In his book An American Friend, former US ambassador to Spain, James Costos, writes that there is no difference between the public Barack Obama and the private one. He writes that his time in politics as an American public servant did not cause him to behave any differently than he would in the kitchen of his own home. Eighteen months after his departure from the White House, I had the opportunity to meet him in person and watch him give a 60-minute talk. He spoke to me and another 299 Spanish opinion leaders chosen by former Minister Cristina Garmendia and Fundación COTEC as representatives of Spanish society. His classis magister, given in the form of a dialog, was one of the talks given by other world leaders regarding economy, technology, education, ecology, and business with the noble goals of increasing our knowledge about the circular economy and positively impacting our home communities and spheres of influence through this way of understanding sustainable development.
I did my homework before going to the event. I prepared my opinion and contribution to the circular economy from the perspective of innovation in education and health, and how technology may play a distinguishing role. I also prepared for meeting with the speakers and with Obama by looking over speeches, news articles, and purchasing The Audacity of Hope, written by the former US president, one of the few books available in Spanish that discusses Obama before he took the giant leap. You don’t have to read much to realize that what Costos says is true, that the president made himself by walking the streets and being a senator; the messages were maintained over time, even if the words or the magnitude of their scale later changed.
I cannot say that the person who talked to us on July 6 was a different one, but I can state that, despite his talk being full of references to his time in the Oval Office, many of his phrases denoted the perspective of observation from the distance of his legacy and what his successor is doing to it. I heard some messages that I had already heard, a few literally, and others donning a bit of nostalgia, apparently not for the time lived, but for the impossibility of being able to govern them. However, I also heard new messages, aimed at an audience probably younger than the one taking photos, videos, and notes that day. Messages that seemed like ones he would give to his daughters while having dinner and those displayed in the HBO documentary The Final Year, showing his foreign policy team’s race against the clock to leave a more secure, peaceful, and sustainable world before the end of his term.
The Paris Accord was one of the big milestones that contributed to Obama’s foreign policy and pertained to the circular economy along with his clear support for renewables. With regard to domestic policy, perhaps the best way to understand the economy was with investments in education and innovation. Both projects, by the way, have been undermined by the current resident of the White House with “fake news” such as stating that renewable energy will always be more expensive than petroleum and coal-based energy, one of the excuses used to leave the Paris Accord, or stating that the investment in young innovators will not lead to any economic increases in the future. Obama reminded the audience that young people still need to be educated so that they are able to work in teams and solve problems creatively and originally.
I am a self-confessed humanist who is too optimistic as my blind hope in the goodness of humanity makes me feel desolate and causes me to completely reconsider my teaching work when I observe inequality, jealousy, and egocentrism in any educational substratum. Listening to Obama caused me to recall that the group trend is the important thing, regardless of whether we are talking about a classroom or a nation; that we can all do our part, however small; that I have to face problems one by one; that progress is never guaranteed; that I have to help those around me and those who depend on me; that the human condition will never be perfect, but it can get better.
I don’t know how much longer my professional career will last, or if I will still be doing the same thing within five or 10 years. I consider myself to be a deep learner, an innate searcher who tries to constantly reinvent himself with the excitement of experimentation and learning. Obama’s messages of youth empowerment through education and innovation also touched me. But during his talk, I started to think that the ones who would really be interested in Obama’s argument would be my children, for their future.
In the HBO documentary, Ben Rhodes states that there is an intangible part of Barack Obama’s legacy that may be more important than everything he was able to achieve in his eight years in office. The former national security advisor and personal friend points to Obama’s ability to fire up the people he talks to, his ability to become a role model. And he does this mainly thinking about young people, wondering what they will achieve simply because they were inspired by the president, what they will accomplish, the freedoms that they will fight for. Perhaps my work is simply to create the conditions necessary for that to occur, so that my children, my students, and others are able to think outside the box, so that they use their imagination, so that they are patient and persistent. Perhaps that is my legacy for them, that they feel as I do and did.