President Obama told us what it means to be undefeated
He said failure taught him ‘it isn’t about me, this is about what I’m doing for somebody else’
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama landed in Greensboro, North Carolina, to participate in one of the most candid discussions of his presidency. A man who carried the nation on his shoulders now found himself in a room on the campus composed mainly of North Carolina A&T State University students and other invited guests. He seemed relaxed and poised, slowly unburdening himself from the cumbersome load he’s carried the past eight years as president. Stripped of his invisible cape and imaginary armor, the president was comfortable yet vulnerable as he answered questions about the importance of family, mentoring opportunities and how he handles defeat.
Often, we view public officials who work to serve us as superhuman beings, pounding through life and handling their jobs armed with a thick skin and impenetrable souls.
To realize that our idols — our heroes — are indeed human can be a sobering reality in and of itself.
One of the first questions asked of the president focused on how he encounters defeat but is not defeated, prompted by a quote from late poet Maya Angelou in which the core values of The Undefeated are rooted.
Obama couldn’t recall a time that he harbored feelings of failure during his two terms, but instead told the story of his 2000 loss to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in a congressional primary in which Obama, a young, not-yet-polished politician, received 31 percent of the vote. Rush received 62 percent.
“On the path to the presidency, there have been multiple times where I felt like, ‘Man, this is not going well,’ ” Obama said. “I lost a race for Congress only eight years before I got elected president and got thumped, wasn’t just beat, I got beat really badly … what is true about politics that is similar to sports, though, is when you lose, you lose publicly. Everybody knows and everybody is talking about you and it’s a hard feeling because you feel like, ‘I thought I had something to offer and it turns out I didn’t.’ And yet what I understood, maybe not the day after but in the months that followed, was that had I not gone through that experience, that I couldn’t have been successful running for the U.S. Senate.’”
Obama’s stories and advice resonated, particularly with students, because it was a side of the president they were able to relate to. It wasn’t a plan on how one should live life, or even telling someone what they should be doing. It was Obama reaching out as more of a caring father figure than a political one, letting the younger generation know that sometimes it’s OK to fail.
“A lot of times when you’re young and you’re trying to make your mark on the world, you think it’s about you,” Obama said. “One of the benefits of defeat is to take some of the vanity out of what it is that you’re trying to achieve. And you start reminding yourself part of your strength comes from realizing, ‘Oh, this isn’t about me, this is about what I’m doing for somebody else.’ And it may be that God has chosen another way for me to serve, but I can still serve.”
Obama also stressed the importance of mentoring young men and boys while sharing stories about his own flawed past while growing up in Hawaii. It shed light on a different side of the president that previously appeared to be closely guarded during the earlier years of both terms.
It was one of the reasons that Obama and the White House created My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), an initiative aimed to help young men and boys of color to reach their full potential. After speaking with a few young men whose lives had been positively affected by MBK’s programs, they learned the president wasn’t much different from them.
“Some of [the young men] were talking about, ‘Yeah, I was on the streets, doing drugs.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I was doing the same thing. It’s just that I was in Hawaii, so I wasn’t gonna get shot and there was only so far I could fall if I made bad decisions.’ I made all kinds of bad decisions. And so if that’s true for me, that’s true for kids everywhere. The question is: Are we creating enough of a network that kids aren’t falling through the cracks, and when they make a mistake we hold them accountable? We explain to them the mistakes they made, more importantly, that they start internalizing how they can control their own destiny, but we also say, ‘You are fundamentally good and we’re ready to work with you.’ ”
After partnering with MENTOR — an organization designed to expand mentoring relationships — the program has attracted more than 25,000 mentors and has members in nearly 250 communities in the United States, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 19 Tribal Nations. In the two years since its launch, MBK has connected more than 250,000 sixth- and ninth-graders to mentors.
The initiative was one of Obama’s top priorities while in office, and one he hopes to continue to focus on well after his term as president has ended. Obama even joked that after his time in the White House has officially expired, he looks forward to sleeping for at least two weeks before taking his wife Michelle on a well-deserved vacation before “figuring out how [they] can develop the next generation of leaders.”
Most importantly, though, he looks forward to spending more time as a father, noting that out of all the things he’s done in his lifetime and presidency, family is what will always be No. 1.
“On my deathbed, I will not remember any bills I passed. I will not remember any speech I gave. I will not remember getting the Nobel Prize,” Obama said. “What I will remember is holding hands with my daughters, taking them down to a park. That’s one thing I know is that on my deathbed, that is what I will remember. If you approach life with that attitude, then you’re going to appropriately invest in what is most important.”
At the discussion’s conclusion — before dressing once more in his invisible cape and imaginary armor to fight his last 100 days in office — Obama received a standing ovation. He lingered a bit to shake hands and chat with those lucky enough to be seated closest to him. His farewell was not a final goodbye for some, but more of a “see you later.”
In that moment, the president didn’t feel like the president at all. He had been transformed into the helpful neighbor, the overprotective yet loving father, the caring friend.
He was human, and finally viewed as such. For that, Mr. President, we thank you.