Reporter's Notebook

Debating the First Black Presidency
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Readers reflect and disagree over Barack Obama and his eight years as President of the United States.

Show None Newer Notes

We recently asked readers if they had significantly changed their minds about Barack Obama over the course of his eight years in office—whether that change came from Obama voters who lost faith in him, or anti-Obama voters who grew to support him. Luke falls in the latter category:

I never voted for Obama, but I wish I had. I grew up Republican and voted for George W. Bush in the first two presidential elections in which I was old enough to vote. I voted for McCain in 2008. I was somewhat disgusted by his campaign, but I voted for him in the hope he would govern as the person he used to be and not as he campaigned. I found myself surprised that I wasn’t all that disappointed when Obama won, and I was actually happy for the joy I saw on people’s faces during his victory speech.

Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

I didn’t vote in 2012, because frankly it’s easier to pretend to not care about politics than to support a Democrat in South Carolina. But I voted for Clinton this year. I never felt like I left the Republican party—more like it left me.

I can’t really point to any one incident that changed my mind about Obama. If anything, I’d have to say it was a combination of the Republican hysteria in reaction to Obama’s election along with his moderation in reacting to it. I also discovered the blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates around 2009. As much as anything, his writing, especially regarding U.S. history, changed my outlook.

For another reader, Michael, his change of heart over President Obama was primarily about health care:

Over the past eight years, I moved in the opposite direction of many of my fellow Irish-American whites in urban Red states.

We previously aired emails from readers who voted against Obama but ultimately sided with him in office. Many other readers, however, supported him at the polls but ultimately turned their backs on his presidency. For Blake, that moment came very early in the first administration:

I proudly voted for Obama in 2008, not because I believed his soaring rhetoric, but because of the significance of electing a black man to be president. I was in tears on election night when he won and remember the jubilation of the bar crowd quite fondly.

My mind changed within a couple of weeks after his Cabinet appointments began. His appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State—after months of attacking her lack of foreign policy judgement as a major flaw in her candidacy—smacked of political opportunism. He himself had convinced me that she was unqualified for such a position, thus the appointment could only have been to curry favor with her camp (i.e., not for the benefit of the country). It was a clear indicator that Obama was going to continue the well-established D.C. tradition of quid pro quo cronyism.

Appointing Geithner to Treasury Secretary was even worse: a betrayal of Obama’s stated principals. There was no way to reconcile his rhetoric on the economy and the middle class with his economic appointments. I completely lost my optimism in those few weeks.

William also soured on Obama for his approach to the banking crisis:

“Keep Hope Alive” worked for me after Bush II. But as a former banker who lived through Reagan’s dismantling of consumer protection regulations that led to the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, Obama lost me when he failed to channel the nation’s outrage at the 2008 crash to reinstate a New Deal style regulatory scheme. Instead, he appointed the foxes that raided the hen house and took down the barn to now guard that same hen house. No one was charged or went to jail or even had to return all their ill-gotten gains, neither individuals or institutions. [Actually there was a single prosecution.] Instead, they got punished with bonuses at taxpayer expense.

Obama lost me that early, and later, he kept losing me—one major bonehead move after another. His Presidency was a series of “Bait & Switch.” It’s been heartbreaking.

For Erich, it was Obama’s approach to education policy that lost him:

In response to Ta-Nehisi’s cover story “My President Was Black,” Daniel Foster, a contributing for National Review, countered with “Obama’s Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced.” The best reader contribution to this debate comes from Ayana Wilson, who falls somewhere between Foster and Coates:

Many thanks to Daniel Foster’s essay; I found it refreshingly measured. (Though I’m not a writer by trade, writing has been my primary sense-making practice since the election.) I agree with Foster’s main premise that Coates misinterprets Hillary Clinton’s loss as indicative of a kind of physics of history that forecloses the possibility of disentangling America from the bigotry on which it was founded. This physics of history is evident toward the end of Coates’s essay: “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students, even as the country seemed determined not to acknowledge it.” In other words, the election of Trump is the price of Obama’s presidency; Obama’s presidency necessitates Trump’s: If President Obama, then President Trump. If President Trump, then not President Clinton.

If progress necessarily leads to counteraction, then it follows that Obama’s presidency has been a “minor perturbation” from a “bigoted equilibrium,” as Foster puts it. This logic suggests that meaningful progress is not possible. Instead of progress, America goes through permutations of black subjugation: redlining replaces legally codified segregation, fatal police “mistakes” replace lynching, free labor extracted via mass incarceration replaces abject enslavement.

Of course, the institutionalized subjugation of black folks is alive and thriving, and Coates is right to emphasize the permutations of black subjugation that dangerously distract from the ways in which very little has changed since Jim Crow. When permutations are mistaken for progress, Shelby County v. Holder and other retrograde laws that impede progress seem permissible.

