What Barack Obama meant to me
For nearly my entire life, the President of the United States has served two terms, and being relatively young at 27, each presidency covered a significant portion of my life.
My childhood years were marked by the Clinton years. In terms of specific policy, I can’t remember anything in particular. Since I was just a kid, and I was blissfully ignorant about the happenings around the country and the world, the Clinton years represented me at my most carefree and happy. Judging by economic reports from that time, it seems like a lot of the country felt that way as well. As far as I’m concerned, the 90’s were owned by Bill, Michael Jordan and for about 6 months, the macarena.
This eventually gave way to the Bush (W) presidency, which coincided with me leaving elementary school and heading to the harsh hallways of Creekside Middle School. Being raised in a Democrat family I was all in on an Al Gore Presidency during the 2000 Election. I figured, well he was Bill Clinton’s Vice President, so let’s keep the good times rolling. However when I voiced this opinion in my class, I was shouted down by my classmates and told by my teacher to “shut up,” and that political opinions were not welcome in this (6th grade history) class.
The Bush years covered my adolescent years, from middle school through my first year of college. George W. Bush’s presidency mirrored much of what was going on in my life. There was initial optimism which eventually gave way to tragedy, uncertainty and ultimately, exasperation. By the end of George Bush’s time in office, I was frustrated with myself, and unsure what, if anything, the future held for me.
Then Barack Obama came along. The first time I saw him was on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Conan was doing a week of shows in Chicago and then-Senator Obama stopped by to talk about his favorite restaurants in Chicago, where he gets his hair cut, and the extent of daily taunting he receives from his daughters Sasha and Malia. I had no idea that this guy was going to be the president of the country two years later. At this point, I was thoroughly charmed and I was just looking forward to his future “The Daily Show” appearances.
Fast forward to November 4, 2008. I’m a sophomore at UC Riverside, sitting in the living room of my apartment with my roommates. CNN is on and they’re about to go live to Obama’s victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois. In the two years since Obama’s appearance on Late Night with Conan Obrien, I had taken the time to learn about him. I watched his speeches, read his press junkets, listened to every interview of his I could. Most importantly, I read “Dreams from my Father,” a biography he wrote five years after being elected president of the Harvard Law Review. Dreams detailed his relationship with his estranged father as well as his unique upbringing in Hawaii as the son of an interracial couple, which at the time raised a set of challenges which gave Obama a unique perspective of American life. Although I was raised in a family that extoled the virtues of Bill Clinton which meant support for Hillary Clinton was all but expected, I was ready for someone like Barack Obama.
When he talked about the improbability of someone like him, someone with brown skin with a “funny” name having the opportunity to legitimately contend for the highest political office in the United States, that struck a chord with me. Every year on the first day of class, my teachers would always hesitate before saying my name. Like Obama, some would even suggest that I come up with a nickname to make it easier for people to address me (he used Barry, I used Vinny). It doesn’t seem like much, and sometimes I still use “Vinny” when I put my name down at restaurants just for the sake of convenience, but there’s some loss of identity when society asks you to change something about yourself for their comfort level. For me, Vineeth was a name chosen by my parents, and the name reflects a part of my Indian heritage which forms my identity. I don’t want to lose that and as I got older, I insisted on people calling me by that name.
Representation means the world to people, especially for those not used to being represented. I remember going on school field trips to museums in elementary school and when we got to the best part of the trip (the gift shop), I was always a little disappointed that none of the keychains with names on them had my name on them. Although that’s just a minor example, these experiences add up and it was a reminder of how I fit into society. When you see someone who looks like you, talks like you, has a similar upbringing as yourself, succeeding on a big stage, it means something. Until November 4, 2008, the only time this country had a President that was a person of color was in the movies.
I don’t agree with all of President Obama’s policies, in fact, in some ways he’s been outright dissappointing (Guantanamo, mass deportation). But, there is no one in my personal life that I 100% agree with and it would be foolish to expect something different with my president. This wasn’t written to praise his presidential accomplishments. His presidency, the fact that he was able to sit in the Oval Office, gave minorities like myself, and other disenfranchised groups, hope that all things are possible. For that, I’m forever thankful.