My heart sank Friday as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington and saw that a giant reviewing stand had been built in front of the White House. This is where I was so filled with pride eight years ago when I saw our new President Barack Obama and his family as they were about to enter their new home. Knowing it was now about to house Donald Trump was almost more than I could take.
I felt so hollow when I thought about all we have had, and what we will lose. But something really wonderful happened next, and I hope it gives hope to those of you who love President Obama as much as I do:
I went through security into the White House because the president invited me in to come by for a few minutes before he left office. I turned the corner to the Oval Office to see him looking more energized than he has in months, and with that huge smile on this face that has lifted so many of us so many times. I gave him a copy of my book, told him that now that he’s mastered this POTUS gig he was ready for the big time as a mayor. Then I handed him a note from my wife, Megan O’Hara, recalling what it felt like nine years ago when we stood in the Des Moines Convention Center, just after he won the Iowa caucus, and the announcer said: “And now the next First Family of the United States of America.”
I was really overwhelmed as I was telling him that because it was such a moment of pride, a beginning of a long path to him getting to the White House and, now it was over. He put his arm on my shoulder and looked at me intensely, saying, “We aren’t done yet.”
He’ll keep fighting for our values
I wish I could have bottled the look in his eyes so all the people I know, and don’t, who feel disheartened now, who are so fearful of what comes next, and who feel a sense of loss, know he is absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to stop fighting for what we believe in.
“I’m going to take a little vacation,” he said, “get a little sun, but then we are right back at it.”
He told me about the work he will be doing on youth and families, on getting more people engaged in voting, on protecting liberties. Then he said the words that meant the most to me: “The best is yet to come.”
I believe Barack Obama was the greatest president of my lifetime, but as I heard him talk, I remembered he is about more than political office. At so many times — his amazing speech about race in the first campaign, his powerful words after Sandy Hook, his second inaugural when he laid out the imperative of attacking climate change — he has moved us beyond politics to elevate our values. This is his great opportunity now; just as America faces a crisis of values, a great debate about who we really are at our core, he will be speaking not as just a politician, but as a moral leader. In many ways we need that even more today than great politicians.
In the couple minutes we had left we talked about what I am learning in my own evolution from political to civic leader; about what you can and can’t do in and out of office, and how much can be done if each of your statements aren’t filtered through the cynicism people have for politicians.
We said goodbye and I walked out of the White House, past that reviewing stand, but didn’t feel the same sense of dread. Donald Trump will be my president and I won’t try to delegitimize him even though many, including Trump, tried to do that to Obama for eight years. But we can fight for what we believe, and fight back, hard, when we see something wrong. And, remembering that look in the president’s eye when he told me, “We aren’t done yet,” and remembering all we have seen during his remarkable presidency, I know he will be with us every step.
The movement isn’t over
Later that night Megan and I went to a farewell party at the White House. I talked to Obama’s former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has gone back to Chicago to work on youth violence prevention; former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is organizing opposition to unfair redistricting around the country; former White House political director and Ambassador Patrick Gaspard; who is working on citizen engagement with George Soros; Gabby Giffords, who is fighting the gun violence that robbed her and so many others of so much; activist actors like Alfre Woodard, who has been through waves of social movements saying she’s now ready for the next phase. Obama has been a president, but Obama is also a movement that isn’t done on Jan 20.
Back in 2007, when I was working with activists around the country in the Draft Obama campaign, I wrote a blog on a national website saying: “Barack Obama is a great man but this is not about him. It’s about setting off a movement.” The next day he called my office, said that’s the way he saw it, that he was a community organizer who wanted to light the spark, and he recruited me to volunteer for what was then a long-shot campaign. I still feel that way, and it’s clear he does, too.
And after those few wonderful minutes with him as he gets ready to leave office, I feel, like him, that “the best is yet to come.”
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