Still, I disagree that progress is not possible, that America will never be able to transcend its sordid past. For example, the very existence of a black male adolescence like Obama’s that was unacquainted with and unfettered by the cruelties of systemic racism demonstrates progress.

To my mind, Coates confuses the necessity of Trump’s election with the necessity of Trump’s candidacy. Obama’s presidency necessitated Trump’s candidacy, but it did not necessitate his election.

That said, Foster made some points to which I’d like to respond in the hopes of furthering the dialogue. He wrote:

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece, “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” got an enormous response from readers, both in the comments section and via email. The most constructive contributions are below (and Tressie read them all beforehand). The first one comes from an African American reader, Ron:

I appreciate what Tressie says in her article. I never thought I would ever see a Black man in the White House. However, as she and Coates have noted, Obama has not been defined by the most common U.S. Black identity—though African Americans are not a monolith. According to Obama’s book, although he has experienced the turmoil of a racial identity crisis, he has not been shaped by the collective American Black identity seared by years of pervasive racism and disrespect. I don’t fault him for this, but I do take issue with his superficial use of “American Black coolness” to make Black people feel good while simultaneously not doing much for us.

This is as much our fault as it is Obama’s. We are a people steeped in symbolism. I suspect this is because many of our communities are in shambles and we yearn for Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Nat Turner, MLK, Malcolm X, and others. However, as a brand consultant, I can tell you that this can be dangerous. Symbols can take on a life of their own, but when steeped in nostalgia and propaganda, they can also deceive. Obama represented our future and, as far as I am concerned, he did not deliver beyond being a symbol.

This next reader, Neli, invokes her identity as a biracial American to empathize with Obama, despite her misgivings about his presidency:

It was all so new. Barack Obama, as a Black man, had no predecessor on which to base the person who would navigate the treacherous political milieu that is the presidency. I am not sure Obama himself knew what to expect, but I believe he wanted to do the right thing, that he wanted to see himself as a president for all Americans.

Was this naive? It was clear from the start that Congress was not going to work with him. I remember thinking he should have come in tougher, as the “Obama don’t care” man that Larry Wilmore described as “Black Obama.” He should have come in like a substitute teacher, because you can always pull back, but once you’ve lost ground, it is very difficult to recover the classroom.

Was this about personality? Obama endured the most vicious behavior by people who just could not accept a Black man in the White House. I don’t know how he did it. He was too nice, and even this happily married intelligent man who had to be ten times as above reproach as any white candidate never seemed to lose his cool.

As a biracial person myself, I don’t see Obama’s seeming naiveté as the result of his biracial ancestry. I honestly can’t say that I understand whites better than blacks, or that I even understand them equally. I think it is correct to say Obama had too much faith in white America, but I can’t say why that was the case. Perhaps he just didn’t have the political fangs to deal with the den of snakes that is D.C. and so he mostly ignored it, until the second term when he got fired up enough to respond. I also felt he never highlighted his accomplishments enough. (After all, he followed the “Mission Accomplished” president.)

The first Black president—the trailblazer—faced enormous challenges, so it is difficult for me to condemn Obama for what he might have failed to do. I do not think he failed. I was proud of the first Black president, and my allegiance is not always understood by Progressives. I suppose I just saw too much in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. His legacy will be that he made headway in spite of enormous obstacles.

Another reader, Cole, strongly dissents over Tressie’s essay:

I want to start with a qualifier that is incredibly important: I am white. It’s my hope that, while that serves as an significant lens through which to view my opinion, that it does not serve to discredit it.

When reading “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” I was struck by few thoughts. The first, and most important, is really the core of the essay: to “know your whites.” I can’t comment on whether or not Tressie McMillan Cottom does or does not know her whites, nor whether her family shares this knowledge. What I do know is that there is no way that she can base her judgment and indictment of Obama as a black man, a President, and a figure off of a concept that defined her existence.

On this final MLK Day of Barack Obama’s presidency, many readers are reflecting on the rapid ascendance of the little known Illinois state senator with a funny name. Emily looks back to February 10, 2007:

I watched Barack Obama announce, in Springfield, IL, that he would run for president. I think it was a Saturday morning. It was a time when I don’t usually have the television on, so it was just chance that I saw this brazen guy who I’d never heard of. I thought he was impressive—but I thought no way: too young, unknown, and black.

It didn’t take me long to get on board. At age 52, I made my first contribution to a presidential campaign and I voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time.

I see that President Obama is not perfect, but he is perfect to me. So is Mrs. Obama. I’ve seen his weakness, and at times I wish he’d been tougher or had fought harder or dirtier. But I have never wavered in my respect, admiration, and support for him.

