Since this presidential campaign began 18 months ago, there’s been a narrative that hasn’t seemed to go away. By now, we’re all familiar with the popular refrain — the disillusioned youth who once upon a time volunteered and voted for President Barack Obama.
The 2008 campaign was the first time I really engaged in politics. I wasn’t old enough to vote, but I’m proud to say I got caught up in the empowering slogans of “Change” and “Yes We Can.” I suddenly found myself in Richmond, Va. as a community organizer, rallying support from door to door. Imagine that: a well-off, Jewish, private-school kid talking to impoverished black people. It was inspiring work.
But wait! Before you all shove this paper into the recycling bin, I promise not to bore you with all of Obama’s accomplishments and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s dangerous positions. That’s overdone.
There’s an oft-overlooked, yet important demographic on campus: people from all backgrounds who may not vote — those of you who are no longer inspired by the soaring rhetoric and incredible atmosphere of “the first time.” That is, the first time that Obama ran for president.
I know from experience that many pundits’ blanket statements of disillusionment are entirely false. I saw it first-hand in Denver when I was a field organizer for the Obama campaign last summer, and I’ve seen it all across this campus these past two months.
But, yes, there are many who have lost faith — who, as the pundits say, are “disillusioned.”
Look, I get it. I really, really do.
There are many things I am frustrated at Obama for not doing in his first term. He failed to achieve immigration reform, fight for the public option in health care reform, pull our troops out of Afghanistan, create more green jobs, reinvigorate the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians or close Guantanamo Bay. He continued the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and increased the drone strikes in the Middle East.
And yet, my issue isn’t entirely with the president, but with the system in which he functions. My issue isn’t entirely with the lack of progress, but with the institutions in place that make true progress difficult. My issue isn’t entirely with the change that we didn’t see, but with a government that makes changes far too slowly.
Clearly, I have major qualms with the president’s first term. We shouldn’t ignore these issues, and we shouldn’t simply forgive his transgressions. We should engage with them.
To engage is to act publicly when we disagree. This could mean taking to the streets, lobbying our congressional representatives, writing to the White House or — as Obama once did — doing some real community organizing. To engage is not to check out. That shouldn’t be an option.
Every activist eventually learns that change is slow. It took 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to become law. It took 35 years after the 1969 Stonewall riots for Massachusetts to become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
We live in an imperfect world governed by imperfect institutions. Our Electoral College is imperfect. Our two-party system is imperfect. Our campaign finance laws are imperfect. Our politics are imperfect.
If we want change, throwing up our hands when confronted with these imperfections isn’t an option. We need to roll up our sleeves.
The sweeping change we wanted so badly in 2008 may have been represented by Democratic presidential nominee Obama, but he was never going to achieve it all with his hands alone. We cannot sit back and watch. If we stop working for change, it drifts that much farther out of reach.
We shouldn’t forget our emotions the night Barack Obama became president-elect. We can’t push aside the hope we felt simply because change is slow. There’s too much at stake. There are too many policies that still need to be changed.
I refuse to tell my grandchildren that my generation’s strength and unity dissolved in disillusionment. I reject the narrative that paints the 2008 election as the high-water mark of our movement for change.
There are valid reasons to be disappointed in Obama’s first term. But there’s no excuse not to vote for a second term. There is no reason why we cannot come together again as a generation of change-seekers and hope-mongers, starting with Election Day.
When you wake up on Nov. 6, remember how you felt “the last time.” And remember that while change may be slow, change will only come if, after we vote, we keep on working.
Yonah Lieberman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @ylieberman.