There is a photo by Pete Souza, the White House’s canny and peripatetic photographer, that surfaces from time to time online. The setting is Marine One, and it features a modest cast of five. Valerie Jarrett, dressed in a suit of blazing pink, is staring at her cell phone. Barack Obama, twisted around in his seat, is listening to a conversation between his then–body guy, Reggie Love, and Patrick Gaspard, one of his then–top advisers. Obama’s former deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, is looking on too, with just the mildest hint of a grin on his face.
In many ways, it’s a banal shot — just another photo for the White House Instagram feed, showing the president and his aides busily attending to matters of state. Stare at it a second longer, though, and a subtle distinction comes into focus: Everyone onboard is black. “We joked that it was Soul Plane,” says Burton. “And we’ve often joked about it since — that it was the first time in history only black people were on that helicopter.”
Souza snapped that shot on August 9, 2010, but it didn’t make any prominent appearances in the mainstream press until mid-2012, when it appeared in The New York Times Magazine. The following summer, July 2013, the president had a group of civil-rights leaders come visit him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, and the optics, as they like to say in politics, were similar: An all-star cast of minorities (African-American and Latino this time) gathered in a historic place to which the barriers to entry were once insuperably high.
But this was not a meeting the participants laughed about afterward. When Obama opened up the floor, everyone spoke about what they’d witnessed in the 2012 election: how states that limited voter-registration drives and early-voting initiatives had left many African-Americans off the rolls; how strict new laws concerning IDs had prevented many minorities from voting and created hours-long lines at the polls. The answer was clear: legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court had just overturned a key provision of the landmark civil-rights legislation the month before.
But Obama’s response was equally clear: Nothing could be done. Not in this political climate, not under these circumstances. Congress would never allow it.
The group was stunned. As they’d stumped for Obama, one of the many talking points they’d used to turn out the black vote was the threat of disenfranchisement, the possibility that the Voting Rights Act was in jeopardy. Yet here was Obama telling them that a bill addressing this vital issue didn’t stand a chance.
These proximal events — the publication of a historic photo in a major news outlet, a demoralizing discussion about the prospects of amending our voting laws — may seem unrelated. But to many who’ve watched this White House for the last six and three-quarter years, particularly with an eye toward race, the two events are finely intertwined. They would more likely say: One cannot have that photo without a massive reaction to that photo. In a country whose basic genetic blueprint includes the same crooked mutations that made slavery and Jim Crow possible, it is not possible to have a black president surrounded by black aides on Marine One without paying a price. And the price that Obama has had to pay — and, more important, that African-Americans have had to pay — is one of caution, moderation, and at times compromised policies: The first black president could do only so much, and say only so much, on behalf of other African-Americans. That is the bittersweet irony of the first black presidency.
But now, as Obama’s presidency draws to a close, African-American intellectuals and civil-rights leaders have grown increasingly vocal in their discontents. They frame them, for the most part, with love and respect. But current events have broken their hearts and stretched their patience. A proliferation of videos documenting the murders of unarmed black men and women — by the very people charged with their safety — has given rise to a whole movement defined by three words and a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.
“That’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of Obama’s presidency — that we have the Black Lives Matter movement under a black president,” says Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at Columbia University. “Your man is in office, and you have this whole movement around criminal-justice reform asserting black people’s humanity?”
Obama is hardly uncomprehending of these concerns. One can hear it in his rhetoric on race these days, which has become much more lyrical, personal, explicit. “Amazing Grace,” he sang in Charleston. “Racism, we are not cured of,” he told Marc Maron, “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n-----’ in public,” using the full word. This summer, Obama visited a prison, the first president to do so, and commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Last year, he started the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which zeros in on programs within federal agencies that can help young men of color. He is now trying, with the improbable cooperation of congressional Republicans, to pass a bill on criminal-justice reform.
Still, the question many African-American leaders are now asking is what his efforts will amount to, and whether they’re sufficient. At a panel about African-American millennials in August, the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault made note of Obama’s recent emphasis on race matters and asked the group if it was “too little, too late.” Their responses, not surprisingly, were mixed. At the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, Jarrett fielded a similar question from Walter Isaacson, the writer and head of the Aspen Institute. He noted that some Americans thought Obama publicly engaged with issues of race only “halfway.” Her reply was swift, pointed, and poignant. “I think you have to ask yourself: Why is that all on him?”
