Twenty years ago last month, I met a remarkable young man named Barack Obama. Since then, I've been honored to join him along his journey, from the Illinois State Senate all the way to the Oval Office.
Today, President Obama is managing our nation's challenges with the courage, wisdom, and compassion that I've seen time and time again over our two decades of friendship.
I remember the very first conversation I had with Barack and Michelle, over dinner in Chicago. Even back then, it was clear that the president had a remarkable clarity of vision, and an abiding faith in the power of ordinary individuals to do extraordinary things. He spoke about growing up around people of different cultures. He told me he believed that even though we all come from unique backgrounds, we can still form strong and lasting bonds with one another.
That belief has been one of the driving forces behind President Obama's career. Since his time as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, he has always held firm to his principles, but has also understood the importance of working towards the art of the possible. He knows that true leaders never let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
The president has also always believed that a leader's job is to act on behalf of the people he serves, not to score political points. Every day, he receives letters and emails from Americans who are doing everything in their power to solve the tremendous challenges they face. As long as President Obama is in the White House, he will listen to those Americans, and they will have a voice here in Washington. The president will never stop fighting on their behalf.
None of these fights has been politically easy, but President Obama has taken them on. That's what leaders do.
This is true today, at a moment when dysfunction in Washington recently brought our economy to the brink of crisis. President Obama is determined to change the tone in our nation's capital. He will continue to seek compromise, to try to bring this country together, and to lead by example. He will listen to those with whom he disagrees, because that ability "to disagree without being disagreeable" has always been a central element of our democracy's success.
At a time when a troubling coarseness pervades our national debate, it is easy to be discouraged. But recently, I was reminded of why hope more is powerful than fear.
I'd like to share that story with you.
Three weeks ago, President Obama welcomed a guest to the Oval Office, a civil rights icon named Ruby Bridges. As many of you may know, in 1960, Ruby was the first African American to integrate her elementary school in New Orleans. The artist Norman Rockwell immortalized her courage in a painting, showing a young African American girl on her way to school, flanked by U.S. Marshals.
That painting is now on display outside the Oval Office. As you can imagine, it was incredibly moving to be there with Ruby Bridges and President Obama, as they looked at it together. The president told Ruby that were it not for her bravery, he might not be in the White House today.
That moment was a reminder that in my lifetime, we have made progress my parents and grandparents could barely have imagined. Through acts of courage large and small, Americans have chosen unity over division.
In our current debate over debt and deficits, Americans once again urged their leaders to choose compromise and common ground over partisanship and dysfunction. Beginning last Monday, thousands upon thousands of citizens answered the president's call, and proudly voiced their support for a balanced approach - not just to our deficits, but to our politics as a whole.
These stories of ordinary Americans standing up for their beliefs inspire the president. They motivate him to continue speaking out on behalf of those who would otherwise go unheard.
Years from now, when we look back on these tumultuous times, we may be surprised by the pettiness of our debate, and by the cynicism of some of those in Washington. But I believe we will be deeply grateful that we had President Barack Obama to help pull our economy out of recession, strengthen the middle class, and remind us that, in his words, "What unites us is greater than what divides us."
Our president is truly the kind of leader these times demand. I could not be prouder to be a part of his team.