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Obama’s Legacy The First Family

How Michelle Obama became a singular American voice

The heart of the first lady’s efforts was a message about the country’s persistent inequities of race, class and gender.
First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
First lady Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Three weeks after Inauguration Day in 2009 and still a long way from crafting an agenda, Michelle Obama climbed into her motorcade and paid a visit to Mary’s Center, a Latino community services agency a few miles north of the White House. She read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” to the young children and met with teenagers who asked why she had come.

The first reason, she said, was that Washington was now the Obamas’ home and they had always been taught to listen and not just pass on by. The second reason identified the audience and framed the approach that would define this most uncommon first lady’s agenda for the next eight years.

“I think it’s real important for young kids, particularly kids who come from communities without resources, to see me, not the first lady,” she said. “To see that there is no magic to me sitting here. There are no miracles that happen. There is no magic dust.”

With the 13 teenagers seated in a semicircle, Obama shared the setbacks and self-doubt she faced as the daughter of black working-class parents in Chicago. When people told her she couldn’t achieve something, she set out to prove them wrong. One step at a time, she climbed, and now she felt an obligation to share.

“When you get, you give back,” she said.

Obama would give much bigger speeches on much bigger stages as she became one of the most famous people in the world. For many Democrats, she was the moral voice of the 2016 presidential campaign, calling out Republican Donald Trump for trafficking in “prejudice, fears and lies.” For other fans, she was simply the first lady who went viral, making them smile with her eclectic fashion choices and her energetic, sometimes goofy pitches for healthier eating.

The heart of Obama’s efforts, however, was a message about the persistent inequities of race, class and gender in America. In scores of speeches and projects, she turned again and again to the stacked deck. These were the themes and conundrums that animated her work before she reached the White House and now seem certain to shape her choices after she departs.

For all the grief she took from critics who conjured radicalism, grievance or, bizarrely, racism from her finely tuned remarks, Obama’s antidotes were fundamentally timeless and conservative. More than anything, she used the strength of her own Chicago-to-Princeton-to-the-White-House narrative to urge kids to believe in themselves and never quit. She mastered the levers of popular culture and harnessed the convening power of her office and her carefully curated brand to establish partnerships with the private sector.

US First Lady Michelle Obama is hugged by children as she visits Mary's Center, a non-profit organization which helps people with limited or no access to health services,  in Washington on February 10, 2009.      AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Children hug Michelle Obama as she visits Mary’s Center, a D.C. nonprofit organization that helps people with limited access to health services, in 2009. (Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Obama addressed obesity, which disproportionately affects low-income families and children of color. She worked to increase arts education in poorly performing schools and ease the path for aspiring first-generation college students. She dispensed hugs to thousands of children, saying in a simple embrace that she believed in them. At a BET special, she called out, “Black girls rock!”

A straight-talker by temperament, she modulated her tone in deference to the role. Eternally disciplined and pragmatic, she never swung for the fences. Critics on the left chided her for not being bold enough, as she acknowledged last year. Her answer: “These were my choices, my issues, and I decided to tackle them in the way that felt most authentic to me — in a way that was both substantive and strategic, but also fun and, hopefully, inspiring.”

When Obama took up her unpaid job three days after her 45th birthday, she faced vast and conflicting expectations. She was the first African American first lady in a country that was anything but post-racial. She was the magnetic campaigner who told audiences that power concedes nothing without a struggle. She was the highly educated, professionally accomplished mother of two young daughters who smilingly adopted the moniker of “mom in chief.”

“From the moment we walked in the door, people have wanted to get inside her head and figure her out. ‘Is she in this box or that box? Why isn’t she doing this or doing that?’ ” said Jocelyn Frye, a Harvard Law School friend who became Obama’s first policy adviser. “She’s not a person who lives in boxes. It’s just not that simple.”

Her road to the White House

The personal story that Obama carried into the White House in January 2009 was enough to etch her name in the history books even if she did not accomplish anything more. She called herself “the little black girl from the South Side of Chicago.” As she would say later, her ancestors had arrived in the United States in chains and now she and Barack Obama were living in a home that slaves helped build.

But in other ways, too, Obama brought a set of experiences markedly different from her modern-day predecessors. Of the previous eight presidents, four had been governors, four had been vice presidents. Their wives had lived in the public eye. Obama was a young Chicago professional, a working mother in a big city who spoke openly about juggling jobs, chores and child-rearing with her increasingly famous and preoccupied husband.

By upbringing, she was urban and attuned to issues of prejudice, hardship and inequality. She adored her father, Fraser C. Robinson III, a gregarious aspiring artist who spent his working life as a shift worker in the city water plant. A swimmer, boxer and soldier as a young man, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 30s. His health deteriorated, and he went from one crutch to two to a motorized cart. He died in 1991 at age 55, still working at the plant.

