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A Bildungsroman of our generation

On Friday, President Barack Obama will formally step down after leading the country for what has arguably been an iconic eight years. With such a momentous transition of power days away, media institutions all across the country continue to examine the legacy of President Obama with both a critical and positive eye. The NY Times editorial board recently eulogized the president’s legacy, claiming that his “eloquence ranks with that of Abraham Lincoln.” On the other end of the journalistic spectrum, some have argued a more negative appraisal of the Obama years. The Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby went as far as to claim that “In almost every respect, Obama leaves behind a trail of failure and disappointment.”

Whatever our actual political stance, we can all agree on the profound legacy that Obama had on an entire generation of young Americans. Most Duke undergraduates came of age under the Obama presidency. Some of us witnessed his inauguration in our middle school classrooms, debated the merits of the Affordable Care Act on our high school debate teams, and cast our first votes as American citizens in the 2016 election, one signifying the end of the Obama presidency. For the first time, during the Obama years, we engaged with issues of national politics beyond just a superficial elementary level of understanding.

Moreover, arguably more so than any previous president, Obama has been an active fixture in the popular culture of young America. From slow jamming with Jimmy Fallon on late night talk shows, to making available publically his Spotify playlists, Obama was not hesitant to portray himself as culturally relatable to our generation. He was our Kennedy, fashioning his own modish Camelot for millions of young Americans to tweet about.

Besides making himself culturally relevant, Obama during his presidency also made great efforts to portray himself as a leader of great emotional empathy. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook and the recent Orlando nightclub shooting, our president was always there, slightly teary eyed, to counsel a traumatized nation. He openly spoke on racial issues in the United States, drawing from his own experiences as an African American. Obama became “a personal president,” someone our generation could look towards for comfort more than just some stony faced leader cooped up in an ivory tower.

As our president, Obama also represented a symbol of hope and progression of a new America for our generation. In a political world still dominated heavily by old white males, he stood out as an icon of how much this country had progressed and could advance under new leadership. We, under his presidency, also came to realize the extreme obstacles in enacting such institutional changes, from witnessing heated debates around the Affordable Care Act to seeing Facebook users disparage Obama through racist caricatures. As a leader, there was only so much he could alter within a conservative government dominated by opposing interests.

We as a generation recognize the profound impact, particularly psychological and cultural, President Barack Obama has had on young America throughout his eight years in the White House. Most of us here at Duke will no doubt look back at the Obama years, no matter what our politics are, as important years in the political development of our generation.

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