Just after November 5, 2008, there was, in this country, a brief spell of racial euphoria. The streets on Election Eve were filled with jubilant strangers hugging and kissing one another. The word postracial got tossed around a lot (by whites, it must be said, far more than blacks). A Gallup poll released two days after Obama’s victory declared that two-thirds of Americans said “a solution to relations between blacks and whites will eventually be worked out,” the highest percentage Gallup has measured on this question.
Going into the Oval Office, Obama had given one of the most extraordinary speeches about race this country had ever heard from a politician. Granted, he’d had no choice: His former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had preached a sermon in 2003 that included the words “God damn America,” which were inconveniently caught on videotape. But Obama’s response — a 37-minute speech in Philadelphia that patiently put these words in historical context — was risky, audacious, possibly even contraindicated. “There were many cowardly ways to handle that situation,” says Van Jones, Obama’s former special adviser for green jobs, “but he chose the most courageous one.” The speech got 1.2 million hits within the first 24 hours of being posted on YouTube.
What one says as a candidate is one thing; what one says as president is another. Six months into Obama’s tenure, a reporter asked the president what he thought of the arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the most famous African-American intellectuals in the United States, who had been taken into custody for trying to unstick the stubborn front door of his own home. Obama replied that although he didn’t have all the facts, he thought the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly.” Within minutes, the world seemed to come off its hinges, with Fox and its cousins — even some of its in-laws in the mainstream press — declaiming that Obama had insufficient respect for law enforcement. Obama dialed back his comments, proposing that Gates and the police officer meet at the White House over beers.
“There was the president of the United States,” says Jones, “escorted by the white vice-president, sitting at a little table with an arguably racist white beat cop from Boston, like some little kid in time-out in a kindergarten class.” The incident would subsequently become known as “the beer summit.” “I don’t think anyone has really tried to think through the harm that that whole incident inflicted on the country,” he continues. “The courageous president we had voted for disappeared.” Jones says that a number of White House staffers, particularly those of color, wished the president hadn’t done it. “I wish he had gone out and said, ‘I want to clarify what I said about the police behaving foolishly. What I meant was: They behaved damn foolishly. I’m going back to work.’ ”
It didn’t help that Obama’s brain trust — at least in the beginning — seemed to be made extremely uncomfortable by race matters. “Sometimes liberals think, Because I’m fair-minded, I know how to handle race relations,” says Marc Morial, the head of the National Urban League. “No. Handling race relations means knowing how to handle alligators and crocodiles. Apart from Valerie Jarrett, there weren’t a lot of African-American advisers in there who were experienced in dealing with race.” He thinks for a moment. “Or white advisers,” he adds. “There are lots of white advisers who have experience in dealing with race relations. But I think the David Axelrod–Rahm Emanuel axis didn’t understand it.” Barbara Arnwine, the recently retired executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says people would refer to Obama’s advisers as “the Great White Wall.” She adds: “During his first term, I thought Bill Clinton was more directly engaged with the black and civil-rights community on policy matters than Obama was — and a lot less defensive.”
The beer summit was the last the public heard from Obama about race for quite some time. Daniel Q. Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, later analyzed the record of the president’s public comments and found he’d spoken less about race in his first two years than any Democratic president since JFK. “Whenever I gave an interview, I felt the pressure to say, ‘All Americans, all Americans,’ ” says Jones, who resigned from the White House in September 2009 after revelations about his previous political affiliations and beliefs, which were more radical than the White House would have liked. “There was this anxiety that we shouldn’t look too concerned about blacks. I understood the tightrope from the beginning. He’s the president of all people. But sometimes it felt like he was president of everyone except black people.”
