My letter to President Obama, as he leaves office

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-9-58-05-amDear President Obama:

Hi! My name is Jenn McKee. I’m a Michigan-based arts reporter/critic who’s been scrabbling together a freelancing career since getting laid off about a year ago. I have two young daughters, Lily (8) and Neve (5), and I’m married to a good man I first befriended when we both played trombone in the University of Michigan Marching Band – back when a Rose Bowl trip was an almost annual occasion. 🙂

I know this letter, if you receive it at all, is late in coming.

I know by now you’re transitioning to civilian life, and moving, and de-compressing. And you should have all the time and space you need to do so. You’ve definitely earned it.

For after years of long days and hard work, and feeling a responsibility to represent the interests of millions of Americans, I’m sure you’d like to just be a husband and a dad and a “regular person” for a while.

But I nonetheless felt compelled to write this letter to you. I’ve been meaning to do so for many weeks, but the craziness of the holidays (my husband’s Jewish, so we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas), my tendency toward procrastination, and the fact that writing this letter would somehow make the end of your presidency more real all conspired to delay me until today – the day before the inauguration.

A day that fills me with anxiety and dread.

But I’m not writing to tell you about my concerns. I’m writing to thank you for your many years of service, and tell you how much I appreciate the dignity, intelligence, compassion, love, and openness you demonstrated in office. Even when I sometimes questioned your choices, my belief that you were a good man with a good heart, and that you were always seeking the best path forward for the country, never wavered. I trusted you, and as you leave office, I still do.

Your first inauguration, in 2009, happened just days after my mother’s sudden death. Yes, she’d been receiving cancer treatments, and it was her fourth bout with the disease over the course of 14 years, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been caught unawares. But we tend to hope, and to convince ourselves that the people we love will find a way, again and again, to pull through.

At that time, I’d just become a mom myself, and a few weeks earlier, my husband and I traveled with my 7 month old daughter to see my mom and dad in North Carolina over the holidays. My mom seemed more tired and lethargic than usual, falling asleep repeatedly in her armchair, but she still somehow pulled together one last holiday feast for all of us – my family, my younger sister and her boyfriend, my older sister, her husband, and her four kids. It was like my mom summoned every last bit of energy she had to perform this final act of love and bring us all together.

So I was still reeling from her loss, and from the chaos of being a fledgling mom with no guide, when my husband and I tuned in to watch your inauguration. That evening, we opened a bottle of wine and made a toast to you and your family. Though I was obviously still shrouded in grief, I nonetheless felt the capacity for hope being re-kindled. And that meant a great deal to me.

I’m a true believer in Hillary’s slogan, Stronger Together. My daughters’ neighborhood school is a true melting pot, and it heartens me to watch these young kids of different races and religious and ethnic backgrounds growing up and learning together. Frankly, as I’ve been processing the results of this past election, and trying to get past the question I keep asking myself, “Is this really who we are?”, one of the things that gave me hope was volunteering at my kindergartner’s class holiday party. Seeing five year olds cheer each other on in games – hearing chants like, “Go, Sri Kundan! Go, Ahana!” – can’t help but make you feel better.

And I’d really wanted to believe that the whole country was headed in the direction of that kindergarten class. That we’d all root for each other to succeed. But now, I feel like we’re going backwards.

I was so full of crazy hope last November. I put together a makeshift pantsuit – the first time I ever dressed up to vote – and I walked my daughters down the street to the voting station. I filled out my ballot, and the girls helped me feed it into the machine. I’ll admit that I got teary in that moment. It was moving to have my daughters accompany me to vote for the first female Presidential candidate. We’ve had your photo on our refrigerator for years, and my husband and I had talked about how amazing and wonderful it would be to have the first Presidents of our children’s lifetime be a person of color and a woman.

My high hopes and excitement made that night’s news all the more soul-crushing. But many things have demonstrated to me that there’s not much more that anyone – including you – could have done. The fear and anger and frustration that’s out there seemed destined to have its day.

Many of us are in a state of mourning about this, and about the end of your presidency. I cried throughout the First Lady’s final speech; I cried as you presented Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with distinction; and I cried as you offered a heartfelt, beautiful tribute to your wife and family during your last official speech. You (and your partner) have come to mean so much to so many of us, and I wanted to tell you how much you are appreciated.

My many years spent in a newsroom happened in Ann Arbor, where you have come to speak a few times – most notably, to deliver a graduation speech at U-M. I never got to hear you speak, or see you in person. When editors were handing out assignments to cover your visits, I hung back, both because I had babies at home, and because I didn’t feel, as an arts reporter (we often feel like the redheaded stepchild of the newsroom), that it was my “place.” But now I wish I’d made the necessary personal arrangements, worked up the courage, and just stepped up. I regret missing the chance to see you speak live, in a town that I love.

So perhaps that’s a reminder to me, from this point forward, to be braver, to speak up, to push myself – all of which I’ll have to do in the fight to defend our democracy and our rights in the coming years. As the father of daughters, I’m sure you were as horrified as I was by the blatant misogyny revealed in the Access Hollywood tape that was released last fall. I shudder to think, as my girls grow up, that things might get even worse for girls before they get better. But at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, I’m eternally grateful to you for modeling enlightened manhood. It’s evident, in every photo and film clip, that you adore and respect your wife and family, and seeing that play out with the White House as a backdrop has been more meaningful than I can express. (It was also wonderful to see you participate in a Seder each year at Passover; I loved showing my daughters that our family shared this in common with you.)

So thank you for doing all that you could. I know that much of what you wanted to achieve was blocked, and that Washington has become a place focused on gridlock; but it still takes courage to try, and it’s still the only way things ever happen.

You’re a good man, and although I already miss having you as my President, I’m excited to see what you do with your next chapter. Hopefully you can, in some way, point those of us who are nervous and scared in a positive direction. But for now, enjoy your transition to “regular guy”-hood. I wish you and your beautiful, inspiring family every happiness in the world.


Jenn McKee

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