Both of Obama’s grandfathers had come north in the Great Migration, and many members of the Robinson and Shields families lived nearby. Purnell Shields, a talented carpenter and Obama’s maternal grandfather, was barred as an African American from the labor unions that claimed the highest-paying jobs. Fraser C. Robinson Jr. spent much of his career as a postal worker. If he had been born white, Obama once said, he would have been a banker.

Obama spent time with this extended family. She knew them all, from those who were prospering to those who were ailing or just getting by. She also knew countless schoolmates who seemed hardly different from her, yet had fallen short of their ambitions. When Barack Obama met her in 1989, he detected a sense of vulnerability that he traced to Michelle’s sense that life was “terrifyingly random.” She called herself “a statistical anomaly.”

After ditching the prosperous law firm, where she found the work soulless and many colleagues narrow, she spent two years doing economic development work at City Hall with future White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Next, in what she described as the happiest phase of her working life, she built the Chicago office of Public Allies, a nonprofit leadership training program with roots in community organizing.

Next, she spent a dozen years as an administrator at the University of Chicago, where she elevated the interests of neighboring African American communities. Much as she would in the White House, she searched for ways to connect a powerful and often remote institution with communities where it could do some good. Comfortable and connected in both worlds, she saw herself as a bridge.

In 2001, protesters seeking more construction jobs for African Americans at the university medical center said she should be fired. One said Obama and her colleagues were looking out for themselves and did “not have the best interests of blacks at heart.” Obama persisted. In the next seven years, 42.9 percent of the hospital’s spending on new construction, or $48.8 million, went to firms run by minorities or women, according to university figures.

The focus was not new. At Harvard Law School, where the tenured faculty was 96 percent white and 92 percent male, Obama spoke up for greater diversity. Charles Ogletree, a mentor and professor, pinpointed her passions early.

“Everything she wrote, the things that she was involved in, the things that she thought about,” he recalled of her law school years in the mid-1980s, “were in effect reflections on race and gender. And how she had to keep the doors open for women and men going forward.”

A portfolio of passions
First Lady Michelle Obama exercises with children from  Orr Elementary School in Washington, D.C. on September 06, 2013.
 Mrs. Obama is joined by Shaquille O'Neal, Allyson Felix, Dominique Dawes, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and North America Reebok President Uli Becker to announce new commitments around Let's Move! Active Schools, which aims to get physical activity back into schools, before, during and after the school day.
(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Michelle Obama exercises with children from Orr Elementary School in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 6, 2013. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

One of Obama’s signatures was the push for a seat at the table — or in “the room where it happens,” to borrow from “Hamilton,” the Broadway musical the Obamas admire. A few years ago, she told a gathering of White House interns that if they were not prepared to risk their power when they claimed that seat, they needed to make room for someone who would.

In reaching the most rarefied of tables, she figured she had four years, maybe eight, to make something happen, to “move the needle,” as she put it. As the media made a fuss over a new hairstyle, she once explained how she saw the role of first lady: “We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see. And, eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we’re standing in front of.”

Obama saw early that she could connect with disadvantaged young people by describing her South Side upbringing and the choices she made in her life. Even as the Obamas set out unambiguously to be the president and first lady for the entire country, they were determined “to look out for people who historically have not had people looking out for them,” Valerie Jarrett said in an interview. “Certainly, African American women and girls see themselves in her in a unique way.”

The White House portfolio included Let’s Move, her childhood obesity project, and efforts to open the White House and its grounds to kids who barely knew where it was and never imagined stepping inside. She established Joining Forces to help the military and their families with jobs and workplace issues and started a small mentoring program that became a personal cause.

She worked on homelessness among veterans and pushed Reach Higher, seeking to increase post-secondary education for low-income adolescents. Finally, she launched Let Girls Learn, an international initiative designed to improve access to secondary school for millions of girls around the world who found themselves on the outside looking in.

Throughout, Obama made clear to her staff that she favored coherent projects backed by creative but realistic thinking. She sought buy-in from federal agencies, state governments and private partners, and she wanted to make use of every opportunity. She told her aides, “Don’t just put me on a plane, send me someplace and have me smile.”

“She never looked at things esoterically or theoretically. It was practical and real,” said Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter, who advised her at key moments. “Her focus was never ‘How do I move Washington?’ It was much bigger than that. It was ‘How do you mobilize a country? How are real people outside of Washington going to see things?’ ”

At the White House, she staged arts events, from dance, music and spoken word to food and design workshops. She made sure that artists who were performing for well-heeled East Room audiences at night were teaching children at the White House or local schools during the day. Her tastes tilted to designers, artists, playwrights and directors of color, choices that alerted millions of Obama-watchers to work they might not have seen or heard.

