten with DC. I was so inspired by our country’s history and complexity with living up to our noble truths. I believed I had a lot to offer (typical Millennial syndrome) and wanted to participate in our country’s most cherished democratic traditions.

Three years later, as a college student, I did just that: I ran for public office. Crazy, right? I ran for Town Council. In hindsight, it was probably the most boneheaded thing I could’ve done! All I really wanted to do was make a difference, but what I didn’t get at 21, what I couldn’t possibly have understood at that young age, were the ugly forces that existed inside those very institutions I admired. So, I lost an election that year, but I actually lost something much worse. I lost the ability to see decency in our political traditions. I lost the ability to see how politicians could keep their honor in tact. I started becoming something I never dreamed I would: jaded with American politics.

2004 didn’t help. Neither did 2005. Or 2006.

But that Facebook post in early 2007 indicated something was starting to change. Later in 2008, I remember quite vividly taking that first baby step back into actively participating in a political campaign. I volunteered. The hotel-lobby-converted-to-call-center was packed with old and young people sitting on the floor making phone calls. The precinct captains totally fit the bill of what I had remembered of young, civically-inspired folks. One captain was a young woman wearing thick-frame glasses, quite articulate, handing out call sheets to volunteers. The other captain was dweeby and self-unaware young man, fancying himself an Abbie Hoffman-type barking over a megaphone. (In a call center!) The two seemed to endearingly balance each other out. There wasn’t much floor space left in the lobby, so I took a call sheet and started calling strangers from outside in the cold.

Mr. President, I don’t know if I can quite describe how inspiring it was volunteering for you back in 2008, but maybe this story will capture it. That evening, as I was making calls, this older gentleman came by and asked me if we could speak when I finished my call in progress. He introduced himself as Peter Yarrow and asked if I’d like to sing with him. He started playing a guitar and sort of chuckled at my apparent lack of recognition and said, “You know, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary.”

We sang Blowing in the Wind and Puff the Magic Dragon together. That was when I grasped how truly incredible your candidacy was. As American citizens, as strangers separated by generations, we assembled to do something we hadn’t done in too long. We were remembering our role in democracy.

Mr. President, I’m telling you this story because you came along at a critical period in my life when I easily could have been lost to political jadedness. Now, I’ll never run for public office again, but you showed me it is possible to be both a politician and a graceful human being. You reached the highest office in the land, and you stayed above your detractors. I suspect anyone who has gotten very involved in politics has probably earned this perspective, that it is nearly impossible to find a politician who has both the moral compass to know what’s right and the strength of character to withstand those trying to prevent you from adhering to it.

When you took office, I had high hopes that somehow I would get the chance to meet you. It had to be possible. The president meets lots of people. I even knew people working in your White House! I had this idea that I would accomplish something great and newsworthy during your presidency that would earn me a White House invitation. I tried to think of all my talents I could offer America that were worthy of the legendary fist bump.

In 2011, I applied to work for your re-election campaign as a digital writer. I even got an interview and took a writing test. It was a timed 1-hour prompt to write an email from the campaign field director, and it was the most thrilling, nerve-wracking hour I’ve ever spent writing. I was rather pleased with the manuscript until later that evening when I suddenly realized — I didn’t write the subject line! Haha — oh well!

Mr. President, we still haven’t met , but that’s ok because I suspect someday we will. And I’ll still be really excited because I’ll finally get to say in person what I wrote this open letter to say.

I know there are plenty of reasons to feel jaded, but I don’t feel that way right now. Tonight, I listened to your farewell speech, and you gave us so many reasons to replace jadedness with hope, to cure indifference with inspiration, to overcome our differences with compassion. I’ll probably always maintain a healthy skepticism towards politicians, but you made me believe again in the greatest audacity of a democracy — its citizen who believes he can make a difference.

Thank you for being our President.


Michael McSwain