Barack Obama’s second term: Failure the best motivator
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but in an age when Apple releases a new iPhone every year and McDonald's can give you a burger 30 seconds after you order it, it's hard to accept that change takes time. It's even harder for many Americans to accept that, four years after Barack Obama was elected the first time around, unemployment and the high cost of living are still paramount concerns.
Instant gratification may be the law of the land for everyone else. For Barack Obama and me, it's a mirage.
When I began my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the tiny nation of The Gambia in 2011, I was warned that every local language, from Mandinka to Wolof, had a phrase for "slowly, slowly." As one Gambian told me: "You come from a place where time is money. Here, there is no money, but a lot of time."
That sentiment didn't sink in immediately. I was young, I was healthy, and I was excited to be in a new place. Nothing could slow me down. But I noticed friction between my desire for immediate results and the reality of the developing world.
I was a health volunteer, yet my teachings fell on deaf ears. To be fair, it must be difficult to take advice on anything from a person who looks different (white), is still learning the local language (novice), and hasn't lived there very long (glorified tourist).
My young host brother Keluntang alternated between not speaking for days at a time and lashing out violently at anyone who tried to engage him.
To make matters worse, I developed a stomach pain that just wouldn't quit. As the pain got worse and began to interfere with my work in my village, I dreaded the prospect of failure. I wasn't changing any lives, but my environment was certainly changing my health.
Failure is the mark that can't be erased. It's the toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe that follows you around for the rest of your life. At least, that is, if you're an American.
It was the word used to describe Obama and his presidency as unemployment remained constant and job growth did not to take off. Even after the president claimed victory over terrorism with Osama bin Laden's demise, the mood remained grim. "Thanks for fulfilling a 10-year-old vendetta. Now when can you make the job market stop sucking?"
One has to stop and wonder how the last guy who inherited a devastated economy dealt with his lot. A good number of the voters the election machine hoped to attract weren't even born during the Depression, so many don't remember that it took Franklin D. Roosevelt four terms in office (well, almost — he died during the fourth one) to steer the train back onto the track towards stability.
To compare Obama to FDR isn't fair. The Great Recession, while unpleasant, is not nearly as catastrophic as the Great Depression. (God willing, as I write this, it will never become as catastrophic.) And Obama has only, at most, eight years to fix a problem that, in all likelihood, will take twice as long to resolve. It took over 15 years and a second world war to wrench America from the clutches of the Depression.
Here's the moment where enlightenment creeps in. The longer I remained in The Gambia, the more I came to embrace failure — not as an ending, but as a setback to learn and move forward from. My stomach pains didn't end, and ultimately, I had to leave my Peace Corps service behind to stabilize the illness and get healthy again.
But before I left, I took an interest in Keluntang. I began teaching him how to write his name after he signed a birthday card to my mother with just the letter "K" — backwards. I showed him The Gambia and America on a National Geographic map. I showed him that our family's sheep prefer to be petted and gently led to the fields, not yanked and kicked.
In the end, I didn't build a new school or transform a health clinic into a state-of-the-art hospital. My failure to reach a wider audience encouraged me to start small and look closer at the immediate needs of the people around me. I taught a little boy how to spell his name, pick out his place in the world on a map, and treat animals with respect. That was enough for me.
As with my failure to achieve my Peace Corps goals, Barack Obama missed the mark on his goals, but there is much for him to learn from the failures of his first term. A strong, prosperous America is not going to be born overnight. It's going to take time and some failures along the way. As long as we understand that there's beauty in taking the long way to get to that point, and that failure is a traffic light and not a roadblock, we'll get there when we're ready to arrive.