Action and compromise: What I’ve learned from President Obama’s town hall at ESMT

Shan Qiao

Along with several other ESMT Berlin students, Shan Qiao attended the Obama Foundation Town Hall Europe with President Obama at ESMT on April 6. In this blog post, she shares her thoughts and experiences.

When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama visited Berlin in 2008 for the first time and gave a speech in front of the Victory Column, I was just over 20 years old. I remember watching that speech live on TV. I was probably as enthusiastic as the tens of thousands of people that were there cheering and shouting the famous campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”

I almost felt like I did 11 years ago when President Obama walked onto the stage at my home university ESMT Berlin on Saturday. I was sitting in the front row, having the privilege to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event in person. The crowd in the lecture hall was cheering. Everyone was excited and looking forward to the things to come.

Back in 2008, people imagined that once Obama had been elected the world would somehow dramatically change for the better – overnight. The culmination of these high hopes was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, shortly after he started his first term.

President Barack Obama at ESMT Berlin

In hindsight, it is obvious that no one could live up to such high expectations. And President Obama has since been criticized for not delivering on all of his campaign promises. Despite the excitement ringing out throughout the halls of ESMT, I think we all were more sober than the crowd of 2008.

The importance of compromise

Radical changes just don’t happen overnight – or even within four or eight years for that matter. At least not the kind of changes we would like to see. In his town hall speech at ESMT, President Obama reminded us that “when you start trying to radically change things quickly, the track record has not been great.”

Indeed, I think we should be grateful that our societies are organized in a way that people with different opinions are able to express them and be heard.

“You have to recognize that the way we structure democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you,” the President said. “That by definition means you’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want.”

Pointing to examples like his passing of the Affordable Care Act and the Paris Climate Agreement, President Obama stressed the importance of compromise in making progress within a democracy among citizens who don’t agree with a given policy.

Full lecture hall at President Barack Obama's town hall event at ESMT Berlin

I think the value of compromise is often underestimated. Of course, it means that you, or the representatives you elected will not reach each and every goal on their agenda. But it also means that no one can impose their ideas, which you might not agree with, entirely on you.

Taking action

Being open to compromise, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be politically active and complacent about the future you desire. Quite the contrary – the President urged us young people to stand up and fight on behalf of our generation.

“You would not let your grandfather or grandmother decide what clothes you wear or what music you listen to,” he said. “So why would you let them decide the world you’re going to live in and the politics that you’re going to be subjected to.”

I was particularly impressed that President Obama explicitly discussed the “Fridays for Future” movement – these thousands of people protesting all across Europe, calling for ambitious action on climate change. Some German politicians have ridiculed the movement, saying that such matters are for professionals to sort out, not for children running in the streets.

“A lot of those people can’t vote, they’re too young to vote yet,” the President said. “But they know what’s going on and they’re making change. Those habits and that sense of power that they’re developing now is going to carry over for the rest of their lives.”

People raising their hands at President Barack Obama's town hall event at ESMT Berlin

It felt good to hear the President is taking the concerns of the young generation very seriously and actually trusts and encourages us to take matters into our own hands. That is – unfortunately – something you rarely hear from politicians these days.

I would like to thank President Obama for sharing his inspirational thoughts. I hope the other people attending the event and those watching via the internet are as inspired as I am.

Photo credits: The Obama Foundation

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