Minutes after the nation’s 45th president took the oath of office— mired in controversy, awash in financial conflict, and loathed by broad swaths of the electorate—his predecessor boarded a decommissioned Air Force One with one of the strongest approval ratings of any other outgoing commander-in-chief in the modern era. The first black president will go down in history as one of the most profoundly gracious and brilliant men to inhabit the office.
However, in matters most closely associated with systemic racial inequities—despite near fanatical support among African Americans—it is difficult to ascertain measureable and sustainable impacts from his eight years in office. Notwithstanding the immensely powerful symbolism of an Obama presidency, there remain reasonable questions about whether he acted with enough intention when it came to decidedly black issues.
Unemployment fell precipitously over his tenure as the economy rebounded but, in the final analysis, Barack Obama’s rising-tide-lifts-all-boats agenda—designed not only to maintain his political coalition and provide the ground cover necessary to advance key policy proposals, but also to pass those gains off to hoped-for beneficiary Hillary Clinton-- fell woefully short.
Others, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Jamelle Bouie, have written deftly about the inherent limitations, glories and disappointments of a black man in the Oval Office. Opposed from the start by a Republican-controlled Congress bent on obstruction for obstruction’s sake, some of his headiest policy ideals turned out to be a fool’s half-run errand. Broadly speaking, in the end, there would be no 50-state Medicaid expansion and no revived assault weapons ban. The comprehensive consumer finance reform package, a source of due pride for the administration, did not allow homeowners victimized by predatory subprime mortgages—victims who were disproportionately black—debt relief in Chapter 13 filings.
Forced to rely on the power of his own pen, Obama used executive orders and administrative changes to advance limited reforms on issues like mass incarceration, immigration and overtime pay. His Justice Department took up “patterns and practices” investigations and pressured local law enforcement agencies to adopt new policing policies. The administration eventually announced an end to federal private prison contracts.
Much of those ad hoc gains will prove too little and too late, too easily unraveled by the newly sworn president who has demonstrated significant animus for such reforms.
Over two terms, there would be no specific agenda aimed at curing social maladies most predominant in black and poor neighborhoods. No war on poverty, no comprehensive criminal justice reform, no radical new approach to public education and no wholesale effort to staunch the flow of illegal guns. No substantial attempt to wage a fight for environmental justice, to clear the toxins pervading the water and soil in poor neighborhoods.
Preferring deliberation over aggressive policy positions, the administration moved delicately, if not ineffectually, in what we now know was a failed attempt to assuage the fears of an “us vs. them” electorate. This presidency favored reconciliation over recompense, even when the latter would have served both.
Obama’s election, eight years ago, was heralded as prima facie evidence that we were better. His two terms in office—replete with government shutdowns, filibustering partisans, racial brickbats and constant threats to repeal his signature healthcare legislation-- proved that we were not.
The political calculus proved too weighty to effect real and lasting reforms. No Wall Street bankers went to jail for plundering whole communities. Police violence in non-white neighborhoods went unchecked by federal prosecution. While Chicago shuttered dozens of public schools and sent the cash to build new prisons, the administration remained painfully silent.
Obama shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but failed to even propose legislation that would help dry up the illicit gun trade on our streets. Even a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion—a measure backed by Sens. John McCain and Harry Reid—was deemed too risky.
For Obama to be politically viable in a presidential race, it was necessary to strike a tone of racial reconciliation if not outright absolution. Rather than examine our sins—racial animus, gender bias, et al—the focus was squarely on our progress, a message crafted by a decidedly white and male campaign leadership team that explicitly credited our ability as a nation to self-heal. Identity politics would be far too costly of a gambit.
Ultimately, the only route to the White House for a black man was a full throated embrace of the American Dream and the fable that it is accessible to all who work hard for it. “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” he said in a 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia. It was not, however, without consequence. “Post racial” was an empty and ugly promise, meant to mitigate our collective foibles and forgo the hard work of erecting ladders to progress.
