Obama Was a Pretty Great President for American Travelers
I HAVE A TIP FOR INVESTORS: start buying stock in companies that make Canadian flag patches. Back when I first started traveling internationally, in 2003, these suckers were everywhere. The Iraq War had just started, and Canadians were eager to distinguish themselves from Americans out in the larger world, and some of the more craven Americans were trying to cover up their nationality and dodge difficult questions.
I was abroad the night Obama was elected, and you could feel the change in attitude overnight — in the weeks after Obama’s election, as I putzed around South America, I was approached by strangers and asked what I thought of my new President. It was an incredible experience — Obama was not someone I needed to be ashamed of as my leader.
Even as time went on, as his flaws became much more obvious, and as his superstar popularity waned in the states, he remained incredibly popular worldwide. Regardless of whether you think it’s fair or not (it is), Donald Trump’s popularity worldwide is absurdly low. Travelers are going to be asked some hard questions over the next four years, and some, undoubtedly, will revert to the Canadian flag patch.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what traveling as an American under Obama was like, though: it was, to be honest, pretty great. When I went to Europe in 2003, I saw rainbow flags all over the place screaming “PEACE,” in the run-up to the Iraq War. It stung a little bit — as if an entire continent was rebuking my homeland for its aggression. That was around the time I was becoming politically aware myself, and the view of my country from abroad wasn’t as favorable as I’d always assumed it was.
When Obama was first elected, it just became fun to be an American abroad (you know, if you liked Obama in the first place), because people wanted to talk about how great he was, and not about all his flaws. A lot of it was superficial — his looks, his family, his background, his abilities as a speaker — but it was still nice to be proud of the nation’s foremost representative.
Later, when talk of Obama died down a bit, it meant that, when we started discussing politics abroad, we didn’t have to start out on the offensive. It meant we could point to progress being made on healthcare, LGBT rights, and climate change.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, from the traveler’s perspective, Obama destroyed another version of the Canadian flag patch: the Cuba passport stamp. Back in the day, my Canadian and British friends would taunt me with the knowledge that they’d been to the beautiful and charming island nation 90 miles of my country’s coast, and that I couldn’t go there without breaking the law. Cuba still has a lot of problems, but it’s become increasingly difficult to argue that it’s for the best that it’s totally cut off from the rest of the world. And by normalizing our relations with Cuba, Obama has done travelers — and more importantly, with any luck, Cubans — a serious favor.
It’s worth taking a moment to mourn the loss of Obama as our president. He was, for better or worse, our country’s face abroad, and for 8 years, we have defined ourselves either with or against him. So it’s understandably hard for progressives and cosmopolitans to get jazzed about traveling under a Trump presidency. But it will have its silver linings.
The gift of Trump
As much as I enjoyed traveling under Obama, I’ll probably learn more from traveling under Trump. In the days of Bush, I learned, through travel, to look critically at my country and its history in the wider world. Our track record in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East is something that must be looked at with critical eyes, if we are to better understand who we are.
And truth be told, with a President I loved as much as Obama, it was difficult to muster that skepticism when looking at my country. Obama still did some pretty messed up shit — he ramped up drone warfare, and instead of bringing the NSA’s surveillance in check, he expanded it. He expanded executive powers, which he now leaves behind for Trump, and, it should be said, he failed the people of Syria. But I — subconsciously or otherwise — tried to downplay these faults during his time in office.
Donald Trump will never evoke any sympathy in me. While he may be a nightmare for our country and for the world, what he likely will do, in all of his blundering and bloviating, is reveal some fundamental and possibly ugly truths about the United States. Every President does, but in a way, you learn more from the Presidents you hate than the ones you love, because they are the people you define yourself against.
Travelers learn about themselves and their country by leaving it. Much of what they learn is framed around their leader. Obama taught us a lot about ourselves. Trump may well teach us more.