After Barack Obama, America will never be the same
In all the years I worked for Barack Obama, I didn’t think enough about the burdens of being America’s first black president — in part because he carried them so gracefully.
There were invigorating moments, of course, like the day relatively early in his campaign for the White House when Secret Service agents became a constant presence in his life, given the inordinate number of death threats against him.
There were the openly racist memes about his citizenship, faith and dignity, fueled by demagogues and social media, which continued throughout his presidency.
There was the startling outburst of a Southern congressman, who shouted “You’re lying!” during a presidential address to Congress – an intrusion that has since become more common, but which at the time was a startling break with civic norms.
On Obama’s staff, we treated these moments primarily as political challenges to overcome. And while he addressed issues of race, Obama rarely spoke publicly or privately about the unique pressures he personally faced.
It took someone else to open my eyes and make me think more deeply about the extraordinary burden – and responsibility – of being a pioneer at the highest level in a country where the fight against racism is in progress.
In 2009, Obama was considering nominating Sonia Sotomayor, a highly regarded federal appellate judge from New York, for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.
If nominated, Sotomayor would become the first Latina in the nation’s highest court. The president asked me to talk with her and assess how she would withstand the pressures of the confirmation process and this heavy history.
I met Sotomayor in the Eisenhower Executive Office building on the White House complex, where she had been hosted for a final round of clandestine interviews. I asked him what, if anything, worried him about the process.
“I’m afraid I don’t measure up,” she said bluntly.
It immediately became clear to me that this brilliant and accomplished judge, who worked her way from poverty in the South Bronx to Princeton and Yale Law School, was talking about more than her own ambitions. As a First, she knew she would also carry with her the hopes and aspirations of young Latinas around the world. Its success would be their inspiration. Its failure would be their reverse.
This conversation made me reconsider the unspoken burden that the president himself had navigated so well for so long under the most intense spotlight on the planet. The burden was not just racism, but the responsibility to measure up, excel, break stereotypes and be an impeccable role model in one of the toughest and most important jobs in the world.
Watching the episode of CNN’s documentary series “The 2010s” on Obama, I was reminded again of how well he had withstood those burdens.
It’s not that he has it all figured out. No president does. And there will always be debate about how much the election of the first black president contributed to the reactionary backlash that produced Donald Trump, a divisive and toxic figure who would lead the country in an entirely different direction.
But the story is clear: Obama led the nation through epic economic crisis and war, passed historic health care legislation and strengthened the social safety net, strengthened America’s position in the world and, in our most painful moments, comforted the nation by speaking eloquently to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.
Against the relentless pressure to be first and all the anger and resentment it may have stirred among some fearful of change, Obama has always been thoughtful, honorable and poised. He conducted himself with the comforting authenticity of a man who knows who he is – and who never flinched.
When Obama was considering a presidential campaign in the fall of 2006, a small group of friends and advisers met with him in my office in Chicago to assess a possible run.
Michelle Obama – perhaps the most skeptical in the room at the time about the advisability of such a daring journey – posed a fundamental question: “Barack, it comes down to this. There are many good and capable people running for president. What do you think you could bring that others couldn’t? »
“There are many ways to respond to this, but one thing is certain: the day I raise my hand to be sworn in as President of the United States,” he said, raising his right hand, “The world looks at us differently and millions of kids – black kids, Hispanic kids – will look at themselves differently.
Two years later, in Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama claimed victory, I saw a sea of humanity, including black parents, with tears streaming down their cheeks as they held their children in the air to witness the scene.
Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staffer, touches President Barack Obama’s hair in the Oval Office of the White House. – Pete Souza/The White House/The New York Times/Redux
And then there was the iconic photo in the Oval Office of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staffer who was leaving the administration. The little boy, who is black, stood wearing a shirt and tie. He looked up at the president and asked, “Is your hair like mine?” Obama nodded at the boy and said, “Go ahead, touch him,” which he did.
It was a moving and spontaneous scene captured by the splendid White House photographer Pete Souza. The moment says a lot about Obama, his significance in our history and the unique responsibility he bore.
As the President looked down at this little boy, his unspoken message was clear: “Yes, you are like me. Yes, you can dream big.
Under extraordinary pressures, Obama has more than “measured,” not just as president, but as a role model. As a First.
And for that alone, America will never be the same again.
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