Won Over By Obama

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We recently asked readers if they had significantly changed their minds about Barack Obama over the course of his eight years in office—whether that change came from Obama voters who lost faith in him, or anti-Obama voters who grew to support him. Luke falls in the latter category:

I never voted for Obama, but I wish I had. I grew up Republican and voted for George W. Bush in the first two presidential elections in which I was old enough to vote. I voted for McCain in 2008. I was somewhat disgusted by his campaign, but I voted for him in the hope he would govern as the person he used to be and not as he campaigned. I found myself surprised that I wasn’t all that disappointed when Obama won, and I was actually happy for the joy I saw on people’s faces during his victory speech.

Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

I didn’t vote in 2012, because frankly it’s easier to pretend to not care about politics than to support a Democrat in South Carolina. But I voted for Clinton this year. I never felt like I left the Republican party—more like it left me.

I can’t really point to any one incident that changed my mind about Obama. If anything, I’d have to say it was a combination of the Republican hysteria in reaction to Obama’s election along with his moderation in reacting to it. I also discovered the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates around 2009. As much as anything, his writing, especially regarding U.S. history, changed my outlook.

For another reader, Michael, his change of heart over President Obama was primarily about health care:

Over the past eight years, I moved in the opposite direction of many of my fellow Irish-American whites in urban Red states.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s bruising primaries against President Obama misled me to John McCain. Also, I genuinely wanted to see a Vietnam War veteran win the presidency, after John Kerry had gotten swift-boated by the Bush campaign in 2004. My profound ignorance of Sarah Palin did not help. For the first and only time in my life, I backed a Republican candidate for president.

After that, the emergence of the Tea Party and Obama’s basic moral decency in championing health care reform turned me sharply against the GOP.

Then came the 2010 midterms, the sequester, the threatened government shutdowns, the obstructionism, the do-nothingism, and the failure of Speaker Ryan to pass a budget—it all cemented for me a deep disdain for Congressional Republicans. I voted straight-ticket Democratic in 2012 and thus righted my error from 2008.

This year, I canvassed the streets for Bernie Sanders, because Clinton and her attacks against Obama’s background and faith still reminded me of how she had steered me in the direction of McCain in 2008. However, when she secured the nomination and got Obama, Biden, Warren, and Sanders to endorse her candidacy, I followed suit and voted straight-ticket Democratic again in November 2016.

Did you also vote against Obama but subsequently change your mind? Was there a pivotal moment that clinched your support of his presidency? Sent us a note and we’ll try to include. Update: The TAD group of Atlantic readers are discussing the question as well, if you’d like pop in.

Here’s Margaret on still-President Obama:

I am a Southern white woman. My parents were progressive Republicans, Presbyterians, and I registered Republican in the ’70s.

But last fall I changed my affiliation to Democratic. I realized that, for years, I had disagreed with Republicans on social issues and had reached a point some years earlier where I was embarrassed, ashamed, and angered by what “Republicans” espoused.

I recently sent President Obama an email—my first-ever such correspondence. In it, I said that I so admired and respected him, and that, as after 9-11, I found myself afraid and confused and needing to hear from my President.

Update from Katherine:

Yes, I voted for McCain in 2008. I did it holding my nose on Sarah Palin, who I thought was a disgrace to womankind. I did it because I respected McCain’s experience and integrity, which I thought Obama lacked.

I have regretted that vote ever since. Giving Sarah Palin a voice was a big mistake. And Obama proved himself to be far more worthy than McCain has been since 2008. I voted for Obama with enthusiasm in 2012 and wish I could do it again.

That said, I don’t think I have mourned a loss as much in my life as I did Hillary Rodham Clinton’s. Not only is she my generation, she represented to me the overcoming of all the sexual discrimination I have dealt with all my life. To say I am disappointed is to understate it. I am in mourning on a way I did not anticipate. Adding insult to injury, she lost to a cretin who is completely unworthy and incapable of the office he is to assume.

I am embarrassed for my country and, more importantly, I am terrified of what he might do out of ignorance and arrogance. I have also learned to judge people based on the stupidity, arrogance, and ignorance demonstrated by my fellow citizens. I don’t feel good about that. I hope I can forgive them for it.

Another reader looks to her father:

He voted for McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, but we had a heart to heart at Thanksgiving and he spoke about his support for the ACA, which developed after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and his respect for the way the past eight years have loosened the reins on things like gay marriage. The bounce back from the recession saved his job after a year-long involuntary furlough.

My dad leans libertarian (or at least non-evangelical Republican) and has a lot of disagreements with Obama, but he respects the president and his family for the way they have conducted themselves over the past eight years. And he is terrified of what a Trump administration may usher in. He said he would have voted Obama this time around if it was an option.

Likewise for this next reader, R.S.:

I grew up in a conservative household in the Midwest, and cast my first vote for George W. Bush when I turned 18. I did not vote for Barack Obama in either election, but if I could change that now, I would. In grad school, I wrote a paper comparing his rhetoric of hope with the hope expressed in an obscure German theologian. Over time, he won me over with his practical wisdom and ability to speak through the sharp rhetoric on both sides of so many issues.

Trump’s election was a wake up call for me. As an “enlightened” post-graduate student now living in Los Angeles, I could see my own privilege and wanted to help open opportunities to people from all walks of life. Most of the people I spend time with are on the same page as me, so it was a shock when Trump won.

In the days since the election, I’ve talked with friends and family back home and sought to understand this turn of events. In large part, I think it has to do with identity politics. The majority of my friends from childhood never went to college and barely graduated high school. Some share trailers with two or three generations of family members. While they would be friendly with people of other ethnicities if they met them, the area is largely white.

When they hear about affirmative action for minorities or terms like “white privilege,” it doesn’t make sense to them. Their experience of post-recession life is that the factories are closing, and good paying jobs are getting harder and harder to find. They are skeptical of higher education, and skeptical of Obamacare, preferring to pay higher prices than “trust the government.”

While they are white, they do not identify as white in the way that whites are typically categorized. They see themselves as Irish, German, Polish, French, Scottish, Norwegian ... and they are proud of their unique cultural heritage.

I am for progress, but Trump showed me just how far we still have to go. Identity politics still has many problems, which I think are clearer now. It’s up to us to find a way forward that offers a better solution for all.