- Illustration by Joshua Gragg
On the night you were elected, I was working for one of the country’s oldest African-American newspapers, covering an election-night watch-party in the Hill District, one of Pittsburgh’s most historic black neighborhoods. As I think back on the tears I saw streaming down people’s faces after you were declared the winner, I can’t think of a better setting to have celebrated the election of our country’s first black president.
So often, the service of our elected officials is marred by scandal and controversy, but during your eight years in office you served as an exemplary role model for black children everywhere. Despite my disappointment in some of your policies, your legacy will be one of a supportive father and a loving husband.
It’s hard to say what kind of world my future children will be born into, but I am thankful that they will have a president like you to look back on — a president with the same skin color as them. Thank you for showing black children that they can aspire to hold the highest office in the land.
Dear President Barack Obama,
I cheered out loud to my television set when your 2009 inaugural address included the line, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”
It was still widely taboo to announce you didn’t believe in God when I came out as an atheist in college in the 1990s. Every “God bless America” spoken by a politician and every “In God We Trust” printed on a dollar bill has been a reminder of all the times I was told I was going to Hell by a friend or family member. Not to mention all of the atheists who have been killed across the world, simply for not believing.
I’m still not sure if our country will ever elect an atheist president in my lifetime, but I am thankful that you not only openly acknowledged us throughout your presidency, but just as recently as last month, gave us legal protection. As one of your final acts in office, on Dec. 16, you signed an update to the U.S. law protecting religious freedom: “The freedom of thought, conscience, and religion is understood to protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” The Act also condemns “specific targeting of non-theists, humanists, and atheists because of their beliefs.”
I’m hopeful that young Americans today will face less discrimination as they explore their religious beliefs — or lack of beliefs — and at least a small part of my world now seems a little safer. Hallelujah!
Dear Mr. President,
Thank you for serving our country with dignity, wisdom and grace. For caring so deeply and thinking so carefully about each word you said, each action you took. It wasn’t easy. Each day you fought against enormous opposition to bring health care to millions of people; to protect women’s reproductive rights; to promote marriage equality and racial justice; and champion policies to make equal pay and paid family leave for all workers a reality. Here in Pennsylvania, the Women and Girls Foundation is working with our state Department of Labor to create a state paid family- and medical-leave insurance fund because of the important leadership and funding your Department of Labor provided to states on this issue.
Thank you to you and First Lady Michelle Obama for making the White House both accessible and regal at the same time. Together you represented what is best about America, what we each hope to be on our best day — kind and patient, beautiful and smart, spirited and witty, self-deprecating and majestic.
I will never forget taking my son to meet you at the White House. Seeing him look up to meet your eyes, raising his hand to touch yours. No one in our family had ever been invited to the White House before you came along. But during your years in office you opened the doors to women, people of color, immigrants, children and activists. You invited us to attend Fathers’ Day picnics and holiday parties, policy summits and Women’s History Month celebrations.
It pains me to think of what comes after you leave. I worry that the people moving in will not be models for grace, inclusion, respect and wisdom. I worry that the doors to the White House will close once again; that the gates will once again keep “we the people” out, and billionaires safely in. I worry that instead of looking up at the president and at the White House with awe, that my son will look at it as a joke. As a place where a man lives who grabs women and demeans them, instead of lifting them up.
Today I heard Michelle Obama give one of her last speeches as FLOTUS. She said, “Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope; never fear.” Thank you, Mr. President, for having the wisdom to fall in love with your boss at the law firm, for having the smarts and cool to woo her, and for sharing her with the rest of us. As we look toward the coming days, months and years that feel so scary and uncertain, I plan to keep her words ringing in my ears encouraging me and all of us to be hopeful and unafraid as we find some way back to the grace you honored us with during your time at the White House.
Heather Arnet, CEO Women and Girls Foundation
Dear President Obama,
Thank you for standing up for LGBT rights.
Let’s start at the top: marriage equality. In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme court ruled 5-4 that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to all, including same-sex couples. You appointed two of the Supreme Court Justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who ruled in favor of the decision (the tie-breaker was the Reagan-appointed Anthony Kennedy, btw). “If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” you told us in remarks at the White House following the decision. “It is gratifying to see that principle enshrined into law by this decision.”
Some of your biggest critics on the left may remember how you were anti-same-sex marriage/pro-civil union in 2004 (even though you were pro-same-sex marriage in 1996), but most of those criticisms have faded away because of an impressive LGBT-rights record as president.
Another of your LGBT-rights accomplishments not to be forgotten is the repeal of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that restricted gay, bisexual and lesbian people from openly serving in the armed services. The repeal actually has Pittsburgh-area roots, as former Western Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire was the primary sponsor of the bill that passed the House and the Senate, and was signed by your own hand.
You also signed the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009, which expanded the federal hate-crime law to include victims’ actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2016, you stood up for transgender rights by instituting a policy that would allow transgender students in public schools across the country to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. (Federal courts later blocked the policy, but the issue could potentially make it all the way up to the Supreme Court for an ultimate decision.) You were also the only president to mention gay rights during your 2013 presidential inauguration: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” Thanks, Obama!
