An Open Letter to the Obama Family

Dear Barack, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, Shirley, Bo, and Sunny,

I can’t believe it’s been eight years already. I’m sure you can’t believe it either. When I stop and think about all that’s changed — how I’ve changed, how you’ve changed, how our country has changed — then it seems rather astonishing that it’s only been eight years. But still, January 20, 2009, feels like it really wasn’t that long ago.

I was a sophomore in college at the time, and I remember grabbing lunch from the cafeteria in the basement of my dorm and taking it back up to my room so I could watch the inauguration ceremony. I had to run off to one class, but it was a short one, and the parade was still going by the time I got back. I remember feeling so proud that day, watching the installation of my first president, the first one I had been old enough to vote for.

I was so happy to have been able to vote for someone I really believed in. During the 2004 election, my high school history teacher had assigned a paper in which we had to compare George W. Bush and John Kerry’s positions on a few major issues of our choice and then predict who would win the election. I remember hoping Mr. Kerry would win because I thought he was the better option, but also feeling glad that I wasn’t yet old enough to vote, because I didn’t want to just vote for “better.” I wanted to vote the best — for someone who seemed like they understood me, understood the things I cared about at the time and the issues I was worried about for my future, but also understood people whose concerns were totally different from mine. From the very beginning, the Obama campaign filled me with hope. When the economy nearly collapsed in 2008, I remember such a tense atmosphere on campus, with so many young people getting ready to start our lives, fearing that there wouldn’t be anywhere for most of us to work or live by the time we graduated. But we latched onto that promise of hope, the “Yes we can” mantra, the belief that if Americans quit trying to work against each other and started trying to work with each other instead, things would get better for everyone.

And things really have gotten better for almost everyone. Having spent most of my teenage years in a rural, mostly white, mostly lower-middle-class community, I know there’s still work to be done to improve life for people who live in those areas, but I’m also confident that if we could have four more years of an Obama presidency, we would see bigger changes for those people than the small ones that have already started to take root.

But I’ve gotten rambly here, so I’m going to reign myself in. The purpose of this letter is to say thank you, thank you for all you’ve done and all you’ve given.

Bo and Sunny, you may not be fully aware of it, but you’ve performed a pretty great service for our country. Beyond simply being upstanding, handsome, adorable canines, I have a feeling you’ve been there for your family at times when they really needed you. They’ve all had a pretty difficult job these past eight years, and I’m sure there have been times when they just needed a wonderful pair of friends who wouldn’t talk back or argue or offer opinions, but just be there, with unconditional love and maybe some slobbery kisses. For being those friends, I thank you.

Mrs. Robinson, you’ve mostly stayed out of the spotlight, and I can’t say I blame you. But I remember thinking how great it was when I first heard you would be moving to the White House with your daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters. I’m sure having an extra pair of hands and an extra pair of eyes has helped Barack and Michelle rest easier from time to time, and I’m sure Malia and Sasha are glad to have had the chance to be near you while on this great adventure. As they get older, they’ll come to appreciate their time with you even more. I spent the better part of the past year and a half living with my grandma (she’ll be ninety-two next week), and while it was challenging at times because we’re at such different stages in our lives and we approach things so differently, I’m tremendously grateful that I had the opportunity to spend those months with her. Thank you for everything you’ve done behind the scenes to keep your family strong and courageous.

Sasha and Malia, you may be tired of hearing this, but it’s been amazing to see you grow up before our eyes, from cute little girls to strong, intelligent young women. I remember seeing an interview with the two of you early on during your dad’s first campaign. The reporter asked what you thought the American people should know about him, and one of you said he didn’t really like candy and sweet things. Then the other one piped up and said he did like gum, though. I remember thinking, “Okay, these girls know how to think about things!” In your lives at the time, it probably seemed really weird that your dad didn’t much care for candy, and you wanted to let his voters know what they were getting themselves into.

It can’t have been easy growing up with so much attention, with cameras around all the time, especially during these last few years. Being a teenager is hard on all of us — we hate the way we look sometimes, we make mistakes, we don’t know how we feel about things, and we wonder if other people will ever truly understand us — but I’m sure some people have this idea that the children of the president should be above all that, although that’s neither fair nor realistic. I’m sure there have been plenty of times when you wanted to just hang out with your friends without Secret Service agents around all the time, but you’ve also gotten to meet Ryan Reynolds and travel the world, so hopefully it’s been a decent trade-off. 🙂 Thank you, ladies, for making America proud, for putting up with us, and for bearing your roles as First Children with dignity, grace, and strength of character. However you plan to spend your bright futures, you’ll have my support.