He bridged a divide and exposed a greater divide. I hate the ugliness that has been exposed from having a black family in the White House. I hate it, but maybe it was necessary. Maybe it brings forth the fight that we need to take the next step that is long overdue in this country.

Kristal was won over by Obama’s 2008 race speech in Philadelphia:

When Barack Obama entered the presidential contest in 2007, I didn’t think he had enough experience navigating the intricacies of Washington politics. Plus, Hillary Clinton, then and now, had detailed strategic plans to implement her vision for America, so I supported her in the primary. Her campaign slogans may not energize others, but her well-thought-out and realistic strategies excite the hell out of me!

Everyone, even my closest friends, bashed me for supporting Hillary over Barack. I am an outspoken, African American woman who angrily witnessed much of the civil rights movement as a precocious child watching TV news and reading Time magazine. How could I support a White woman over a Black man? Well, when it comes to electing a President, I have no interest in electing someone based on race. I vote based on if I believe their policy positions are achievable and desirable.

After Obama’s “more perfect union” speech in March of 2008, I started to believe that having someone lead America who recognized the counter-productiveness of our focus on race was almost as good as having a president, like Hillary, who had in-depth plans for elevating our society, so I enthusiastically supported Obama in the election.

Here’s that famous speech in full:

Cindelyn converted to being an Obama supporter the following month:

I will never forget the first time I saw Senator Obama in the crowded gym on a cold dreary rainy day in April 2008. I had just driven from Montana to take a new job in the town where my sons were born and raised. The high school where Obama was conducting his town hall meeting was the alma mater of both of my sons. Being in that space was bittersweet for me because I was remembering a graduation with my husband and a graduation as a widow.

I voted for Obama because of that town hall meeting. I voted for Obama because in that space I witnessed a Christian man who listened with his whole body. I witnessed a man who spoke his political talk and then answered the question asked of him. I was a Clinton fan before I entered the town hall and I exited an Obama believer.

Obama discusses his Christian faith on the campaign trail in the following video (and at the 6:20 mark, a pastor asks a question invoking MLK):

Elizabeth deeply wishes Obama’s historic presidency would have been followed by another:

When I was 20 years old, I voted for the first time in a presidential election. I remember standing in line in the middle school gym, brimming with excitement at what for me was doubly historic. As a Women’s Studies student in college at that time—young in my feminism—the significance of voting was not lost on me. I remember thinking of all those generations of women who never had a voice in their country, and I offered a silent prayer of thanks to those brave women who fought so hard to get it. Add to this the fact that I would be casting my vote for the first black president, and it was enough to make me misty as I stepped into the booth.

Four years later I cast the same vote, and as Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee for 2016, I mused to my husband that it was so incredible that my presidential voting record thus far included a black man and a woman. I was less enthusiastic than I had been with Obama, given that I still had a Bernie 2016 sign in my yard and on my car, but I was still sobered by the historic significance of Clinton’s candidacy. I was confident she would win.

But she didn’t win, and now among the numerous social media reactions I’ve seen in the past month, some of my favorites are the ones that call for a third Obama term. “Make Obama President Again!” and “Four More Years!” resonate for reasons beyond the comical. My parents, devout Southern Baptists who have voted Republican since they first cast their vote for Ronald Reagan, reasoned that if Obama were running against Clinton and Trump, they would vote for Obama. They never voted for him when he was actually running, but such was the extent of their lack of confidence in either candidate.

Yet another Obama supporter, Mark, became disillusioned with politics as the years went by:

I was a college senior at Michigan State in the fall of 2008. It was a strange and uncertain time. My discussions in class centered on questions like “Can Obama finally inject some sanity into our foreign policy?” and “What does this economic collapse mean for Michigan and the auto industry?” I bought into the “Hope and Change” message completely.

But I put too much faith in the ability of a single man to change human nature, power structures, and intractable conflicts. In other words, I set myself up for disappointment.

My view of Obama, however, didn’t change all that much. I still view him as a cerebral technocrat who has his heart in the right place, even though his presidency was very different than I hoped. Rather, Obama has changed my own view of the world. I am now deeply pragmatic (bordering on cynical) and I probably couldn’t bring myself to be inspired by a speech even if Martin Luther King came back from the dead to deliver it. Maybe it took this disappointment to expose political reality and shatter my youthful idealism.

This closing segment from MLK’s final speech has inspired untold Americans:

Back to Obama, reader Jeffrey never got aboard “hope and change”:

I did not vote for Barack Obama either time. The fact that he is a black man is almost completely irrelevant and articles arguing about his “blackness” are a waste of time that only concern a small segment of the country (over-educated liberals, once known as the “chattering class”). I wish that I could write as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates or Tressie McMillan Cottom, but I will express my views here.