One can argue that Obama’s hands were tied from the very beginning. This country is still a vexed mess when it comes to race. Even during the first campaign, Obama’s advisers were painfully aware of the electorate’s misgivings. They were hard to miss, if you were in the polling business. The Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg tells an illustrative tale: When his firm surveyed hundreds of likely voters in Macomb County, Michigan (fabled for its dense concentration of Reagan Democrats), “they were acutely conscious that Obama was African-American. What they said was, ‘Is he going to govern for everybody? Or is he going to govern for his people?’ That was the critical, pivotal question for them.” These crucial voters wanted to see Obama as a symbol of progress, of how far we’d come. Yes, we can. They didn’t want to see him as a symbol of disaffection, of how far we had to go. “I am sure the campaign was conscious of it,” says Greenberg, “and he had to deal with it if he was going to sustain their support — governing not for a particular group, but for everybody.”
These same reservations were evident — maybe even intensified — in the immediate aftermath of the election. That Gallup survey that trumpeted our optimism? It also found deep streaks of pessimism. Only 32 percent of McCain voters felt proud of Obama. More than half, 56 percent, felt “afraid.” By 2010, the tea party was ascendant, peddling racist imagery. “No one expected the pictures of him eating watermelon, the pictures making him look like a monkey, the Sambos,” says Arnwine. “The racism was so base.”
Obama’s election brought out not just the best of the country, in other words, but its worst. “Portions of white America have literally had a nervous breakdown over a black man being in the White House,” says Anthea Butler, a religious-studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “I mean, here people are, acting so surprised about Donald Trump’s popularity. Hello? He’s the one who asked Obama for a birth certificate!”
Writing in The Atlantic in 2012, Ta-Nehisi Coates tried to show, brick by brick, how the Republican rhetoric of the Obama years has been racialized in ways both subtle and explicit. He noted that Obamacare was framed as “reparations.” (Bill Clinton’s stab at universal health care, meanwhile, was generally framed as an excess of “big government.”) In January 2012, Newt Gingrich declared that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in history,” when in fact that distinction goes to George W. Bush. When Obama criticized Arizona’s draconian immigration laws, Iowa congressman Steve King said Obama “has a default mechanism in him … that favors the black person.” And in response to the Gates incident, Glenn Beck said that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
This was the media, Congress, and electorate that Obama had to contend with. How much, realistically, could he explicitly say or do for African-Americans under such circumstances? “I’m deeply conflicted over this fact,” Coates told James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic, in a public discussion. “It’s smart politics for him not to talk about race.”
No one contests that Obama is navigating rather treacherous political narrows, but his critics still believe he could have done things differently. “All presidents bear burdens of some sort,” says Fredrick Harris, the political scientist at Columbia. “Race was one with Obama. But from my perspective, why should black constituents bear the burden of his risk aversion when it comes to issues of race?”
Indeed, some civil-rights leaders see the Black Lives Matter movement (and its abiding impact on the 2016 campaign) as a rebuke to Obama, a symptom of his inability thus far to satisfactorily address racial inequality in this country. “By now, it’s safe to say that black people have wanted Obama to do more,” says Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s co-founders. “For the last eight years, everything and nothing has been about race.” She looks at the deaths of young black men and women we’ve recently witnessed — children, some of them, with Skittles in their pockets — and feels deep disappointment in Obama’s reactions to them. “Too often,” she says, “he uses these occasions not to push for greater accountability within law enforcement, but to push a narrative that black people should behave more responsibly.” She understands that law enforcement is a constituency the president cannot afford to alienate. “But that assumption erases the power dynamic in this country,” she says, “and it places the responsibility on black people, who are without economic power, political power, and social power to impact their own conditions.”
These law-enforcement excesses are set against the larger backdrop of an incarceration pandemic: If you are an African-American male, you stand a one in three chance of cycling through prison at some point. But the president’s record on this matter has been mixed. Yes, it was under Obama that Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced the disparities in punishments for crack- and powder-cocaine possession. But the law did not apply retroactively. After the law passed, thousands still languished in confinement though they no longer met the criteria of such harsh sentences, and Obama, who had the unique power of clemency to set them free, wasn’t doing so. “The administration could have acted much more boldly to commute the sentences of the thousands of people still serving time under the old, unfair crack law,” says Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project.
The other policy disappointment — not unrelated — that inevitably comes up is the issue of African-American unemployment. Talk to black lawmakers, and this is the first thing they mention: How they wish Obama had made extra efforts to strengthen job-creation programs in their struggling districts, where some of those high-profile murders were taking place. The White House would usually respond to this complaint with “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The answer always left Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who ranks third in the House, underwhelmed. “If a boat has several holes in the bottom,” he told me, “it ain’t lifting.”