Madam First Lady, I hardly know where to begin. From the beginning, you’ve been an inspiration and a role model to me and millions of others around the world, regardless of our genders or races. But it has been so important to me to see a woman doing all the amazing things you have done. I know you were reluctant to take on the mantel of First Lady, but you’ve done it beautifully, and you’ve made the role completely your own. Coming from a family chock-full of teachers and librarians, I was so overwhelmed with joy when you chose to focus on improving access to education for women and girls around the country and the world. As a dancer, I’ve loved your Let’s Move! initiative. When I worked with elementary school kids for a couple of years right after college, I tried to reach out to kids who, like me, didn’t really enjoy sports or gym class and show them that there are lots of alternative ways to get your body moving and stay fit, such as dance and yoga. And while I’ve always respected your work with military families, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing articles about VA loans for my job, and I now have a greater understanding of some of the specific challenges those families face during and after their time of active duty.

It’s also been really important to see you doing all these things as a black woman. As someone who tries hard to think critically about the world around me and imagine other people complexly, I’ve always been interested in issues regarding race, intersectionality, and equality, but my perspective on these things has expanded greatly over the past two years that I’ve been with my boyfriend. I’m white and he is black and Latino, and it’s been eye-opening to encounter unexpected resistance from my grandma and experience the assumptions people sometimes make about us in public. We’ve talked about getting married and having children, both biological and adopted (race would most likely not be on our list of adoption considerations), and I’m so glad to have the amazing example you’ve set to share with my children, at least some of whom will be people of color.

You have represented our country on the world stage with determination, poise, and personality, despite criticism of your body, your hair, your clothes, and pretty much anything else people could find to criticize. Time and again, you’ve made me proud to be an American, proud to be an American woman who will not be limited by tradition or other people’s expectations. You’ve performed your role as First Lady exactly as I knew you would, and I am forever grateful.

And finally, Mr. President, thank you for all the dad jokes. Forget what other people say — I have appreciated each and every one. Thanks also for your bromance with Joe Biden. Our memes will never be the same!

In all seriousness, though, thank you for continuing to be the man I voted for twice, even in the face of so many astounding challenges. You have somehow managed to maintain your sense of humor and your commitment to being a wonderful father and husband while putting out fires and keeping the world from coming apart at the seams every single day. You’ve been honest with your constituents, straightforward about your goals, and unwavering in your beliefs. I haven’t agreed with you on everything, but I’ve tried to keep in mind that you always have information that I don’t and that you signed up for the most difficult job in the world, one that I would never want to have.

I watched The West Wing on Netflix during the spring and summer of 2016, the whole show from beginning to end, and I dearly wish it could become required viewing as part of all high school government curricula. The show was so eye-opening to the back-and-forth, the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” that’s a part of everything that happens in our government — riders getting tacked onto totally unrelated bills, the chessboard of government agencies, the political games that take place every day. I understand now why so many things are so hard in Washington (and I’m pretty sure things have gotten even worse during your presidency because of the way much of our Congress decided to dig in its heels over nearly everything). From watching you do your job, though, it’s really seemed like you’ve done everything possible to rise above the drama and just get important things done. (Like the ACA — thank you so much for making it possible for me to stay on my parents’ insurance until I turned 26 and then qualify for Medicaid after that. I used to work in retail, and now I’m a freelance writer.)

The other big thing I gained from watching The West Wing was a deep and abiding love for President Jed Bartlet. While he wasn’t perfect, he was everything most people wish a president could be, fighting the good fight every single day, staying up at night to worry about the problems of one factory worker or the death of one service woman. I’m sure that when The West Wing was airing, its viewers thought we’d never have someone that good sitting in the Oval Office — and then we got you. You will always and forever be my real-life Jed Bartlet. Thank you for giving our nation so much hope during the past eight years, and for reminding us that hope is still there now if we look for it, even though the coming days seem dark and scary.

Goodbyes are hard for me, and I often don’t handle change well. With all my heart, I wish that we could have you all in the White House another four years. But then I realize that’s not really fair. You’ve given us so much, and you deserve a break. To reference the Bible via Hamilton, you deserve to sit under your own vine and fig tree, a moment alone in the shade, at home in this nation that you have made better and brighter, more prosperous and equitable.

The Obamas are going home. I’ve said it so many times, but I feel like it’s never enough: Thank you.

With the utmost sincerity and respect,

Madeline Wilson

 

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