I had the opportunity to work with former Ambassador Andrew Young at two organizations — GoodWorks International and the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation — that afforded me opportunities to visit seventeen African countries. As I made repeated visits to Africa and interacted with African presidents, I considered myself blessed to witness a person of color as president. Truthfully, I did not think I would ever see an African-American president of the United States and allowed myself to be content with memories from Africa. Thankfully, I was proven wrong, Barack Obama, when you were elected the 44th president of the United States.
You were not my first choice to be president in 2007 as the presidential campaign was getting underway. Initially, I supported Hillary. I simply did not believe that America was ready to seriously consider, much less nominate and elect, an African-American as president, regardless of your qualifications and character. My opinion changed in January 2008 when you won the Iowa Caucus. At that moment, I had to choose what role I wanted to play in history: to either support, work and contribute to one who could be the first woman American president or the first African-American. I decided to enthusiastically support your candidacy.
I have had the pleasure of greeting you on several occasions as a senator and president. One occasion in particular stands out. In 2006, I met with your foreign policy adviser, Mark Lippert, on a client issue pertaining to Africa. You later appointed Mark as the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea.
After meeting with Mark, I flew to New York to attend a private fundraiser for you. When you arrived, you immediately began working the room. I introduced myself and we exchanged brief pleasantries. As you moved to the next person, I referenced my having met with Mark earlier. You backtracked and inquired about the topic of the meeting. Then you asked if I had been satisfied with the service I had received in your office in general, and from Mark in particular. Only upon receiving my assurances that your staff had been helpful and courteous did you move on.
I left that fundraiser very impressed with you. In that encounter, I learned a lot not only about your character, but also the type of public servant you are. I was not an Illinois constituent, yet you showed me that constituency services for you extended far beyond the borders of your home state.
As you prepare to step down as my president tomorrow, I am reminded and want to thank you for your numerous accomplishments on both the domestic and international fronts. It is a true testament to you and your administration that you were able to accomplish all that you did, despite the Republican opposition that you encountered on day one of your presidency.
These accomplishments include:
• The Affordable Care Act;
• Saving the U.S. auto industry;
• Eliminating Osama bin Laden; and
• YALI (Young African Leader’s Initiative).
I can only imagine how much more you could have accomplished on behalf of the American people had your bipartisan outreach been reciprocated. However, what has most impressed me about you during your time as president is exactly what did initially during the 2008 campaign and our initial meeting: your disciplined and calm demeanor. You set an example for all Americans as a president, husband and father.
To be honest, there were times when “No Drama Obama” frustrated the hell out of me. When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) disrespected you, the office of the presidency, the Congress and the nation by shouting out “You lie!” as you addressed a joint session of Congress, a part of me wanted you to reply, “You, congressman, have just shown the world that you are an embarrassment to the institution to which you have been elected and your constituents. Now be quiet!” But at that moment, you remained presidential. Always presidential throughout your eight years in office, even when your successor questioned your very legitimacy as president.
You accepted early on a burden that none of your 43 predecessors had on their shoulders: the sin of racism. All African-American elected officials at the local, state and national levels are held to a higher standard than are white politicians. Your administration was scandal-free because of your disciplined moral compass and leadership.
So, thank you Mr. President, I look forward to your continued involvement on issues important to you as a private citizen. And I wish you and your family all the best.
Austin R. Cooper Jr. is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.