At our annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Dinner in Washington D.C. earlier this month, President Obama shared some important insights about this year’s elections.

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Elijah Cummings

Speaking to the CBCF for the last time as President, he made it clear to us all that his presidency must not be an endpoint, but, rather, a renewed beginning for our nation.

Acknowledging the symbolic importance of his election, he also made it clear that he views the progress that we have achieved in the quality of our lives to be his far more lasting legacy.

We should be proud of the advances that we have achieved, he declared — our continued recovery from the worst recession in eighty years, 15 million new jobs, insurance coverage for 20 million Americans (including 3 million African Americans), significantly higher graduation rates for our young people, and a “reinvigorated” Civil Rights Division in our Department of Justice.

We also have reason for optimism about our future.  In 2015, incomes rose and poverty fell for a majority of Americans of every race and age group in our country.  When typical household incomes rise by $2,800 in a single year and 3.5 million Americans are lifted out of poverty (including one million children), there is a concrete basis for hope.

Yet, as in our daily lives, hope must be balanced by realism.  Our nation has moved forward during Barack Obama’s presidency, but not without a constant struggle against the forces of opposition, discrimination and backlash.

Now, as the citizens of our nation consider the direction that we will take in the years ahead it is up to all who share our vision to hold onto the hope and generous spirit that Barack Obama epitomizes and do the work that needs to be done — even as we march forward against those who would take us backward.

As he has done since that historic night of his first election in 2008, President Obama realizes that transformative change must be built from the ground up, not imposed from the top down.

If we want greater investment in our schools, we must be prepared to fight for that progress — and that same shared responsibility holds true for our movement toward full employment that guarantees a living wage, quality healthcare for all Americans, greater equity at the workplace and reform in the implementation of justice.

“These challenges do not stop with my presidency,” Barack Obama reminded us, “we’re just getting started.”

As I listened to our President’s remarks, I thought about the struggles in which we are engaged every day — both in our own communities and in the Congress of the United States.

Elections always matter — and this coming election matters even more than most because of the diametrical contrasts in the presidential candidates and the coalitions from which they draw strength.  The American People have seldom witnessed such stark differences in perspective, temperament and social conscience.

President Obama’s remarks at the CBCF Dinner made his own assessment of the presidential candidates quite clear.

Hillary Clinton has always been a consistent champion of civil rights and the empowerment of working people, he observed.

In contrast, her opponent “…has fought against civil rights, and fought against equality, and … shown no regard for working people for most of his life.”

As I listened to the President’s remarks, I had to agree with his observation that change must be built from the grass roots upward, but I also know how critically important leadership from the top can be.

How far could America have fallen, I asked myself, if Barack Obama had not been President during the last 8 years?

Would recession have deepened into depression?  Would hundreds of thousands of Americans still be fighting in Iraq?  Would hundreds of thousands more be dead because they could not afford the life-saving healthcare that they needed and deserved?

Who we vote into the White House and the Congress this November — and who the next President and Senate send to the Supreme Court to shape our Constitution for decades to come — all will matter in the future America that it is our responsibility as citizens to build.

The progress that we have made during the last eight years is at stake in this election.  America will either move forward toward a more progressive and equitable society that offers opportunity to all — or we will decline into the regressive vision that we have witnessed in too much of this presidential campaign.

The American People gave Barack Obama one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and he has succeeded beyond every reasonable expectation, especially in light of the relentless opposition that he has faced.

Between now and Election Day, Nov. 8, we must do our job as well.  Maryland’s deadline to register as voters is October 18 (or during Early Voting: 10/27-11/3).

President Obama may not be on the ballot this year, but as he has reminded us again and again, “Hope is on the ballot — and fear is on the ballot, too.”

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

Congressman Elijah Cummings

Special to the AFRO