The Measure of Barack Obama

by Rob Henderson

How do we reconcile Obama's policy record with what he symbolized for many black Americans?

Rob Henderson
Rob Henderson is a writer of creative nonfiction whose intellectual influences range from bell hooks to Søren Kierkegaard. He is interested in moral and political philosophy, feminism, pop culture and critical race theory. On Twitter he is @ChldlikeEmperor.

I remember following the 2008 election cycle with no more than moderate interest—that is, until Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination. Something had shifted then that was impossible for even a 17 year-old—mired in the superficial complexities of high school politics—to ignore. For the first time in our nation’s history, a black man was to head a major party’s ticket. I thought I knew what that meant then, though now I realize I knew next to nothing.

To watch him and to hear him speak was to be in awe of him. Eight years later, this sense of awe is qualified, but by no means diminished; The experience of having come of age in Barack Obama’s America, like all experiences which have finally come to end, is something that I can now view with a particular clarity. It is also only now that I am cognizant of its full weight.

As fate would have it, Barack Obama won the election. As circumstance would have it, this victory occurred in America. This meant many things at once. Among them, that history is not destiny. That a country which had, from its very inception, condemned those who might have been Barack Obama to a status which uniquely excluded them from a full share in its political processes had, in some way, betrayed itself. That what was an affirmation of this nation’s highest stated virtues in the form of its first black president was, too, an act of symbolic violence to its many unstated vices; Without total understanding, I reveled in the former, though I would be grown before I could understand the latter.

What do people mean when they refer to a sitting president as mine or not mine? I think it means something a bit more complicated than whether or not he was the person for whom they voted. I can pinpoint the exact moment Barack Obama felt like mine. It was math class with Ms. Osonye, who was Kenyan. She had a television set wheeled in shortly after the election because Barack Obama, fresh off his historic victory, was to be received at the White House by President Bush in that longstanding post-election tradition signifying the peaceful transition of power.

We watched live footage of Barack and Michelle being greeted by President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Silence and the shutter of cameras, barely audible words being exchanged by the two men. There are times in life when the gravity of a moment, an image, an event is so immense that it becomes impossible to process all at once. Until then, everything had seemed rather perfunctory. Barack Obama had campaigned, debated, and won, but it wasn’t until the first time my classmates and I saw him standing with the president – one of only three in our lifetimes, by that point – that history, happening as we watched, made its presence felt.

None of us had lived long enough to articulate what it meant to be black in that moment, but I don’t think any of us were without some sense that we were bearing witness to something extraordinary. Perhaps we didn’t understand enough to be truly proud, (my grandparents, my parents, my uncles were proud) but we were absolutely thrilled.

For me, the thrill of watching Barack Obama become president must now be measured against the reality of how he was to be received. What a violent interruption in the flow of history it must have been for a nation that cannot acknowledge black men as men to suddenly have to acknowledge one as president?

Trying to understand Barack Obama’s legacy furnishes a unique set of challenges. Much of this difficulty lies in the question of race, yet we find ourselves confronted with other hard questions, none divorced from the other, which warrant equal consideration in who posterity will say this man was.

We’ll start with what we already know: For eight years, he was the president.

To be President of the United States is to be engaged in the project of overseeing an empire and, it must be said, the chief business of empire is always dominion. This particular empire established its dominion with the treachery of native genocide and displacement, built upon it with the labor of enslaved black bodies and to this day maintains it in the form of unjust national, foreign, and economic policy. American history is, too, a history of conquest and dominion – this is so of all empires.

In assessing Barack Obama’s legacy, one risks a degree of intellectual cowardice if the fact of his individual part in all this is off the table. Presidents are men of nearly unimaginable power and there is no getting around trying to understand how they wielded it—how they conducted the business of empire—if one is to understand what kind of president they were.

Barack Obama didn’t open the army detention center at Guantanamo Bay-that was his predecessor-but nor was he able to close it. Those deemed ‘enemy combatants’ in the “War on Terror” have been tortured there and are, to this day, detained without due process. This injustice runs contrary to America’s professed commitment to human rights and the Obama administration’s ultimate failure to end it must be a central part of his legacy.

Barack Obama didn’t begin the airstrikes in the Middle East which, perhaps at this very hour, are killing innocent civilians in the name of winning an invisible war; One in which the conditions of victory seemingly cannot be described by its instigators. He did, however, continue these airstrikes, and in full awareness of not simply their dubious constitutionality, but their lethal consequences for the innocent. Now, there are those who will argue that war inevitably blurs the distinction between the guilty and the innocent, but when we confront that fact of remote-controlled flying machines visiting fire and death upon the clearly innocent in the name of bringing the supposed guilty to justice, this sentiment becomes moral evasion.

