When the Democrats only elected two new Senators in the 2004 election, it was, along with the re-election of George W. Bush, considered a failure. The pool of new talent was looking shallow, and worried voices were raised about the future of the Democratic Party. But one of those new Senators was already taking steps to ensure it. Barack Obama, the junior Illinois Senator, was on a roller coaster only going up. He wouldn’t even have time to finish his first term as Senator before being elected the first African-American President of the United States. But what has this momentous occasion actually meant for the wider issue of race sensitive politics on a national level?
By being the first African-American president Barack Obama has already secured his legacy, it will always be a milestone. But at the same time, during his presidency, the recession has caused conditions to worsen for the working class and the poor, which disproportionately affects minorities. He has failed to put immigration reform through an admittedly unwilling Congress, and generally spoken very little about racial issues. Even less so, in fact, than several of his white predecessors, and certainly less than his electoral base hoped for when he took office. Is Barack Obama going to forgo whatever chance he had of changing the conversation on race in America, or is he, in fact, the trailblazer that he set out to be at the start of his campaign?
When Obama was a mere State Senator, and a national office hopeful, he was chosen to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. This was largely designed to boost presidential candidate John Kerry’s chances, especially with black voters. This was where Obama first told his story to a larger American audience, one that we now know very well. He is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, raised predominantly by his white grandmother in Hawaii. He would end up drawing from this biracial past in adding his voice to the national conversation on racial relations.
Obama would be required to utilize this background during the primary elections. When ABC News in early 2008 released clips of sermons held by Jeremiah Wright, pastor of what was at the time the Obama’s church of twenty years; his campaign was close to complete annihilation. Pastor Wright’s statements included attacks on Bush-era foreign policies, most controversially the statement that the US brought the 9/11 attacks on itself by being aggressive in its overseas endeavors. Wright was slammed as being “anti-American” and “anti-white”, and naturally this spilled over into the Obama campaign.
This obviously tainted Obama’s ambition to change the conversation on race in the US, and it could have deeply hurt the campaign. Instead, it gave way for the speech without which the Obama presidency might never have happened titled ‘A more perfect union’. This speech gave Obama the opportunity to talk about his ambition to de-polarize the political conversation about race, and the American electorate at large, which would be part of what gave him his enormous grassroots movement and voter turnout.
Five years later, when the debate surrounding the Trayvon Martin verdict – where George Zimmerman, a white/Hispanic man, was freed of all charges of manslaughter, despite admitting to shooting and killing a young black boy – turned heated, the President stepped up again. He held a speech that many interpreted as a successful attempt to bridge “white America” and “black America” on this deeply polarizing issue, in which he told a story about being a young black man, likening himself to Trayvon Martin. He talked about how people locked their cars when he walked by, and how old ladies would clutch their purses closer to their chests when he got in the elevator. At the same time, he mentioned that his maternal grandmother, who was white, had once been that woman who looked suspiciously at young black men in the street. Again, Obama’s biracial background served to make him relatable to both sides of the deep chasm that the American electorate consists of.
As for actual executive duties, Obama has never really been in a comfortable position. Ever since the midterm elections in 2010, when the Republicans took control of the House, legislative work has been a struggle. With the Democrats losing the Senate as well in the elections this month, his position as a lame duck has now been solidified. What we’re looking at now is a president with severely limited powers, who is going to have to rely more heavily on the bully pulpit to achieve his agenda. On the other hand, he now has no future negotiation credits to lose. This could explain Obama’s decision to take executive action in order to ease the threat of deportations for several million undocumented workers. We don’t know yet how successful this is going to be, but it might just prove to be the crowning achievement of his second term.
Generally, as his powers have decreased at the same rate as the anti-Obama rhetoric in Washington has increased, the President has tended to use his position as a normative post more and more. He’s started speaking more pointedly about inequality, and about race. As we’re looking forward to his last two years in office, he may decide that what he wants to leave behind is a nation where public consensus has shifted towards these issues, to a point where the next President simply can’t ignore them.
When it comes down to it, the lasting impact of the Obama presidency will probably be, as well as the Affordable Care Act and the new immigration reform, the change in conversation that took place. Maybe, at the end of the day, the most important legacy of Barack Obama can be summed up by what he said himself in an interview with the New Yorker in 2010: “The most important thing that I can do, I’ve already done. I’m the first elected African-American president.”