“I can’t sound like Martin,” Obama said at one point, according to the scholars. “I can’t sound like Jesse.”
Obama was still more than a year away from becoming America’s first black president, but already he was parsing that identity in his mind.
“He was trying to be Barack, and to not try to be someone else,” said Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a longtime Obama mentor who attended the June 2007 strategy session at a downtown Washington hotel, a rehearsal for a Democratic candidates debate at predominantly black Howard University.
The session was an early preview of a struggle that has sometimes confounded President Obama, sometimes energized him, sometimes disheartened him during the course of his presidency: How do you lead a nation in difficult times while embracing your unique place in history? How do you balance the duties of the presidency with the enormous expectations of people who look like you and feel pride in your achievement but may have unrealistic hopes and needs you can’t meet?
“It’s been more challenging than he or black America or black leadership thought it would be,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the longtime civil rights activist who has emerged as one of Obama’s most trusted black allies.
Obama rarely discusses his innermost feelings about being the first African American to occupy the Oval Office, according to friends and associates, preferring to keep his thoughts closely held, shared with only a select few. He has shown himself to be drawn to the symbolic, or even aspirational, aspect of his presidency.
One of the iconic images of his tenure is a 2009 photograph of Obama leaning down to let a 5-year-old black boy, Jacob Philadelphia, touch his hair. The boy wanted to see if his hair felt like the president’s. The image, captured by White House photographer Pete Souza, has been on display ever since, just outside the Oval Office in a hallway that Obama passes through regularly.
“He knows that a lot of young black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American children will grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal for the president of the United States to be African American,” said Valerie Jarrett, his longtime friend and senior adviser. “He recognizes that little black children can see their possibilities through his accomplishments.”
Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, the first black governor of his state and an Obama friend, is one of the few with whom the president has commiserated. But even with him, Obama is cautious, leaving it to Patrick to bring up the issue during their conversations.