“To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ironically, Obama and his advisers partially banked on the notion that we saw ourselves through the lens of Ronald Reagan— that America is that shining city on a hill.
“The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that ‘it’s morning again in America’—meant nothing to the inner cities,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic, “besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials.”
The reality is the American electorate, while still enamored with its own power and perceived standing in the world, sees itself now more as a flickering lighthouse, not always strong or visible and at risk of dying. The reason for this, conservative thought leaders are quick to say, is that we’ve given ourselves over to the lure of diversity and watered down what it means to be American. For them, there was no better example of how willing we were to compromise American values than the election of a “community organizer” with limited political experience to the White House. Affirmative action, they wrongly say, means the death of meritocracy, and it was high time to “take our country back.” They preferred an authoritarian who finds fault in every dissenting voice, believes America to be an orphan in need of salvation and delights in his own moral larceny.
Coming of age in the Midwest in the 70s, among black people, the notion one of us might become the first black president was held out as the Holy Grail—the subject of school essays and playground musings. That dream was precious, directly tethered to Dr. King’s Promised Land prophesy, and revealed the burgeoning hope of our generation. A black president was considered the mountaintop vantage point from which we would finally all be able to see the fruit of racial equality—full access not only to opportunity and resources, but to the political power indicative of full citizenship. For us, Dr. King was more than a few passages in an elementary school history book. He was a beacon in the distance, urging us forward in the night.
It was no small thing that school children of every race and ethnicity could see themselves reflected in a president’s eyes. Young black boys saw a man who got his haircut in a barbershop not unlike their own. There was a national model for what Black love looked like, as the newly elected president and his wife sashayed across the dancefloor at their first inaugural ball. He was speaking to them, about them and for them—even if his proclivity for respectability politics sometimes got in the way.
Though fatherless, a young Barack Obama was never one of “those” boys—scions of single black mothers, raised in American ghettos, educated in broken schools where they noshed on federally subsidized substandard lunches and dodged bullets in the daylight. Obama proved to be a professorial, erudite “code-switcher” who attempted to play “both sides,” too often without meaningful pay-off.
He did know what it was like to subsist on food stamps and the pain of watching his mother struggle with health insurance companies as she fought cancer. His bi-racial heritage offered him no immunity from the strictures of race, but his upbringing informed a very different cultural lens.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin,” he told a press briefing in the weeks after the Florida teenager was stalked and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.
That Martin was a fair-skinned, fresh faced boy—unlike Michael Brown, Philando Castille or Eric Garner—went unnoticed. Even so, there had been few instances when the president placed his blackness on the table without significant qualification. The political math of not being “too black” had been run long before Obama signed the qualifying documents necessary to launch his presidential campaign and would inform his presidency in meaningful ways.
His skin–and his heart—would say things that his mouth sometimes could not. Almost no one accounted for the very real boundaries to which he would be forced to, and sometimes willingly, capitulate.
That Obama is a deeply moral man, equal parts optimistic and pragmatic, is not subject to question. His motives—improving the quality of life for every American and ensuring equal protection under the law—would survive the most rigorous test. He proved to be a serious and somber president of undeniable intellect who was devout in his love of country and his faith in the union. He believes, without pause, in the might of human potential and that American exceptionalism is real and true—despite our propensity to succumb to our fears.
Obama’s optimism seemed to never wane and his faith in the American people to see and embrace avenues of racial progress, however misplaced, was always much more than a well-hewn talking point. His pragmatic, incremental style of governance prevailed, to the quiet chagrin of many if not most African Americans, even after his re-election.
Leaving aside the inherent constraints of a three-branch government and the racial tightrope on which he walked daily, his administration was a largely successful one and devoid of the earth-shaking scandals that plagued his predecessors. Had she lived to see his first inauguration, my grandmother Catherine, ever the cynic on such matters as an individual’s character and mankind’s propensity toward good, would have called him a “credit to our race.”
