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The Scarlet & Black

Hoping there is still some change to spare: student perspectives

It has been roughly one year since Barack Obama was elected to the White House making history and promising change. Since then, he has taken on numerous pivotal issues, and in the process, he has been called a socialist, a communist and a Nazi, won a Nobel Peace prize and been asked his opinion on issues ranging from protectionism to the lyrics of Jay-Z.

Though progress admittedly has been slow, Obama’s campaign mantra of hope and change still echoes in many students’ ears. “It was the most amazing thing ever,” Anna Halpin-Healy ’13 said, recalling the night of the election she spent in the streets of Harlem. “There were people everywhere, listening to New York public officials, watching the results come in on jumbo-trons set up in the street and literally marching down 125th St.”

Mikel Shybut ’10 remembers staying up all night at an American diner in Moscow, where he was studying abroad. “I was elated,” he said. “I was with a lot of other Americans and just [Obama’s] image on the screen brought people to tears. To see the culmination of two years of hard work was just breathtaking and surreal.”

More than 200 days of presidency have since tempered Shybut’s optimism, but he acknowledged that any significant policy changes were likely to take time. Other students expressed similar sentiments, including Elisabeth Rennick ’11, a co-head of Campus Democrats. “I always supported Obama,” she said. “But I was never under the illusion that change would take place overnight.”

Kevin Svendsen ’10, a former member of the recently inactive campus republicans, pointed out that the time it has taken in some ways has nothing to do with Obama himself. “Our government was explicitly designed so that you couldn’t change things,” Svendsen said. “So policy enactment would be slow.”

Yet some students said they feel that Obama’s continuous attempts at compromise and bipartisanship are preventing him from efficiently achieving his potential as president. “In layman’s terms, it feels a little like Obama is giving Americans ‘jungle juice’—it’s sweet and it goes down easy,” Josh Wassink ’13 said, during a debate hosted by the Grinnell College Debating Union on Tuesday that assessed the president’s rate of promised change. “But perhaps what the American public really needs right now is something more like whiskey—something that’s uncompromising and something that will get the job done.”

Health care reform—a cornerstone of his campaign and early days in office—is a controversial issue that has yet to be resolved. One of Svendsen’s chief concerns is that if there is no money to be made in finding new treatments then pharmaceutical companies won’t spend the money on research. “Big pharma, as much as we all like to hate them, does provide a valuable service,” Svendsen said.

Regardless of how they feel about the policy itself, many are frustrated by the lack of substantial health care legislation after nearly 10 months of constant discussion and coverage. “It’s disturbing,” Shybut said. “But that’s the process and it’s one of the reasons change doesn’t come quickly.”

Students also have mixed feelings regarding the economy. “Change is one thing our pockets are sorely lacking,” Derek Farman ’13 said during Tuesday’s debate, arguing that Obama has failed to live up to standards he set for himself during the campaign. The other side countered Farman’s arguments by reminding audience members that considering Obama inherited one of the largest financial crises in decades, the relative success of the recent stimulus package has been remarkable.

While Obama’s inheritance of this crisis cannot be denied, Svendsen critiques Obama for not combating the crisis in a new way. “There’s been a lot of continuity in dealing with the economic crisis,” he said. “If you look at the actual policies they’ve enacted, they’re very similar [to Bush’s].”

The lack of progress regarding LGBT Rights, specifically the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the reexamination of the Defense of Marriage Act, seems to frustrate Grinnellians the most. “I’m a little frustrated at the lack of action regarding gay rights,” Rennick said. “A lot of people voted for Obama expecting change on that front but he hasn’t done much more than talk about it.”

While many students’ feelings have gone from hopefulness to uncertainty, Garrett Fortin ’11, another co-head of Campus Dems, had his doubts last fall. “I am very skeptical of American politicians and I was unsure Obama’s flighty promises of change would come to fruition.” However, Fortin said that over the past year Obama’s noble rhetoric and smaller, less publicized actions such as closing Guantanamo Bay and passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act have greatly improved his opinion.

If Fortin’s opinion about Obama can change in a year, maybe, as students express, there is hope for Obama after all. “A lot of things still need work,” Fortin said. “But I think that [Obama] is absolutely on the right track and I expect another year will yield great things.”

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