It helped distinguish him from more experienced Democrats in the 2008 presidential primaries, then nearly doomed his candidacy after his close relationship with a provocative black pastor was revealed. Once in the White House, his race often appeared to be as much a burden for him as an asset.
Now as he confronts public anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager, Obama is being challenged again to meet the unique demands that come with being the nation’s first African American president.
Obama’s handling of the verdict’s aftermath reflects some of the hard-learned lessons of the past four years. Rather than criticism, he has chosen a tone of consolation, avoiding the issue of race directly to help cool the country down.
On Sunday afternoon, Obama issued a short statement asking “every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin.
“And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our communities,” he continued, citing gun violence rather than racial mistrust as a specific issue to be considered.
Obama chose to issue the written statement rather than address the nation on camera — an option White House officials say was never discussed. It is highly unusual for a president to comment on a specific court case, and even more rare to do so on camera.
But senior administration officials said the fact that he had done so previously in the Martin case — and that the verdict had prompted strong emotions — influenced the decision to say something in writing. Obama helped draft the statement, they said.
“It wasn’t assumed inside the White House that he would obviously do this,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the decision. “But this was something he had spoken to personally, in a very personal way, last year. And it’s a story that the country was really following.”
Of all the “firsts” Obama has achieved, his role as the country’s first black president has never been one in which he has been entirely comfortable.
His political near-death experience in the 2008 Democratic primaries caused by his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a Chicago pastor whose angry sermons were tinged with racial grievance, haunted Obama as he entered office.
His message from the start was that he would be a president for all Americans, not just black Americans. He was unsentimental about his achievement.
“At the inauguration, I think there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step that had moved us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country,” Obama said during a news conference a little more than two months after his swearing-in. “And that lasted about a day.”