My grandmother, reared in the Ville section of St. Louis in the 30s, might well have also been disappointed in what he managed to accomplish. Though, in the tradition of descendants of slaves, she would have tucked those disappointments away, never to see the light of day. Catherine and those of her generation, the kind of women who lined up around polling locations to usher in his presidency, did not believe in “airing dirty laundry.”
Now, though, there’s no hiding it. Obama’s optimism and pragmatic approach all but blinded him to the ever-deepening valley of white resentment that elected Donald Trump. While Obama’s advisors were adding up the cost of being too aggressive on one issue or another—appearing too heavily invested in making government work for those living on the margins—working class white people were engaged in their own calculations. Saving the U.S. automotive industry, falling gas prices and rising incomes would never be enough when they saw their political fortunes declining.
Trump’s candidacy and electoral college victory was an explicit reaction to a black president, even though Obama had never worn his blackness on his sleeve. The mythical beret wearing Jeremiah Wright acolyte never materialized because that man does not exist. Outside of an SNL skit, there is no radical and angry Obama. That boogeyman, brilliantly parodied by the comedic dual Key and Peele, never emerged. When he occasionally gave cultural hat tips—inviting hip-hop artists to the White House, dropping his g’s before a Congressional Black Caucus gala or belting out hymn in a Black church-—he was over-rewarded with adulation for those gestures and winks.
I was seated in an audience of 3,000 black journalists at an annual convention in August 2007, when the young Senator took to the stage. It was as good of a stump speech as I had heard since Bill Clinton first mesmerized the masses in 1992. We can “change the math,” he said, referring—it would seem—to both an electorate that could be energized by his candidacy and his stated intention to work across the aisle. Candidly, I had been skeptical on both counts. I wanted to see the world as he did-- the one in our high school American history books-- but I knew better. If Catherine left me with nothing at all, she passed down a healthy doses of both hope and cynicism.
Like Obama, I knew black voters to be notoriously pragmatic in their choices. Unless and until he emerged as a viable candidate among white voters—which he did by winning Iowa—we would, like Rep. John Lewis did in the 2008 primary, continue to back Hillary Clinton. The junior senator from New York had an intimate relationship with black voters and elected officials across the country, forged from the days when her husband was first elected to the Arkansas governor’s mansion. While Obama was out preaching hope and change, Clinton was stacking the deck with endorsements from black pastors, politicians and party stalwarts.
I never expected or even wanted Obama to be a modern day Lyndon Baines Johnson, but I had hoped he'd be closer to Paul Wellstone than Bill Clinton. Frankly, there is nothing about the Obama presidency that does not leave me wholly convinced that he would have joined with 23 other black reps and supported the 1994 crime bill had he been in Congress then. I have no reason to believe that he would not have supported Clintonian welfare reform. I am deeply conflicted about both, but Chelsea Manning’s sentence was commuted in the final days of the Obama presidency and Assata Shakur is still living in exile in Cuba.
Seated at that journalism conference listening to that skinny man with big ears and a funny name, I predicted that he would fashion himself as a president of all Americans and that was something to be celebrated. In some ways, it felt like waiting for Oprah Winfrey to produce all your movies. That he would later “invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to make bad choices” as Coates wrote, was heartbreaking.
The reality is there may not be another African American president in our lifetime or even that of our children. The 2016 election was less about what Obama did and did not accomplish in office and more about who he was. Today, as Trump’s ill-equipped, race-to-the-bottom cabinet nominees face confirmation hearings, I long for the moral center of Barack Obama. Even if I find issue with his pragmatic approach to governance, I will miss his brand of optimism.
As a man of mediocre intellect, who values transaction alone and who is unapologetic in the privilege of his own whiteness and all it affords, ascends to the highest office in the land I wonder now what our country would be like, what gains might have been made, if we had been the America Barack Obama thought we were.