President Obama’s reelection — in a ferocious campaign dotted by charges of racial anger and minority-voter suppression — has provided what many blacks say will surely deepen his legacy: irrefutable evidence that his presidency is hardly a historical fluke as he has now won two national campaigns with overwhelming white support.
Obama, the nation’s first black president, was already soaked in history, a figure seen in the aftermath of his 2008 victory as the culmination of a decades-long civil rights crusade that suffered the assassination of beloved figures who fought and marched for the right to vote and freely pursue the American dream.
But Obama’s first term as president also saw him pelted with racially charged denunciations — some from politicians — that reopened festering wounds and even fears in the African American community for his safety. At times it felt as if the W.E.B. Du Bois prophecy — the problem of the 20th century would be the color line, he famously opined — had leapt right into the 21st century.
“In many ways,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Obama’s reelection can be seen as resilience on the part of the African American community.”
But Bunch admitted that he felt, as did many blacks in the waning weeks of the campaign, that Obama — despite accomplishments in the war on al-Qaeda, a strengthening economy and passage of a universal-health-care law — had been mercilessly castigated.
“You want to hope it’s a smaller minority with that real racial hatred,” he said. “You see the vitriolic comments, and you realize the first election of Obama didn’t change the pain and hatred. In some ways that election magnified some of it.”
He added: “It is not a post-racial world, but a world that would make us believe in the possibility of bringing people together.”
Throughout the important swing state of Ohio, black ministers had rallied their flocks Sunday from pulpits, linking the president’s name with biblical figures who had fought unflinchingly against long, hard odds. Then those ministers led their flocks to waiting buses, which took them to early-voting sites.
Mayor Michael V. Coleman of Columbus, Ohio — one of the first big-city mayors to support Obama’s daring 2008 campaign — said the reelection was crucial for the psyche of black America. “I think, in some ways, it was more important than the first election,” he said. “There may be some in the country who might have said the first race he won was because of timing — that Obama was in the right place and the country was in such a bad place after Bush. So if he had lost, some would just say the first time was a mirage.”
Coleman, echoing the sentiments of many blacks, said he was stung by the racially tinged attacks against the president during the campaign. On the eve of the election, Coleman presided over a voter rally at the King Arts Complex in Columbus. “Someone there said, ‘I am tired of them disrespecting my president!’ The roof almost came down.”
Coleman — the first black elected mayor in the Ohio capital — also sensed a new start for the nation with the Obama win. “I think this represents the beginning of a new era in America,” he said. “It will be focused on merit, truth-telling and having a moral center. All those were things that Mitt Romney never quite got.”
At Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander recited the poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which she had written especially for the occasion. She was keenly aware of the tenseness of the presidential campaign. “In a funny way, this election is even more powerful than the first one,” said Alexander, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Yale University. “It proves again that the country cannot only elect a black man — but reelect the best person for the job.”
Alexander said she thinks that a second Obama term will provide the president with more flexibility. “We will all be wondering: Will the obstruction he faced be different?”
Obama’s victory meant a great deal to veterans of the civil rights movement. “I am completely exhilarated,” said Margaret Burnham, a law professor at Northeastern University. “This victory gives us an opportunity to fulfill the promises of democracy all across the country. It will be a more inclusive country. We have a president who has made it clear he’s on the side of working people.”
Saying she remembers the long hot days of working for civil rights in Mississippi, Burnham said the Obama victory was special, as it was in 2008.
“People saw through all the money the Republicans spent,” she said. “It was a party that didn’t sound like America. This is such a compelling and dramatic moment for people all over.”
There was jubilation on the streets of the District with Obama’s reelection. Janice Brown, 30, a staffing consultant who lives in Suitland, stood in a corner of Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW in a teal sweater, excited and relieved. “It’s awesome for America. Not only is he a great leader, but he is inspiring. His impact is more than on politics — it’s on the social fabric.”