In 2011, she helped launch Turnaround Arts, a program designed to deliver arts teaching, inspiration and supplies to some of the worst-performing schools in the country — often in places where arts programming was a budget casualty. From eight pilot programs in 2011, the project now reaches 68 schools, with 20 to be added in 2017.

“She knows the power of the arts. It’s visceral and it’s who she is,” said Megan Beyer, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “Every time we do an event, she’ll look at the audience and she’ll say, ‘This is not a fluke. This is what happens when you invest in these kids.’ ”

To critics on the right, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who mocked or denounced new science-based standards for school lunches as overly intrusive, Obama urged them to look more closely. She pointed to the millions of low-income children who depend on those meals and the federal government’s help in paying for them.

“We simply can’t afford to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s too hard, so let’s not do it,’ ” Obama said in 2014. When lobbyists persuaded Congress to count one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste in pizza sauce as the equivalent of a half-cup of vegetables, she wrote dismissively in the New York Times, “You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense.”

Preserving normalcy
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wear 3-D glasses while watching Super Bowl 43, Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, at a Super Bowl Party in the family theater of the White House. Guests included family,  friends, staff members and bipartisan members of Congress, 2/1/09. 
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama and the first lady, along with their guests, wear 3-D glasses at a Super Bowl party at the White House in 2009. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Inside the East Wing, Obama commanded intense loyalty from her staff and set her own agenda, down to the number of public days on her schedule — two at first, while Malia and Sasha were getting settled, and later three. She stayed closer to home than Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, who each traveled abroad more than twice as much, and put limits on her campaign trips, especially when not campaigning for her husband.

She tightly controlled her message. In eight years, she never gave a news conference, although she held a select few roundtables with reporters. She rarely granted interviews to the beat reporters who knew her work the best. More often, and more strategically, she granted face time to grateful personalities and comedians, along with media outlets carefully chosen for the audiences they reached.

Aides and friends were barely more accessible. When reporters called, former chief of staff Jackie Norris once said, Obama expected her friends to “check in and have conversations and make sure that it’s good for her.” Mostly, the friends did.

President Barack Obama, center, and first lady Michelle Obama, second from right, walk with their daughters, Sasha, left, and Malia, right, on the tarmac to board Air Force One at the Cape Cod Coast Guard Station, in Bourne, Mass., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. President Obama and the first family are returning to Washington D.C. following their vacation on the island of Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
The first family prepares to board Air Force One on Aug. 21, 2016, after their vacation on Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Since the beginning of the first presidential campaign nearly 10 years ago, Obama has credited her girlfriends with keeping her grounded amid the maelstrom. “When you’re isolated, that’s when you need your girls. They can keep you together when no one else can,” said Angela Kennedy, a D.C. public defender and former Princeton roommate who sees Obama regularly. “She’s smart. She recognized that.”

Not trailed by the presidential press pool, Obama escaped to the gym, restaurants, theaters and her friends’ houses, as well as the occasional trip to the presidential retreat at Camp David. It helped to have her mother, Marian Robinson, now 79, living on the third floor of the White House. “I can always go up to her room and cry, complain, argue,” Obama said. “And she just says, go on down there and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Obama spoke often of what it meant to have normal family dinners and activities with Malia and Sasha, talking about the girls’ doings and keeping things light. She has always been able “to stay above the fray,” said Frye, her Harvard friend, in part by “meeting with real people and talking about real-world problems. At the end of the day, she has kept her head.”

Obama’s ascendance — as mother, mentor, leader and critic — carries many meanings in American culture, particularly as an African American woman, said Nell Irvin Painter, an emeritus professor of American history at Princeton.

“Her power is a symbolic power,” Painter said, noting the way Obama “has conducted herself as first lady. She has grace, there is no question, but I would add elegance. It’s a kind of assurance that is also something new for a black woman in public life. She is the symbol of what an American can be. Michelle Obama has presented a universal American identity.”

A voice on race and racism
COLLEGE PARK, MD - MAY 17:  First lady Michelle Obama blows kisses to graduates after delivering the commencement speech during the Bowie State University graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. Obama received and Honorary Doctor of Laws degree before addressing the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama blows kisses to graduates after delivering the commencement address for Bowie State University, a historically black university, in Maryland in May 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On May 9, 2015, Obama took the stage at Tuskegee University in Alabama and delivered the most thorough and personal speech about race and racism of her tenure. As a speechmaker, said author Garry Wills, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his study of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “I don’t know that she has any competitors in women’s history.” She wowed millions of fans with keynote addresses at three successive Democratic National Conventions, but she also had a serious body of work that received less attention in mainstream circles.

Many times before her Tuskegee appearance, she had spoken about the country’s history of violence and discrimination against African Americans. She did it in Orangeburg, S.C., in 2007 to woo black support for her husband’s candidacy. She did it in Nashville during the 2012 reelection campaign, and in Topeka, Kan., in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. And she did it at other historically black universities, including Bowie State, Jackson State and North Carolina A&T.