But the most wrenching reactions to Obama centered on how he did or did not respond to the numerous highly visible acts of violence and injustice against African-Americans during his tenure. Charles Coleman Jr., a civil-rights attorney in New York, talked about two critical moments in Obama’s presidency. “So, George Zimmerman is acquitted,” he says about the man who killed Trayvon Martin. “There is a significant faction of the country that’s at a loss: How do we have a dialogue on this? And the president delivers an incredible speech.” Extemporaneously, from the looks of it. He said Trayvon could have been him 35 years ago. “It represented the pinnacle of where he’s been on race. It was an example of the president speaking to black America as a black American, from within our community. He made us feel like he really does get it.”
Then there was Ferguson. Even by Obama standards, the president seemed to react to the shooting of an unarmed black man and the subsequent anger with unusual caution. Obama expressed his distress about the incident, but he also pleaded for calm and chastised those who rioted — a reaction that devastated many African-Americans, who thought he was emphasizing the stereotype of black lawlessness. “It delegitimized the frustrations of black people and the reasons for their frustration,” says Coleman. “It fed into the narrative of, ‘These are angry black people in the streets.’ ”
Jon Favreau, the president’s former head speechwriter, understands this point of view but believes the president had little choice. “An American city was on fire,” he says. “He’s the president. He doesn’t want to further incite violence or instability.” He says people often fail to grasp this: how a few words from the president can crater the stock market or exacerbate a conflict.
As for the overall arc of Obama’s rhetoric on race, Favreau rejects the conventional wisdom: “There’s this view that he was courageous to speak out about race before he got to the White House, then he was quiet, and then, after the 2014 midterms, he was free to speak again,” he says. “I never bought into that theory. He had to take on events as they came. There was a financial crisis. An oil spill. Afghanistan. Bin Laden. Health care.” Then came a visible succession of killings of young, unarmed African-Americans. And Obama addressed those too. “I find it frustrating when people say he’s finding his voice and that he’s finally comfortable” discussing race, agrees Jarrett. “He has always felt perfectly comfortable speaking out when he thought it could make a difference.”
Paul Butler, who worked at the Department of Justice under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, says much of the frustration African-Americans were expressing post-Ferguson was the culmination of many years’ worth of irritation, not over Obama’s caution, necessarily, but his penchant for “respectability politics.” (“Brothers should pull up their pants” was one of his more memorable lines during the campaign.) That a man with the power to address structural inequality would instead talk about behavior really rankled, Butler says, echoing Garza. He cites Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse College in 2013, in which the president said, “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”
“It’s impossible imagining Hillary going to Wellesley or Smith and saying, ‘Stop whining about the patriarchy and the glass ceiling. Nobody cares,’ ” says Butler, who now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center. “She would not say it.”
“Yes, she would!” protests Jarrett. “She’d talk about resilience! If you read the whole speech, it was to strengthen them, to make them feel resilient.”
Butler disagrees. “Obama has a famous swag,” he says. “It’s a signal he sends to us with his walk that says, ‘I got this.’ He had it with trade, with immigration, with health care. But he doesn’t have it when he talks about race.”
How does he look then? I ask.
“He looks tired,” says Butler. “He looks weary. It’s almost like he suffers from the racial fatigue whites say they suffer from.”
“During that first election season,” says Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C., office, “my husband and I would go to dinner parties in lovely homes with all these super-well-educated African-Americans, and so many of them talked about how, ‘Oh, Obama’s going to do this on race, he’s going to do this for black America.’ And my husband and I were the only two who said he has to govern the way he ran — and he didn’t run on racial-justice issues or reform issues.”
It’s possible — reasonable to assume, even — that Obama never wanted to initiate a huge national conversation about race. Maybe he simply wanted to be a great president, defining “great” however he wished. In The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, Fredrick Harris notes that Obama didn’t really speak about racial inequality during his first presidential campaign unless he had to. His most impassioned speech on the subject, back in June 2007, came after he’d spent a quarter of the year trailing Hillary Clinton among black supporters. “It grew stronger when he needed black support to shore up his viability as a candidate,” writes Harris. “It grew dimmer after black supporters got behind his candidacy en masse.”
