What happened to the euphoria of hope that swelled like a huge wave at that time, millions of people attending his inauguration and seeing his speech around the world?
As the curtain begins to close on his presidency, Obama has critics on all sides and his popularity is only average. Though he made important steps towards a federal healthcare system, signing cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and speaking out on gun control, some are less than satisfied. They point to his support for Wall Street after the global financial crisis against the calls for radical reform, his tepid response to police shootings of young African Americans, and the escalation of drone attacks in the Middle East which have killed an unknown number of civilians in recent years.
The hope rising with the election of the first black president in American history, a milestone in many respects, evaporated probably as early as his first term in office. Why?
Hope is a powerful emotion that lifts the human spirit; arguably no individual can adequately carry it for millions of people. A president cannot simply do whatever they want, but must work within the system. At the top of the pecking order, they are at the same time a servant of the reality they inherit.
When an exuberance of hope appears like it did in the US around Obama, I think it speaks more about general conditions of despair and entrenched problems than the brilliance of the individual to whom it is attached. Not to diminish the man’s talents or his capacity to ignite feelings with inspiring words, the test of hope is rather its everyday existence in people’s lives and society as a whole, and not simply in the rolling bandwagon of a political campaign.
Investing hope in people and circumstances is fine but we ought to let go the attachment as easily as it was applied in the first place, to not hold too tightly to outcomes; not because of fear that things will not turn out the way we want but in acknowledgement that hope is far more than any single person, idea or institution. The boundless, free experience and expression of hope is what really counts.
The importance of someone like Obama lies more in their capacity to act as a catalyst for positive change broadly than in what they as an individual are able to achieve. Such a person becomes a symbol and a lightning rod for mass unfulfilled desires, but we have to reckon the crescendo of energy that arises for all that comes from it, for the changes and actions large and small that it inspires in millions of people. My sense is that many people are drawn to do good in many different ways in a collective surge of hope, but if our vision is simply on the one who acts as catalyst we miss the vitality of what is being worked and downplay our own empowerment in the process. Holding too tightly to the individual and not what their symbol activates in us, we can become disappointed and cynical or conversely starry-eyed and idolising.
There are parallels here to other people in history who became cult figures – like one of the most significant of them all, Jesus Christ. For many Christians, Jesus is real and extant in a literal way – people pray to him and believe he intervenes beneficially in their life. What occurs, more likely, is a projection of the devotee’s inner hopes and desires onto a symbolic figure, when the real value is the symbol’s ability to inspire and unlock the powers of the believer to improve their life and that of others.
When the focus of hope is turned away from an attachment to an individual or thing and experienced purely in itself, we find its presence more widespread and common than previously imagined. In this regard I look outside where I live in central Victoria. Photos taken of the area in the 19th century show barely a tree for miles – the local box-ironbark forests were decimated during the gold mining boom. Now, decades after mining and intensive agriculture stopped, the forests have reappeared and there is a general respect and valuing of the bush. I find great hope in this as an example of people moving to a much better relationship with nature, which we desperately need at this time of global ecological crisis.
Hope is, in fact, everywhere if we choose to see it: the birth of any living being is an expression of hope; our waking into the beautiful promise of each new day is a sign of hope; having nourishing food to eat and clean water to drink is evidence of hope; as is the ability to smile in the face of good times and bad. Hope is really the goodwill that exists as the cornerstone of all life.