Twenty sixteen marks our President Obama’s last year in office. I feel rather sad as it seems like his historical and amazing tenure as our first Chief Executive of color flew by so fast. But I also feel wistful as I remember that historic night in 2008, sitting inside a Los Angeles-area restaurant/nightclub with my friends and about 100-plus other people watching the election returns. As Barack Obama’s photo flashed on the television screen with the words, “44th President of the United States,” the crowd erupted in cheers and jubilation. The crowd kept screaming as the newly-elected President and his family stepped onto the stage and waved to adoring fans. It was indeed an incredible night.
Fast forward through nearly eight years filled with incredible achievements on the economy, healthcare reform and foreign policy, but also much social unrest and ugly racial tension. For this November’s Presidential election, I have as much trepidation as I did on Election Night 2008. I must confess that back then, I wasn’t sure America was going to actually elect a black President up until the very moment Pennsylvania was called for Mr. Obama. I feared very much the specter of another reactionary GOP presidency in the form of John McCain, along with his fundamentalist lightweight running mate, Sarah Palin. But those two are practically progressives when it comes to what the Republicans are offering up as presidential candidates today.
People are now openly talking about the “F-word” – fascism – as possibly taking root in America. But, thanks to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, people are also talking more about “democratic socialism” and democratic socialist policies like universal health care, free college for all, a living wage and paid family leave. Sanders would be the “first” openly socialist President if he wins. And people are also talking about the possibility of having the first female Chief Executive in Hillary Clinton. A woman as the most powerful leader in the world would have a tremendous cultural effect in how the contributions of women to our society are perceived.
All these tantalizing “firsts” are great, but I want to caution my fellow Democrats and progressive friends into putting too much expectation onto the one person they hope wins the Presidency. I saw this with President Obama: supporters who had unrealistically high expectations of how much he could achieve in office, and who were disappointed when he couldn’t deliver everything they wanted. I see these same unrealistic expectations among my fellow Democrats and progressives today. I think it is the unique culture of American individualism, as well as the fact that the United States elects its executive and legislature separately (as opposed to most parliamentary governments), that drives this desire to put all of one’s hopes for fundamental change onto one person. I think it’s why Congressional, “off-year” elections – which are just as important – don’t get the same attention as they should. The President, at the nation’s founding, was envisioned as an “elected king” – a national figurehead. But, to get back to Civics 101, the President is by law a co-equal partner with the Congress and the Supreme Court. The President can’t do much without Congress’ cooperation and the Supreme Court’s blessing. I think too often many people forget that. And so, they think that the President can change everything. They think that the President affects their lives the most (when in truth, it’s their local City Council that does). So whether our new President in November is Hillary, Bernie or even Martin O’Malley – and we do hope it’s one of those three – please cut him or her a bit of slack. Because a Democratic President also needs a progressive Democratic Congress to make the kinds of policies we liberals want to see to make America a kinder, gentler place to live.