Even in his speeches about race, Obama often pushes a more universalist message. In his commemorative remarks in Selma this spring, for instance, he turned the marchers’ struggle into a metaphor for all struggles of the disempowered in the United States: “The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the moon.”
“He’s kind of a black Reagan,” says Anthea Butler. “He likes to believe in big, lofty things.”
In his work, Gates has examined “the burden of representation,” which he once defined as “the homely notion that you represent your race, thus that your actions can betray your race or honor it.” It is why Obama is being asked repeatedly whether he’s done enough for black America. It is why Jarrett answers repeatedly that she is not sure why it’s his job. And it is why Anthea Butler ruefully responds, in turn: “Every black person has this job whether they want it or not — and he’s the president. History is going to think it’s his job. We’re going to talk about him for the next 500 years.”
But as Coleman points out, there is no consensus on how to do this job. “The enigma of President Obama on race,” he explains, “may be reflective of a larger question of how black Americans engage the conversation of race themselves. We are not a monolithic group, as anyone with a brain can figure out.” To take some crude examples from public life: Jesse Jackson is not Colin Powell is not Ben Carson. “There are those of us who feel like we don’t have to make it always about race,” he says, “and then there are those for whom it’s the opposite: Race accounts for everything and anything.” Coleman then turns to the question of Obama. “The difficulty with the president is that I’m not sure I know where he stands.”
But this, of course, is what being human is: reconciling contradictions in our muddled identities, containing multitudes. This, in fact, is what Obama is known for — he sees things on one hand and then on the other, he empathizes with all points of view. At its heart, Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father, was about reckoning with the basic question of who he was. This summer, he revisited his adolescent confusion when speaking to Marc Maron. Noting that Maron’s studio wasn’t far from his old stomping grounds at Occidental College, the president mentioned that those years raised a lot of questions for him, like: “Who am I really? A lot of that revolved around issues of race.” He then elaborated on those issues, channeling the inner dialogue of his younger self: “I am an African-American, but not grounded in a place with a lot of African-American culture” — Hawaii, he meant. “So I’m trying to figure out: All right, I’m seen and viewed and understood as a black man in America. What does that mean?”
Back in 2006, I interviewed Obama for this magazine. I asked him if he’d ever read Gates’s essay in The New Yorker about Colin Powell. He hadn’t, though he loved Gates’s work. I mentioned a critical distinction that Gates made: Jackson wanted to be the first black president. Powell, if he were to run, wanted to be the first president who happened to be black.
“I don’t think that those two are necessarily opposing,” Obama told me. “I don’t want people to pretend I’m not black or that it’s somehow not relevant. But ultimately, I’d want to be a really great president, you know? And then I’d worry about all the other stuff. Because there are a lot of mediocre or poor presidents.”
To borrow a favorite phrase of the president’s, let me be clear: Obama is tremendously popular with African-Americans. Right now, his approval rate is 91 percent among them, and he’s rarely fallen below 80 percent. Even his critics in this story are still his supporters. Van Jones is his dogged defender on television. Jim Clyburn notes repeatedly that Obama rescued us during a recession, pulled us out of Iraq. Paul Butler, from Georgetown University Law Center, has an Obama action figure sitting on his kitchen table. Whenever he discovers it’s been knocked over, he makes a point of standing it back on its feet.
Anthea Butler notes that there’s a generation of black Americans who don’t just love the president but wish badly to protect him — not just psychologically but physically. “If you talk to an older black person,” she tells me, “somebody who’s 70 or older, they’re gonna be like, ‘Honestly, we just want him to get out alive.’ ”
Al Sharpton, one of Obama’s staunchest defenders and a sometime adviser, argues that there is much to be grateful for in this presidency. “You know how many black people tell me, ‘I didn’t have health insurance until now’?” The Affordable Care Act is projected to give an estimated 2.9 million more African-Americans coverage by 2016, significantly narrowing the coverage gap between blacks and whites. “It’s extremely strange to hear people question President Obama who never questioned Bill Clinton,” he continues. “Under Bill Clinton, we got the crime bill that gave us three strikes and you’re out, and the welfare-reform bill. I too would have liked to see the Obama years do more. I agree with that. But Barack Obama never gave us a bill that hurt us.”