If we truly aspire to be the kind of society where respect for human life, irrespective of borders, is implicit in the rule of law, we must judge Barack Obama and ourselves accordingly. This will not be an easy task and, given our current national moment, it is doubtful that we are a mature enough society for its undertaking.

It would be unfair, however, to assign equal guilt to all presidents for their individual hands in the furtherance of American empire. For eight years, we did have a president committed to at least rolling back a few of that empire’s excesses. Barack Obama ended the Iraq war, which is, on the whole, now understood as an unjust one. He reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba, thus putting to rest a great deal of the animosity left over from the Cold War—an animosity which nearly destroyed the planet as we know it. He has exercised enormous restraint in the face of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and made the climate crisis our planet now faces a priority of his administration. I would hesitate to name these as mitigating factors; Nothing mitigates the bombing of children or the indefinite detention of those who have not been charged with a crime, some American citizens by birth. But while some evils cannot be mitigated, no good, however small in its effect or potential, should be ignored.

The American presidency, like blood sacrifice, is a task not easily (and perhaps not possibly) undertaken without sullying oneself and the cost of maintaining preeminence in the world has resulted in a great moral debt for this country – Barack Obama now shares in this debt.

While Barack Obama conducted the business of empire abroad, we looked on as he was denied the proper respect befitting (or at least hitherto shown) a president of the United States at home. So much was made of the fact that the first black president resided in a house built by slaves. What little discussion of the sad truth that, to paraphrase Baldwin, our nation is still trapped in a history it does not understand? That slavery, while outlawed for some 151 years, still forms much of the basis of the white inability to look at Barack Obama and see either man or president. There is a part of our country—and this part is not confined to any specific geographic region—that looks at him and sees a dangerous impostor.

None of this resentment was simply about Obama. When his policies were opposed almost reflexively, when sitting members of Congress heckled him, when governors wagged their fingers in his face, or when pundits said his name like a cuss word, that was about black people, too. Barack Obama, for eight years, became the representative titan of all the grievances in the white imagination against black Americans. This he bore with an almost athletic grace.

There were times when I wished Obama would have abandoned decorum just as white America largely abandoned respect for the office of the presidency as soon as it became occupied by a detested other. “When they go low, we go high!”, a slogan offered by Michelle Obama in her speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, is a phrase I find particularly constraining because it places the burden of respectability and compassion on black people. This sentiment is also arguably the perfect distillation of Barack Obama’s politics.

Barack Obama is an exemplar of the restraint black people have always shown in America when some larger goal has been deemed temporarily more important than an insistence upon respect; A restraint which has taken many forms and allowed itself to suffer all manner of indignities. It has been Jackie Robinson’s stoicism in the face of racist abuse and mistreatment from his own teammates as the first black baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It has been the willingness of a student activist to remain at a segregated lunch counter as strangers spit on and attacked them. The story of black achievement in America, of black excellence, is largely one of grace under fire, of restraint. And it is this very restraint – this willingness to ignore blatant attempts at dehumanization – which has, time and again, proven Barack Obama’s—our—dignity to be inviolate. They never touched him.

Barack Obama, as much as it has been argued in bad faith, did not preside over a post-racial America. If American history prior to 2008 were to have the last word, his presidency would have remained an abject impossibility. But we can look to the history of this country to understand much of the existential crisis the very idea of a black president posed for those who, as recent events have shown, find themselves more committed to whiteness than to democracy. Indeed, those who correctly (if not admittedly) understand their whiteness and democracy to be antithetical concepts.

There is a way of understanding Donald Trump’s election as America’s reassertion of this commitment to whiteness. After all, much of his campaign strategy rested on a repudiation of the America Barack Obama represented, one in which national power is not concentrated in a particular racial demographic.

Much of the legislative work of the next four-to-eight years will be concerned with the destruction of Barack Obama’s legacy. This is telling. Though reliably moderate in many of its policy visions, Obama’s America, if allowed to flourish, threatened to signal the end of the one in which white men have asserted a near-divine right to power. After an administration that oversaw Marriage Equality, a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” two women Supreme Court appointees (one of whom was the first Latina appointed to the high court), calls for a raise in the federal minimum wage, protections for the children of undocumented immigrants, initiatives for police reform in black and brown communities, and a justice department vigorously committed to protecting the franchise from equally vigorous attempts to restrict it, enough was enough. Indeed, we are at the outset of what promises to be a sustained assault on the project of an inclusive, multiracial American democracy.

