Updated on March 21, 2016
The moment for many Americans is seared into their memories. More than 71 million people watched election night on network and cable TV on November 4, 2008—the highest-rated election coverage in almost three decades—and nearly a quarter-million crowded into Grant Park in Chicago to await the results with anticipation. That night, a centuries-old taboo was broken, and a new era in U.S. politics was ushered in with Barack Obama’s sweeping triumph. Beyond the political ramifications, America had elected its first black president and the reactions were swift and dramatic.
Black Americans turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers, galvanized by the historic quality of a presidential race that could possibly put a black family in the White House. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil-rights-movement icon who protested with Martin Luther King, thought of the slain leader as Obama’s first win became clear. As Lewis told NPR the next day, “I felt like shouting, but I just said, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah,’ ‘cause I knew Martin Luther King himself was looking down on us saying, ‘Hallelujah.’”
The worldwide response was equally jubilant. Obama’s election was seen as a remarkable shift signaling a more inclusive America. Even outgoing president George Bush commended the president-elect on the significance of his victory, noting that Obama represented “a triumph of the American story … Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day.”
Obama’s electoral landslide was momentous for many because of what it represented about America’s past, burdened by centuries of slavery, segregation, and racial prejudice. Yet for an entire segment of the public without that frame of reference—namely, pre-adolescents who came of age over the last eight years—the Obama presidency is still groundbreaking. I recently gathered a racially and ethnically diverse group of students from Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss the first black U.S. president and to get their take on whether Obama has changed this generation’s views of the country’s possibilities or shaped their own aspirations.
Melinda D. Anderson: In 2008, when he was elected, there was a lot written about President Obama being the first black president. What does it mean to you that America elected a black man to be its president?
Josh Frost, 13: It shows we can change, because it shows that not only white people can be in the government. More people of different races would like to be president now, because Barack Obama became president. Before there were only white presidents, so they probably thought they had to be like them to do the job.
Avi Kedia, 12: It shows something [about] America, that somebody from a different race, other than white, can win the presidential election. We shouldn't base the presidents just on race, we should base it on their actual skill. But it shows that somebody from a different race can rise up and go against what everybody else says and win. I could be president if I really wanted to. I just have to push myself. And it doesn’t matter if I’m Indian. It opens the door for everything really. If someone black can be president after it forever being white presidents, maybe a woman can be president. Or we can have a gay president. None of that even matters anymore.
Anderson: When you think about the fact that a black family now lives in the White House, does it change your view of what is possible in this country?
Clare Doyle, 13: My first memory of Barack Obama is my dad telling me that the first African American was going to be the [Democratic nominee] for president. That’s progress. We didn’t discriminate by race; he was judged by his ability. We used to think that just because someone was a different color, that they were [inferior], but his election shows we can all be judged the same. Instead of doing it by race.
Anderson: On the night that he was elected, Barack Obama said that it was “a long time coming” and a “defining moment” for America.” Why do you think he described it that way?
Mateo Ramirez, 11: Knowing that he was the first African American president, he understood that he was influencing more people to be like him. That was showing that he’s very proud to know that not only is he the president now, but most people will remember him for being the first African American president. He was probably surprised and honored, and at the same time thinking how far he had come … that he was a role model and [all races] will want to follow in his footsteps.
Anderson: There was a social-media campaign last month called “Obama and Kids” where people shared pictures of President Obama with children around the country, to illustrate how kids seem to connect to him. Do you feel connected to this president at all?
Kedia: He’s like your average type of guy. He’s not like a politician, someone with a white wig or something. He’s the only president we’ve ever known—and all of those kids grew up with him. So that’s the person they look up to.
Doyle: He seems more laid back like normal people, because he’s always outside playing with his daughters or playing basketball when he’s not working. He’s more like someone we could talk to or someone we would want to meet.
Ramirez: We feel more connected to him because we’ve grown up with him. It's like having a family member that you don't really meet. I found it funny that kids go to the White House for trick-or-treating. Michelle Obama has had sleepovers [with Girl Scouts]. Because normally when you think of the White House you think of a big mansion or something, but what I actually think of is a regular house where you'd be lucky to meet one of your unknown family members, and you get the feeling that they’re actually going to welcome you.
Anderson: We’re currently in the middle of an election season to decide who will be the next president. President Obama’s term is ending—he now has about 10 months left in office. Does it stir up any thoughts or emotions knowing that his term is winding down?
Frost: I don’t know what to expect with a white president or a woman president. He’s the only president we remember. The biggest impact that he had wasn’t any laws he passed or anything like that. It was just being president. He brought a new race to [the nation’s highest office.]
Kedia: On a more personal level, I wonder what he’s going to do … what about his kids … what about his wife. I think about that every single day for some reason. It’s kind of weird. He’s all we know. What if the next president isn’t like that? It’s going to be really odd if [the new president] is in the office the entire day and never outside playing basketball or with kids. That would mostly be a negative in my mind.
Ramirez: Yes, we do need someone that we would feel comfortable with. We know there’s a different president coming, so we want someone that’s similar to what we already have. And we also want to solve the problems that we’re trying to solve now.
Anderson: Looking ahead, you will experience many presidents as you grow into adulthood. How has the current president influenced your perspective on future presidents, or thoughts about your own future?
Frost: The next president should work to unify our country and help us unify with other countries. I hear that Donald Trump was being really racist to other countries.
Doyle: Adding to what Josh said, Barack Obama [re-established] a relationship with Cuba. If we have a president who doesn’t like a certain race, then he could destroy those relationships. We could ruin something that was there.
Ramirez: [Obama’s] personality made him very open with people … I would feel uncomfortable if the new president isn’t as open as he was. Someone who’s social, a good father who spends time with his family … someone who makes the president’s life seem like a regular life.
Kedia: Before Obama, it’s like there was some sort of barrier, and everybody was stuck under it. Only certain people could get through that barrier. When Obama became president, suddenly people thought, “Oh, the barrier is gone. Now we can climb.” That’s what his presidency meant to me. It’s like I have a chance now.