Sharpton has gotten a lot of grief for his support of Obama. Cornel West, whose manifold political objections to the president are at this point hard to separate from his personal ones, went so far as to call the reverend “the bona fide house Negro of the Barack Obama plantation.” But Sharpton says he’s come by his support for the president through some hard-won local lessons. “When I sat in New York with the first and only black mayor,” he tells me, referring to David Dinkins, “we tried to push him on various issues.” Dinkins kept trying to push back, saying he had to govern for all New Yorkers. It was the same defense as Obama’s. “So we started calling him names,” says Sharpton, “and we started saying, ‘You shoulda done this that and the other.’ ” He pauses. “And we ended up with 20 years of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.”
Obama’s supporters can point to a number of his accomplishments with regard to race. His attorney general Eric Holder rebuilt the civil-rights division within the DOJ; in 2013, Holder also announced the Smart on Crime initiative, which instructs federal prosecutors to avoid bringing charges that would trigger mandatory minimum penalties in the case of certain low-level crimes. Then there is the possibility of the criminal-justice-reform bill. “If he can sign a bipartisan bill by Christmas,” says Jones, “it’ll make up for the frustrations of the middle years.”
In February 2014, the White House started the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a public-private effort that both partners with communities and helps nourish existing federal programs that boost the prospects of young men of color. (This summer, for instance, the new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, announced a pilot program that would give Pell grants to prisoners.) It won’t end when Obama leaves the White House. This May, Obama announced the formation of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit powered by an all-star advisory board (John Legend, Colin Powell, Shaq) and millions of corporate dollars that will attempt to close the opportunity gap for young men of color.
“This will remain a mission for me and Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency,” he said when announcing the program, “but for the rest of my life.” How large a role it will play in Obama’s postpresidential life has yet to be determined. But its conception is entirely consistent with the president’s ideals and modus operandi. It turns him into a community organizer again — but, this time, with millions of dollars and the Rolodex of a former president of the United States.
These accomplishments may not be as epic as some have wished. But even the presidency has its limitations. When Jarrett told the audience in Aspen that it isn’t Obama’s responsibility to change race relations in the United States, it may have seemed like a punt. He is, after all, the man with the electoral mandate, the bully pulpit, the veto pen, the executive order, and, for his first two years, the Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress. But her response also had the effect of lobbing the question right back to her mostly white audience. Because here’s how she followed up: “The question is: What are we gonna do? It’s a collective responsibility. This is not something where suddenly, because the country elected him president, our history just evaporates. It has to happen family by family.”
The hardest part, for those who root for Obama, is that before long, these issues will no longer be his responsibility at all, at least as commander-in-chief. Sharpton believes African-Americans will sorely miss the simple image of a black family going in and out of the White House each day. Obama’s triumph, as far as he’s concerned, was a mute, daily reminder of the possibility of black ascendancy, an invisible psychological superstructure onto which a whole generation of black children could unconsciously graft their aspirations. “When all the smoke clears and Barack Obama’s gone,” says Sharpton, “a white president will succeed a black president. We’ve never been here before. And what will that do emotionally and otherwise in the black community that is already up in arms? When we don’t even have the symbolic charge of seeing a black man and woman, two girls, on the news every night?”
In the meantime, there is, to borrow another Obama trope, still possibility for change. “I think you’re going to see a lot of things happen in this last 15 months, and he’s going to go all out to address the problems he’s been reluctant to give extensive statements about,” says Elijah Cummings, who represents Baltimore and was head of the Congressional Black Caucus when Obama first ran for Senate. “I just do.”
He tells a story about the night of Obama’s first inauguration. “I’ll never forget: My wife and I were at the White House with him, after he finished all the parties. And he said, ‘Elijah, I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to do. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make the world a better place for the community you’re in.’ ” Whatever disappointments there have been in the years since, he believes that is still Obama’s goal. “Sometimes,” says Cummings, “he’s just doing things quietly.”
*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.