Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th and first Black President of the United States has been called many things. He is considered an adept orator, a man of consummate grace and prodigious intellect; the President who made healthcare coverage a reality for millions of Americans, as well as the President that said “the last person Osama bin Laden saw on earth was an American and hopefully, at that moment, he understood that the American people hadn’t forgotten the 3,000 people he killed”. He moved an entire nation when he sang Amazing Grace and made us beam with pride as he extolled the beauty of Black love and fatherhood. His comedic timing was flawless; he could roll with the best of them. He is unflappable, cool and steady – a baller, full of swag. He grooves to Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
He was a President free of any personal scandal, a scholar, who demonstrated patience, class, and strength. As we prepare to say goodbye to 44, we are left wondering - where did the time go as we remember his rise and the many, accomplishments of his historic presidency.
President Obama burst onto the national scene in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. The Democrats had convened at the FleetCenter in Boston, Massachusetts to confirm then Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) as it’s presidential nominee and former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) as its vice-presidential candidate. But it was the democratic senatorial hopeful from Illinois that stole the proverbial show. Think of it as the day America met Obama.
On Tuesday, July 27, 2004, Obama galvanized convention delegates and electrified the nation speaking of hope, encouraging us to embrace “hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope. In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.” It was the son of a White mother and African father; a Black man by way of Honolulu and Jakarta, Indonesia, who emphatically told us “there is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. It has been written that his speech, all 2,297 words, that took approximately 17 minutes to deliver, made him a household name.
From that moment, Barack Obama seemed destined to impact the world. A Harvard trained lawyer, Obama, had a history of firsts long before he became the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While a law student at Harvard, Obama was elected the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, its first president of color in its 104-year old history. Speaking of his election, Obama said “The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress. It’s encouraging. But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is okay for Blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of Black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.” His considerable skills would lead him back to Chicago where he would marry his girlfriend, a Harvard trained lawyer by the name of Michelle Robinson. It is in Chicago where he put his stakes down and became a community organizer, registering approximately 100,000 new voters in the Black community.
It wasn’t long before politics came calling and Obama was elected to the State Senate in Illinois. After successfully serving two terms, Obama would run for the Congress in 1999. He lost that election by a margin of 2 to 1 but it would be the last political election he would lose. In 2004, Obama was elected to the US Senate, the second Black person to represent the state of Illinois, and the nation’s fifth Black Senator. He soundly beat (receiving 70% of the vote) his Republican opponent, a Black man who questioned his Blackness. Of his mixed heritage, Obama said, “I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child, and as a Black child, and as a White child. I have benefited from a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me.” Acknowledging that the world saw him as a Black man, Obama said, “To be Black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”
Four years later, Barack Hussein Obama would become the first Black President of the United States, defeating Republican Senator John McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. His victory was propelled by young voters and Blacks who believed that change could happen and the “Yes, We Can,” campaign slogan became the rallying cry for the nation.
Obama’s election made him the first commander-in-chief of color and one of the nation’s youngest presidents. In his 2008 acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago, before tens of thousands of Americans, Obama talked about possibilities. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Obama said that had never been “more hopeful” than he was on that night and borrowing from one of his idols, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promised Americans that “we would get there (putting people back to work, and opening doors of opportunity) as a people.”
Obama’s mother and father did not live to see their son elected to the highest office in the land. His maternal grand-mother who helped to raise him would make her transition one day before the 2008 election.
In 2012, Obama was re-elected to a second-term, defeating Republican nominee and former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney and his running mate, the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Obama expanded his demographic reach, continuing to perform strongly among African Americans; taking 69 percent of the Latino vote and wining by double digits among women. Grateful for a second term, Obama said, “We have fought our way back. And we know in our hearts that, for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”
As President Obama leaves office, many have weighed in on his place in the history of America. What most Americans agree on is this: President Barack Obama and his family have served this nation with grace and eloquence. Their collective dignity is unsurpassed. His accomplishments are too numerous to list for this article but we celebrate his leadership and courage, beginning with Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).
Under the Obama presidency, 20 million of previously uninsured Americans now have healthcare. 13.7 million new jobs have been added to the economy and this past October, unemployment rates fell to an all-time low of 5 percent. President Obama said it best, “I can say without any equivocation that the country is a lot better off: The economy is stronger, the federal government works better and our standing in the world is higher.”
Because of President Obama, men and women can enter the military without fear of retribution based on their sexual orientation. Because of the work of the Obama administration, same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Under Obama’s leadership, the auto industry was turned around, saving thousands of jobs at General Motors and Chrysler. He ended the Iraq war, ordering all US military forces out of that country and significantly downsized our presence in Afghanistan. He ordered the capture of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan resulting in bin Laden’s death and the acquisition of a treasure trove of al-Qaeda documents. He regulated big banks with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.
Under Obama, the US Embassy in Cuba was re-opened, setting the stage for normalized relations between the two countries and allowing the American flag to be flown there for the first time in 54 years. He created Race to the Top, rewarding states for reforming education. He nominated and placed the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the US Supreme Court and placed a fourth woman to serve on the court as well. He expanded hate crime protections, and health coverage for children.
President Obama brokered a nuclear peace agreement with Iran. It was President Obama who led global efforts to finalize the International Climate Agreement reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon trading with other countries.
And did we mention that he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his extraordinary efforts to “strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” He celebrated what is great about America and Americans. In his farewell speech, Obama reminded Americans that we were the change. And because of Americans, “America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
As we say goodbye, we get to celebrate the man whose love for his wife and children were always on display. We cried with him as he thanked his wife, First Lady “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the Southside,” for her “grace, and grit,” for excelling in a job that she never asked for. We clapped and cheered as he praised his daughters for being smart and beautiful young women as they navigated the teen years with the eyes of the world upon them.
And when he said it was his honor to serve us, we collectively said, no – we thank you because the pleasure was all ours. He asked us to believe one last time in our ability to bring about change and now we get to say, “see you soon” to our 44th President, a man with whom we “share the same proud title: citizen” of the United States of America.
And because he knew this goodbye would be painful for us, he comforted us with these words one last time, “America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People, We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes, we can.’”