The growing fascist movement in our country has built temples out of the grief caused by being governed by a black president for two terms. And to have come of age during his presidency is an experience now painfully punctuated by the fact that I will spend the rest of my twenties in a country headed by a racist demagogue.

I wept twice the week of the election. First, when it became clear that Donald Trump would take the electoral college. These were angry, confused tears. What had I allowed myself to believe about the country I live in that made this a shock? Who did I have to be now? How would I protect myself and the people I love in an America that was now intoxicated with its own vitriol?

The second set of tears were proud ones. As I watched Barack Obama, with characteristic graciousness, receive Donald Trump at the White House, a thought came to me: He never let them humiliate him. Nothing they could do, even to the point of organizing mass movements based largely on racist hatred, was enough to humble him.

Because no man is an island, no man can ever truly be a mountain and Great Man theories of history can never tell it all. While no man is strong enough to be the sole mover of his times, it may be allowed that fate and circumstance sometimes conspire to make one the most visibly moved. Such was the election of President Barack Hussein Obama II. No one man comprises the entire story of his times, but it is hard to recall a symbol as large and as representative of so much as the 44th President of the United States. History says many things of great men, but nothing so important as what those men reflected about their times; Barack Obama reflects much about his.

What will history say about what the first black president represented for a nation that has never fully understood black people as equal citizens? I for one cannot pretend to know what this answer will be, but as I emotionally prepare myself to watch Barack Obama leave office, I think I can speak with some degree of authority on what he has represented for me:

Barack Obama exemplified, if only symbolically, every reason black people have always had to push forward in a country that struggles to accept our place in it. That man who played basketball, danced to our music, and faced on a grand scale the attempts at humiliation we have all faced, is precious to me not because he got it right every time, not because his hands are clean and not because America allowed him the be the kind of president we all hoped he would be, but because the experience of blackness is a unifying one. With the understanding that blackness made him less human to many of his detractors, I can also accept that it was not a safeguard against his continuation of destructive foreign policies. That behind the pomp and ceremony of the office was but a man; One who perhaps aspired to a good that the condition of being a fallible moral agent, subject to the influences of so much, makes impossible.

Not all of us get to be president, but who among us can say with certainty that we will not look back on our lives with the feeling that we did harm which, if given a clearer choice between right and wrong, we would not have done; That the good to which we aspired was lost in the ultimate effect of our decisions? The presidency amplifies this human dilemma in manifold ways, but to have watched a black man confront it at such a formative time in my youth is something that will always stay with me. For me, the question of whether or not Barack Obama was a good president comes second to the fact that he was the president.

What a difference in the way they called Obama ‘boy’ and the way my grandmother did. They did it with their condescension, their open disrespect and contempt for him, their choruses of Feckless! or Leading from behind! All the while, my grandmother was reading about him in the paper, or watching him on MSNBC, or hearing our pastor ask us to pray for him, and she would say “You go boy! I know that’s right!” With this, she took the man for granted and pulled the child closer; Protected him.

Now comes the time for us to submit Barack Obama for the judgement of history. Not to be separated from its judgement is the fact that we have loved him, that he made us proud, and that he broke our hearts many times. That his heritage made him a son of Ireland by way of the American Midwest as well as a son of Kenya, yet the historical construction of race in this country – its utter reliance on phenotype – placed him with us from birth. That though he was despised by many of his countrymen, he never once engaged in a politics of vengeance against them or their elected representatives. That he, too, must be answerable for the untold harms of American imperialism. That he sang to us. That he loved his wife, a black woman, before the eyes of the world. That he was our boy, never theirs, and they couldn’t touch our boy, Barry O.

**Editor’s Note: This essay is part of our “Letters to Obama” series, a collection of five essays from young black writers on President Barack Obama’s legacy, and his significance for a group of young people for whom his presence was a formative factor in politics and culture. Let us know what you think at

Photo credit: Flickr User dcblog: License Available

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Published by Rob Henderson
Rob Henderson is a writer of creative nonfiction whose intellectual influences range from bell hooks to Søren Kierkegaard. He is interested in moral and political philosophy, feminism, pop culture and critical race theory. On Twitter he is @ChldlikeEmperor. View all posts by Rob Henderson

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