Ten years ago this coming Sunday, we’ll mark the 10 year anniversary of a historic event in our nation’s history.
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African American to be sworn in as president of the United States of America. A record-breaking crowd of 1.6 million people braved brutally cold winter temps to witness Obama taking the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts, his hand resting gently on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln.
For many, Obama stood before the world as a powerful symbol of hope and change. That a man who might have been refused service in a restaurant just a generation or two before due to the color of his skin might now be elected to the nation was breathtaking. That a woman descended from slaves might hold the very Bible of the Great Emancipator in her hands and look on as her husband was sworn in to office was amazing.
The nation desperately needed hope. The economy had plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the world seemed to be teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Unemployment was rapidly arcing upward, and more trouble seemed to be on the horizon.
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize grandly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task,” Obama declared in his inaugural address. “That is the price and promise of citizenship.”
America heeded its youthful president’s call. The U.S. economy recovered slowly but steadily under his leadership for the next eight years, and fared better than similar economies around the world. It takes moxie to lead a land as diverse and influential as the United States of America, and Barack Obama has it. Here’s how I see him:
Family makes the moxie.
Obama’s upbringing was unusual by presidential standards, but rings familiar to many American families.
His parents met in college, married young and divorced just three years later when Barack was a toddler. His father, a Kenyan, returned to Kenya and had little influence or contact with young Barack. His mother remarried, and moved the family to Indonesia, but young Barack eventually returned to Hawaii to attend school and live with his grandparents.
His mother instilled in him a love of learning, a passionate curiosity about the world, and an appreciation for people. His grandparents, who raised him, instilled in him a staunch, no-nonsense Midwestern work ethic and stoicism. But his father, and more specifically his father’s absence, taught him a much different lesson.
Obama felt his father’s absence deeply, and it spurred him to commit to being present for his own daughters, Sasha and Malia. The famously doting dad has often been photographed embracing his girls as they were coming home from school, and even carved out time to coach their sports teams and attend their recitals.
“As fathers, we need to be involved in our children’s lives not just when it’s convenient or easy, and not just when they’re doing well — but when it’s difficult and thankless, and they’re struggling. That is when they need us most,” said Obama.
Like so many Americans, Obama grew up in a home that was fractured by divorce and absent a father. His mother struggled to give him the best opportunities, and his grandparents stepped in to support and nurture. For some, this scenario might have set the stage for a lifetime of struggles. But for Barack Obama, it set the stage for a lifetime of success and achievement.
And the greatest achievement – at least in the estimation of Obama himself – is being the father of Sasha and Malia. Being a great dad takes moxie, and Obama’s success as a husband and father holds out hope for the millions of American kids whose families don’t include mom, dad and a white picket fence.
Behind every person with moxie is a great partner with moxie.
Michelle Robinson was a young attorney with a Chicago law firm when she was assigned to mentor a summer associate named Barry Obama.
The two were opposites. As fractured and far flung as Obama’s upbringing was, Robinson’s was completely conventional. She was raised in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, the daughter of two hard-working middle class parents. She and her brother were high achievers who earned spots in prestigious Ivy League universities, and she fully intended to focus on her career.
It took several tries, but young Barry convinced Michelle to go out with him. The rest, as they say, is history.
“There’s no doubt I’m a better man having spent time with Michelle. I would never say that Michelle’s a better woman, but I will say she’s a little more patient,” quipped Obama.
Their relationship is the object of great envy, and even the most casual observer glimpses the winks, the fist bumps, the smiles, the kisses the two frequently exchange. The affection is deep and genuine, the product of a long relationship which has withstood the challenges of grief, loss and criticism all in the harsh glare of the public spotlight.
It takes moxie to nurture a healthy marriage, and both Obamas have it.
Moxie faces opposition with grace.
For all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency, he worked with a Congress either split or dominated by the opposition. The stated goal of Republicans was to make Obama a one-term president. While they did not succeed in that goal, they did check Obama’s agenda, culminating in refusing to even schedule a hearing for his Supreme Court pick.
The opposition wasn’t limited to policy disagreements, either. The attacks from right-wing media and influencers were at times deeply personal. His citizenship was questioned, his faith was questioned, his loyalty was questioned.
Throughout it all, he refused to stoop to slinging personal insults. At most, he popped off a couple zingers at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where a roast of sorts is expected. But often, he made himself the butt of his own jokes.
“‘These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be,” he joked on one such occasion.
It takes moxie to weather personal and political opposition with dignity and class. Perhaps his example can inspire others, and we can find our way to civility in politics.
If you could interview Obama, what would you ask?