Dear President Obama
They warn that presidents don’t necessarily impact citizen’s lives directly, but sometimes they do. Here’s a list of the things I remember fondly from your presidency.
—The hope-filled 2009 Inauguration Day that warmed even this old cynic’s heart. I’ll never forget being in that huge crowd in D.C. and hearing the “sound” of more than a million people being silent while you took the oath.
—The 2009 stimulus package that included a tax credit for replacing my old heater with a more energy-efficient one.
—Also, in 2009, signing the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act, which prohibited a bunch of awful stuff credit-card companies used to do to customers. Also: Made gift cards last longer!
—In 2011, tossing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and making it OK for gays to serve openly in the military. I’m old enough to have had gay friends kicked out in the 1980s.
—The millions and millions of acres of land (and water) assigned National Monument status, some of which I have enjoyed visiting. Yo, southeast Utah!
—Keeping it 100 at the White House Press Correspondents dinners and never being afraid to laugh at yourself. Bonus skill: having crack comic timing. I laughed and laughed at your jokes … until I remembered you were leaving.
Your tenure as our nation’s 44th President will be marked by your tireless commitment to ensure that no one goes without the basic care they need to live healthy, productive lives. That’s especially true for women.
In December, your administration finalized a new rule that will protect birth control, cancer screenings and other basic health care for more than 4 million people, including more than 210,000 Pennsylvanians — the third largest share of patients nationally under Title X, the nation’s family-planning program.
The administration’s rule ensures patients can access care at qualified health-care providers, including Planned Parenthood and other reproductive-health-care providers, and makes it clear that it is against the law for states to block people from accessing care at a health center because the organization also provides safe, legal abortion.
And, as politicians launched attacks against Planned Parenthood and threatened to cut off funding that allows our clinics to provide access to lifesaving preventative care such as cancer screenings, birth control, STI testing and treatment, and well-woman exams, you were among the leaders pushing back.
Thanks to your administration, people in Pennsylvania and across the country continue to get the care they need to stay healthy. Pennsylvania’s Planned Parenthood affiliates provide quality care to 90,000 women, men and young people every year.
No one should have their basic health care taken away. Yet, we know many of these provisions face attacks in the new Congress or by a U.S. Health and Human Services secretary who is determined to undo commonsense protections.
Every person deserves access to quality, affordable health care from a provider they know and trust, which is why we will fight on as we always have. And we will be eternally grateful to our president. Over the last eight years, there has been no greater champion for women’s health than Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President.
Planned Parenthood of Western PA
Dear President Obama:
Given that your immediate predecessor in the White House effectively denied the existence of human-caused climate change, you could hardly have done worse on the issue. But given the constraints imposed by Congressional Republicans wrapped in their own increasingly virulent form of denialism, you actually did pretty well in addressing this, the most important challenge facing human civilization.
After decades of dithering, for instance, the U.S. finally signed on to an international climate accord, the so-called Paris Treaty. It’s not really a treaty, but it’s a start on us formally acknowledging that climate is a global problem, and that the rich countries who’ve mostly caused it must bear the brunt in both solving it and mitigating its effects for the poor countries suffering from rising oceans and extreme weather that they had little role in creating.
Your administration also successfully pushed for rules doubling automobile fuel-efficiency standards, a practical way to pare the carbon emissions that are the main cause of climate change.
Mostly, though, thanks for the Clean Power Plan, a U.S. EPA mandate that each state create its own scheme for reducing carbon emissions from energy generation, by roughly 30 percent by 2030. This was the single biggest action on climate change ever taken by the federal government, and if its requirements are met, it will put us within shouting distance of the kind of emissions reductions we ultimately need to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Just as significantly, it will show other countries that the world’s biggest energy hogs (that’s us) are capable of reform. It should also spur much-needed further development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. And it should mean cleaner air.
Moreover, you canceled the climate-killing Keystone XL oil pipeline, and blocked offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
Climate advocates have criticized you, rightly, for your overall support for oil and gas drilling (even as, in continued defiance of reality, fossil-fuel interests and their representatives in Congress continued to attack you for doing the opposite). And for sure, even the Clean Power Plan is only a downpayment on much larger reductions that scientists say are needed as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels entirely. But while your successor has vowed to reverse course on these initiatives, he would do so to the peril of the planet.
Dear President Obama,
Thank you for being a positive role model to children discovering the office of president for the first time. I have an 8-year-old nephew and you are the only president he has known. He has been able to witness a president who is calm during crisis and unflinching when important decisions had to be made. Pardon my French, Mr. President, but I’m not sure what kind of shit-show he is going to have to see for the next four years. But I am confident that because he and children his age had you as their first president, they will not accept future leaders like the buffoon we are about to experience.
I, too, am thankful for your leadership even though I’m too jaded, cynical and broken to ever think this country will find its way. My presidents were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George [big] Bush, Bill Clinton and George [little] Bush. I never had a goddamned shot at ever being positive about our government and I’m sad about that. Although, in you, I saw at least for awhile the hope and change you promised, and I’m glad that for many young Americans your message was their first presidential experience. It’s an experience that will guide them when it’s their turn to choose this nation’s leaders.