When Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, perhaps the most durable symbolic barrier to the full citizenship of Black Americans was shattered.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Obama and his national security team watch as the operation that lead to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, architect of 9/11, takes place from the White House Situation Room.
On that day, for the first time in the country’s 233 year history, the White House, the home of the most powerful man on the planet, would not be occupied by a White man.
Two million Americans (an attendance record for any event in Washington, D.C.) braved frigid conditions to celebrate the inauguration of the first Black President of the United States and the feeling of goodwill in the nation’s capital permeated the icy air on that sparkling day.
“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans,” said President Obama on Jan. 20, 2009.
But, even while millions of Americans (and billions around the world) revelled in the hope of that significantly historic day, at least 11 GOP lawmakers, as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Republican pollster Frank Luntz, among others gathered in the Caucus Room, a glitzy Washington, D.C. restaurant. The group, according to Robert Draper’s book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives conspired for hours on how they would derail the legislative platform of the nation’s first Black president. Thus, began Republican foment, which propelled perhaps the most obstructionist legislative agenda against any U.S. president in modern history. Later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (curiously absent from the Caucus Room meeting) bolstered the clandestine machinations of his colleagues by publicly proclaiming during an interview with the National Journal, October 23, 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Against this toxic backdrop, President Obama began his eight-year odyssey.
When he entered the Oval Office, the U.S. economy was hemorrhaging about 700,000 jobs a month, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the unemployment rate was nearly 8 percent (it rose to 10 percent in October 2009). Obama supported the massive $700 billion bank bailout initiated by President Bush, following the subprime mortgage crisis and the crash of global financial markets in 2008. Obama also backed Bush’s plan to inject almost $20 billion in loans into the faltering U.S. auto industry, which many believed was on the brink of collapse.
He pushed for the 2009 Recovery Act and signed it into law in February 2009. The bank bailout, the auto bailout and the Recovery Act were all unpopular politically. Yet, as a result of Obama’s actions during his first few months as president, the country has experienced 75 consecutive months of job growth (as of January 2017), adding between nine and 11 million jobs during the Obama years, with a current unemployment rate of 4.7 percent. As for the U.S. auto industry (the lifeblood of American manufacturing), it experienced record sales in 2015, a seemingly implausible turnaround, after staring at economic catastrophe in 2009.
The acrimony in wake of the various attempts (proved successful) at reviving the U.S. economy, unleashed the often virulent anti-government backlash known as The Tea Party (which many believe is rooted in racial animus against Obama). Undeterred, the president spent the vast majority of the political capital and goodwill he accumulated with his election, on implementing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and providing health insurance for millions of Americans.
The massive Tea Party rallies, which began in February 2009, were typically filled with snarling White faces and incendiary signs proclaiming President Obama was a Communist and/or Socialist and/or Fascist, treasonous, secret Muslim, or born in Kenya, among other things. The rise of the Tea Party seemed to end all notions of the mythic, “post racial America,” allegedly ushered in by the election of Barack Obama.
The president immersed himself into America’s always volatile and treacherous racial waters publicly for the first time as president after Harvard University professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested by a White police officer in July of 2009 for essentially breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The president argued the officer who arrested Gates, “acted stupidly,” and took the opportunity to rail against, “the long history,” of racial profiling primarily against Blacks and Latinos in America. Obama’s comments sparked a firestorm of outrage among many White Americans and law enforcement.
The country’s unresolved an ubiquitous race polemic erupted with deadly and tragic consequences with the murder of Trayvon Martin in Feb. of 2012. The 17-year old Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a gun-toting, neighborhood watchmen or vigilante (depending upon one’s perspective), as he walked to his father’s home in Sanford, Florida, armed with only a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea.
Again, President Obama raised the ire of many Whites in the wake of Martin’s murder when he said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” After Martin’s murder, the president seemed much more trepidatious when issues of race rose in the nation’s public forum, much to the consternation of many Black Americans who believe Obama didn’t do enough, specifically for Black people, during his eight years in office. It’s a debate that will probably rage for generations to come.
Beyond Obama’s domestic battles, his foreign policy record, particularly his efforts to navigate the quagmire of the Middle East (the rise of ISIS, Iran nuclear deal, drone warfare, Benghazi, war in Syria) is mixed at best, while his detractors would declare Obama’s Middle East doctrine a disaster.
However, there was at least one unequivocal victory in the Middle East and the United States ongoing war against terror; the death of Osama bin Laden. The alleged mastermind of the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City and Washington, D.C. (as well as the thwarted attack on a Flight 93, which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania), was killed by an elite team of U.S. Navy Seals, on May 2, 2011 in Pakistan. Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death on national television, triggered a wave of patriotic euphoria in the United States.
The Obama years produced many more accomplishments, controversies and narratives yet to be concluded; the legalization of gay marriage, the re-initiation of political relations with Cuba, Guantanamo Bay remains open, immigration reform.
And in a staggering twist of fate, Donald John Trump, the man who attempted to delegitimize the first Black president of the United States, as king of the so-called, “birther,” movement is now poised to replace Obama as the 45th President of the United States. And Trump says he will dismantle Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, leaving up to 20 million Americans without health insurance.
Yet, perhaps the most important and lasting chapter of the Obama legacy may not be revealed for generations to come and that is the impact of his ascension on the collective psyche of America. Specifically, there are millions of elementary school-age children, of all races and sexes who only know what life is like with a Black man occupying the most powerful office on earth. What does that mean for little Black boys and Black girls who have watched Obama and his wife Michelle (one of the most transcendent First Ladies in U.S. history) parent their two beautiful and brilliant daughters in the White House and run the country for the last eight years, and do so with unparalleled grace, dignity and morale clarity?
That element of the Obama legacy alone has probably altered the trajectory of our country.