Looking Back

By Evangeline Liu (College Undergraduate)

When Obama was elected in 2008, I was a child old enough to know who was running in the election, but too young to be interested in the psychological and social nuances of how and why people vote the way they do, or to even understand the differences that existed between political parties.  

The significance of the words “Yes, we can!” and the symbol of Obama’s red, white and blue “Hope” poster only came to me much later. I didn’t know that regardless of party, you had to acknowledge his skill as a speaker. I didn’t know that there would be a day when I would listen to his speech not from a television set or a computer speaker, but from across the room where the presidential podium stood. Most of all, I didn’t know it’d be hard to say goodbye---how much the words “Former President Obama” would sting in light of his successor.

One year my school assignment was to watch Obama’s State of the Union address, and every year since I made it my January tradition. I always noticed the political divide in the clapping coming from only one side of the room, the epitome of what people thought as “politics as usual”, or what liberals thought of as a reflection of the GOP’s obstructionism. Yet I was always moved by his uplifting messages of hope and what he wanted to achieve in the next year to tackle the most important social issues. From gun violence prevention, to healthcare reform, to economic growth, he always expressed optimism that both parties can come together to do what they were elected to do---serve the people in the best way they can. Underlying all of this was a sense that debate and compromise were the essence of democracy, that while we may disagree and differ on policies and positions, our underlying motivations to do our best are the same. He tried to spotlight the best parts of politics and revive the spirit of helping to grow our democracy. He stayed true to the words he first said years ago: “Yes, we can!” They were the words that swept him from junior Illinois senator to a historical presidency.

I saw him in person one cloudy, cool Pittsburgh afternoon, when he keynoted the White House Frontiers Conference there. It was the opportunity of a lifetime: a junior photographer part of the official White House press pool covering the President.

Against a gym awash in purple light, so unrecognizable from the plain white fluorescent lighted gym that normally hosts boys and girls in athletic wear playing basketball, Obama gave a speech detailing the importance of scientific innovation and staying true to the facts. Apparently, I share a love of science and technology with the President of the United States. “I confess, I’m a science geek. I’m a nerd, and I don't make any apologies for it,” he said near the beginning of his speech. That’s the funniest and most positive confession I’ve heard from anyone. He listed the things he had seen earlier in the day at the conference in a way that betrayed his enthusiasm for the subject. “I also successfully docked a capsule on the International Space Station,” he remarked. Silence in the audience. “It was a simulation,” he added after a pause. Laughter erupted. “But trust me, I struck the landing.” He also mentioned shaking hands with a man who was paralyzed from the neck down---shaking the robotic hand that the man controlled with just his own thinking, thanks to electrodes that were implanted in the brain that were then connected to the artificial arm. Obama was impressed that technology had progressed to the point that it was possible for the severely paralyzed man to feel the President’s touch. In a not-so-subtle jab toward people who deny science, he said “When the Russians launched the first satellite, we didn’t deny that Sputnik was up there!” Laughter and applause roared from the crowd. “That wouldn’t have worked, no!!”, he added. He then described the formation of NASA---“almost overnight”, as he described it---and how the US became not only the first country to land an astronaut on the moon but also the first to visit all the other planets in the solar system via various unmanned probes. Denying the fact doesn’t get us anywhere---it is facing reality and finding ways to solve it that give us hope and progress.

If someone asked me what struck me most about Obama, it is the extent to which he embraced and honored science. For me, science is a symbol of the spirit of progress and hope in tackling some of the world’s most difficult challenges that seemed to match who he is as a person and what he campaigned on to reach the highest office in the land. Science counters ignorance, the enemy of progress.

I don’t agree with Obama on every decision he made. We can debate for years about all the nuances, good and bad, of the policies he executed. But I do believe he tried his best to find solutions on some of the most intricate and difficult world issues, and I do believe that he brought grace, dignity and empathy to the office in a way that is a good model no matter one’s position on the political spectrum.

Dawn broke over Washington in red and pink ribbons of color. Journalists, politicians, and members of the public descended on Inauguration, some for their jobs, others to celebrate and still others to protest. It rained as the torch was handed off. The Obama presidency is now history, but there’s no denying the mark it left on me, and so many others.

Democracy, by nature, is imperfect, and often we don’t get what we want from our elected officials. But if every citizen does a small part in making society better, whether that’s volunteering at a local organization for the homeless, doing research that can be used to help others, or even just saying a kind word to make someone happy, in Obama’s words, “yes, we can”---we can make progress.

*Here's one way author Evangeline Liu suggests you can get involved: http://www.ucsusa.org/

Take Action Now: Science