Obama at the Mountaintop

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

In 2008, I did not vote for Barack Obama because I saw him as a person without accomplishments. In the short time he was in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate, he had no major bills nor courageous stands. He speaks well with the use of a teleprompter but is not a good off-the-cuff speaker compared to Alan Keyes (his opponent for U.S. Senate). His campaign was run brilliantly on a theme of “Hope and Change,” but since that was never defined, Obama was an empty vessel into which everyone poured their own expectations.  

John McCain, in contrast, had a lifetime of standing for something—and, in the case of torture, against something. McCain’s concession speech was gracious and I hoped that great things could be accomplished. However, I did not believe, as NPR commentators kept repeating, that “everything is changed.” Barack Obama is not the Messiah who would change human nature.

Some highlights from Obama’s victory speech in 2008:

Sam also didn’t support Obama at the polls but grew to admire him immensely:

I did not vote for President Obama in 2008 or 2012 because of his party affiliation, not for any particular person reason. I am white and was glad to have a black president because it spoke to America’s progress, but I would have rather had the first black president be a moderate Republican.

I wish that Obama had been more himself and not have let himself and his politics get defined by his opponents. Perhaps if he had surrounded himself with a more pragmatic team he could have gotten more legislation passed and enacted.  It seemed that he simply pulled back and waited out his opponents and then both sides blamed each other and everyone seemed small.

There were times during the 2016 campaign when he seemed far from presidential. I hated that. No matter who our president is, I want that person to be presidential and have the entire country at heart—not a party, not a wing, not a demographic slice of the pie.

But after the election, he became what I had hoped he would have been for the past eight years: wise and embracing. I will miss him and his family—not because he was my guy or cool or black, but because he demonstrated an overall respect for the office and was an excellent role model for families of all races.

This next reader, LTaylor, touches on the “respectability politics” that peppered Obama’s presidency:

In this multicultural society we live in, it would be irresponsible for one race to feel that the president failed them. I am an African-American mixed-race person who refuses to blame another man for the shortcomings in my life. Change begins in the home, with the parent/parents teaching their children about money and its value. “Hood rich” people in many urban areas think being rich is driving a nice car, or the amount of gold hanging around your neck or in your mouth. There are job opportunities out here, but there are many who feel they are above working these jobs. These are the same people who complain that the government is not doing anything for them.

This lack of responsibility as well as lack of knowledge about money and value is what is holding many black people back, not Barack Obama. If you want to change your state of being, first change your state of mind.

From the time he was sworn into office on January 20, 2008, Obama had everything stacked against him. How many times in previous administrations has the term “debt ceiling” come up? Honestly, I had never heard of the term until the government was talking about shutting down. There was so much opposition in Congress—rejecting every budget, every plan for infrastructure improvements to this country. Honestly, if Obama were given a decent chance to make significant changes, maybe many would feel differently.

And lastly, Sarah’s respect for President Obama reached a zenith just last month, when she read the four transcripts of Ta-Nehisi interviewing the first black president:

Like so many, I passionately supported Obama in 2008, donating what little I could to his campaign (my first time ever doing so for a candidate) and spending much of November 9th in joyful tears. Soon after that, it became clear that Obama was determined to reach a “compromise” with a party that wanted no compromise with him, on any issue, and I wanted him to stop talking about “reaching across the aisle” and start addressing us—the people who voted him in to, well, basically overturn injustice. A friend told me, perplexed, that leftists who supported Obama seemed to hear something different from his actual words. “He never said he was on the left,” my friend tried to remind me. “He’s pretty firmly in the center.”

I will miss Obama’s eloquence, his humanity, his capacity for empathy, and, lastly, the nigh-superhuman level-headedness which, until these transcripts, I did not totally respect. Rage changes the world, I thought, not level-headedness. And while, again, I still believe that, I think there’s much to be learned from his understanding that for passion to ignite serious change, it has to take a well-informed shape. President Obama understands rage, but he knows we have to direct the blaze if it’s going to clear the path for something new.