Columns

Andrea Matthews ’11: What the president needs from you

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, October 22, 2009

I remember the scene at Brown University when Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States. From Salomon 101, where the Democrats were hosting a returns-watching party, there was a deep primordial roar. Then, students and streakers rushed onto the Main Green. Hundreds gathered to sing, embrace and shout, and I remember feeling tears in my eyes as I joined the crowd of the usually patriotically reserved in belting the national anthem.

But what surprised me in the weeks following the election was how rapidly students who had once scrutinized the details of campaign promises and policy debates became disengaged from national politics. It was as if young Democrats collectively thought: “Well, now that our guy’s in the White House, we can hang up our signs and go home.”

Why was this? Is there an honest belief that once a party has come to power, its supporters can transition into political autopilot? 

As the recipients of an advanced education and as enfranchised members of a democratic republic, it is our duty to engage in the policy issues confronting our government, no matter whom we voted for as president.

Those who opposed Obama in the election, motivated by their need to dissent, are more likely to remain politically active. But most young Obama supporters seem to have relegated themselves to the sidelines of national discourse, muttering quiet affirmations of trust and confidence in Obama’s ability not only to pursue the agenda that he outlined in his campaign, but somehow to respond to their unarticulated policy preferences.

What it seems so difficult for politically literate youth to remember is that Obama is not our friend, he is our president. As such, he is a politician subject to the most intensive lobbying and political manipulation of anyone in our government. 

Would it feel nice to think of our president as a buddy who perceives our political wishes and pursues them out of mutual trust and understanding? Certainly. It seems that every presidential candidate has tried to propagate this image through carefully polished campaign rhetoric, calling us “folks” and waving to supporters with their families in tow. 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Bill Clinton speak, I instinctively revert to the trustingly doe-eyed adoration I felt as a small child watching him on television. That slightly affected drawl! Those self-assured gesticulations! Once again, I’m nine years old and the president of the United States is not a politician but some sort of supremely compassionate national dad.

But mutual trust and understanding are the instruments of autocracy, and only a benevolent one at that. Democracies rely instead on accountability. Our elected government officials respond to money, pressure and votes. Those incentives don’t simply disappear after an election is completed.

We may have cast our ballots in November, but lobbyists and interest groups operate continuously. Our work as members of this political system is to remain engaged and continue to give feedback, whether it is in endorsement of or opposition to the policies that are proposed.

There seems to be this notion that those who voted for the current administration may endorse its activity wholeheartedly, quietly suppress their disagreement with its policies or interpret divergence from campaign promises as deeply hurtful personal attacks. This idea that withholding criticism of the current administration will aid both it and the country is disappointing. Without rigorous public discourse addressing issues like health care, LGBTQ rights and foreign policy, how can our populace expect to communicate its preferences to its elected representatives and president?

Ask yourself honestly: How do you feel about the progress of the health care bill? Were the president’s words on LGBTQ rights to the Human Rights Campaign last Sunday meritorious? What troop levels do you think are appropriate in Afghanistan? 

I am not advocating for a particular stance on any of these issues in this column. I am asking that whether you are conservative, liberal or moderate, whether you voted for President Obama or not, that you become and/or remain an agent of political conviction. We must form our ideas responsibly, through well-rounded and high-caliber discourse with one another, and convey those ideas to our government.

That is the kind of support our president, regardless of his party, deserves.

Andrea Matthews ’11 wanted to title this column “President Obama is not my friend,” but then she would never get a job in the Obama administration.