BY ELIJAH SULLIVAN
Roughly a year before Barack Obama took Capitol Hill by storm, a good friend of mine moved to Europe. He’s an intelligent guy — having a BA in History from Southern Oregon University — but like many others who read newspapers around 2007, my friend’s perspective on American politics had soured. When he first relocated to Europe, he went to the Czech Republic to teach English in Prague.
Not satisfied with the political climate there, he settled in Germany, where his new friends mirrored his cynicism.
If I remember the last decade for anything, it will be the cynicism and the desperation. Following world events in the media has become associated with all kinds of side-effects like anger and depression. During the recession I remember reading about banks in the Portland area being bombed, and for the first time in my life, my place of work was help up at gunpoint. If I hadn’t taken the day off to visit my family, I would have met a desperate man from Gold Hill who needed a gun in order to bring home food.
The first election I voted in was in 2004. I was 19, and voted for Kerry because after four years of Bush in the White House I was looking at the democratic party through beer goggles: every candidate was a good candidate.
It was the same in 2008. While I liked Barack Obama, it didn’t matter because I was going to vote democrat anyway. When he won, it felt too good to be true.
The first assignment I ever had for The Byline was covering the inauguration of President Obama. (The piece was never printed.) It was my first month at Rogue Community College, and I distinctly remember sitting in the auditorium of the HEC building. The audience was almost entirely made up of faculty and staff, and I won’t forget their faces: smiling, hopeful, even youthful.
(Yes, even Runzi and Mills-Cannon.)
For the most cynical – like my friend the expatriate – proof was needed that Obama hadn’t campaigned on reform as some kind of cruel joke. There’s no such thing as an uncorrupted politician, right?
In the months that followed Obama’s inauguration, every report from Capitol Hill was conflicting. Was Obama a socialist, or a fascist? A wolf in sheep’s clothing, a witch doctor, or a revolutionary?
I don’t know what is more frustrating: the fact that party politics have completely stalled the nation’s progress, or that the mainstream media has failed to cover it with any clarity.
That is why Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address is required viewing; unlike certain other former presidents, Obama actually made an attempt to report on the state of the country and to reflect candidly on his first year.
After re-watching the speech on Youtube, I found myself engaged in a long-distance 6 a.m. debate with my friend in Germany. He hadn’t seen the address, being skeptical that anything Obama said could be trusted. He sounded like a guy trying to justify being paranoid about his new girlfriend because his old girlfriend cheated on him.
“No wonder there is so much cynicism out there,” Obama said. “No wonder there is so much disappointment.” In his address, Obama made repeated attempts to dispel this skepticism, and recognized the key role that education plays in moving the country out of the recession:
“In the twenty-first century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education. In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential.”
No argument there. Japan made bold investments in education reform during a period of recession with impressive results. Obama went on to urge the Senate to follow the House by passing a bill to reform education, specifically targeting community colleges because “a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job.”
It’s impressive enough that the Obama Administration managed to stabilize our economy within a year – while simultaneously lowering taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers. The fact that he is looking to invest some of that capital in education when every state budget is talking about cuts is an eleventh-hour intervention of the best kind.
Getting this bill passed the gridlocked Senate will be a challenge, however. To make this work, some major reforms must happen, including an end to taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans that Obama considers “unwarranted.”
Instead, Obama wants to give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years and boost Pell grants. He also promised that graduates will only be required to pay 10 percent of their income towards repaying their loans, and that outstanding debts will be forgiven after 20 years – 10 if you seek a career in public service.
“The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”
Obama was rightly proud that in his first year in office he rebuilt the nation’s economy while still cutting taxes for 8 million students paying for college. Remember when you were a kid and you assumed that only the best person in the world could be president? Well, that’s probably a little too much praise for Barack Obama.
After a bit more talking, my friend the expatriate is thinking about coming home and going back to school. If this keeps up, cynicism may go out of style in the next ten years.