When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 I had no illusions about what, in policy terms, he could accomplish or would even want to accomplish. I had two simple criteria for his success beyond which everything else would be gravy: that he be president and he be black (and by black, of course, I mean brown). Whatever else he did or didn’t do, it was already transformative that he be a black president – something I (and plenty of other folks) never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. Growing up in suburban Washington DC in the 70s, it was clear to me the notion that in America “anyone can grow up to be president” did not apply to anyone darker than, say, Richard Nixon. And let’s be honest, even he was a little swarthy for comfort (look how that turned out). I will never forget how it felt on election night, November 4, 2008, standing on the dance floor of Roccapulco, to look up at the giant screen and weep tears of joy to see a president who was brownish, like me. Like me. In that moment (and whenever I’ve thought about it since, including as I write this) I am Jacob Philadelphia patting Obama’s head: “Yes, it does feel the same.”
In the years that followed it wasn’t about promises kept or broken; it wasn’t about Sotomayor and Kagan; it wasn’t about Bradley Manning and Osama Bin Laden; it wasn’t about teleprompters or professorial detachment or excessive caution in the face of congressional brinksmanship. We had a president who put his pants on one leg a time and who had brown-colored skin. Period. America was different than it had been before. There was no going back. No brown boy born in America would ever again feel the unspoken certainty that “anyone can be president” did not apply to him. (And I do mean ‘him.’ We’re still waiting for a woman president, but I no longer doubt that I’ll see one in my lifetime.) Whatever else happened, no one could go back in time and make Obama not have been elected president in 2008.
As the 2012 election season approached, I had a running argument with my friend Nathan who insisted that if Obama were not re-elected it would invalidate his presidency. I found this ridiculous. Repeatedly. How is a one-term president not a president? I mean, come on, he won the Nobel Peace Prize like two minutes after being elected (drone strikes notwithstanding). So what if he doesn’t win a second term. He was still president for four years. It counts. I argued this point unyieldingly right up until lunchtime yesterday, when, suddenly, despite my best efforts to deny it, I realized it wasn’t as simple as I wanted to be. The anti-Obama rhetoric in the last four years has been so relentless, so venomous, so absolute, that rightly or wrongly, I felt that if Obama were not re-elected, it would somehow undo the transformative power of his election in the first place. ‘Yeah, we tried having a black president once, but look how that turned out.’ I had been wrong. There was a third criterion for his success. Not only did he have to be president and be black, he had to get re-elected. In a strange way, it mattered even more this time, because there’s a big difference between never having had something, and having had something and then having it taken away.
It is with great relief that I note that Obama is still president and he is still black. The transformation was not undone, and I can now say with greater certainty than before that Obama has met my criteria for success, vanishingly modest in political terms, but reality-changing for me and the Jacob Philadelphia’s of the world. So Nathan, you were right. Warren 2016, anyone?