Together, the talks reflected a lifetime of thinking about the shifting landscape of racism, the advances and the setbacks. At Tuskegee, she spoke of slights and hurdles while suggesting strategies — tested by her own experience, as always — to block out the noise and navigate a path forward.

“Here’s the thing: The road ahead is not going to be easy,” she told the graduates in an address that tracked the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, a storied black flying squadron in World War II. “It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you or they see just a fraction of who you are.”

“Too many folks feel frustrated and invisible,” Obama said. She cited worries about being pulled over “for absolutely no reason,” or being overlooked for a job “because of the way your name sounds,” or sending children to schools “that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal.” Above all, she said, there is the “realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen, for some folks, it will never be enough.”

The Obamas were not immune, despite their efforts, their achievements, their conduct. For years, Donald Trump sowed doubts about Barack Obama’s birth and citizenship, while talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his millions of followers that Michelle suffered from “uppity-ism” and called her “Michelle My Butt.” Foes likened her to a character from Planet of the Apes, a Star Wars Wookiee and a gorilla, a racist slur with a particularly long and ugly history. They challenged her patriotism and even questioned her gender.

But no matter how grim the outlook and how significant the structural challenges, Obama said at Tuskegee, despair and anger are “not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up.” Instead, she proposed the measured, practical, traditional responses that had worked for her. Study, organize, band together, be a mentor, help a cousin fill out a financial aid form and “vote, vote, vote.”

“You have got everything you need to do this. You’ve got it in you,” she said in her best I-believe-in-you tone. “Most of all, you’ve got yourselves and all of the heart, grit and smarts that got you to this day.”

It was never Obama’s style to summon people to the barricades. She drew criticism from some African American intellectuals and activists for perpetuating a bootstraps narrative that said black people must be twice as good to do just as well as whites. Painter recognized the critique but saw Obama’s message differently.

“She also says you can figure it out. That’s a crucial part,” Painter said. “Her commentary to black kids is, ‘You can do it. It’s not just lecturing and shaking her finger in their faces, but an encouragement. It’s pragmatic, but the way she phrases it, it is full of empathy and I think there is still a lack of empathy in the way the United States speaks to black people.”

The response to Obama’s remarks provided proof aplenty. Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham saw “a litany of victimization.” Media comment boards filled with talk of a “tirade” and an “America-hater” and an “angry woman who has no appreciation for the many gifts our country has bestowed on her.” Someone wrote, “Can she or her husband ever just be Americans? Why do they always have to focus on their skin color? Repulsive.”

But also, “Michelle for President!” — something that Obama, whose favorability ratings routinely topped 60 percent, has said will never happen. “No. Nope. Not going to do it,” she said earlier this year.

Assessing America
WINSTON-SALEM, NC - Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigns in North Carolina with First Lady Michelle Obama in Winston-Salem, North Carolina Thursday October 27, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Michelle Obama campaigns with Hillary Clinton in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Oct. 27, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Michelle Obama was dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump. She perceived danger in the candidacy of an unstudied Republican who lied with abandon and routinely mocked and disparaged rivals, critics and entire swathes of the American populace, all the while vowing to wreck much of what the Obama administration spent eight years building.

“This is not normal. This is not politics as usual,” Obama declared at an October rally in New Hampshire after a tape surfaced of Trump boasting about grabbing women by the genitals. A growing number of women said they had been accosted. “I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about human decency. It’s about right and wrong.”

Obama said repeatedly during the campaign that Trump was dangerous, undeserving and lacking “any idea what this job takes.” In Philadelphia, she pointedly recalled Trump’s leadership of the birther movement, referring to the “hurtful, deceitful questions deliberately designed to undermine” her husband’s presidency.

The attacks on Trump were the strongest, sharpest words Obama uttered in public during the White House years. Whatever her anger or dismay, she never said she was surprised, for these were the regressive forces that she had seen in action her entire life.

On a weekday morning, with not many people watching, Obama delivered her take on the political moment. To a rapt church audience — men and women, white and black — she said in a tone more suited to a seminar than a rally, “My fear is that we don’t know what truth looks like anymore.” She spoke of her hard-won understanding of the world, drawing on her Chicago life, where persistence and good intentions came with no guarantees.

Politicians had become expert at turning doubt into fear, she said, as life got “harder, progressively harder, for regular people.”

“We’re still a nation that’s a little too mean,” Obama said. “I wish mean worked, because we’re good at it. Our tone is bad and we’ve grown to believe that, somehow, mean talk is tough talk . . . and we reward it. Not just in politics, but we reward it in every sliver of our culture. We look on people who are tough and say, ‘That’s what we need.’ ”

Obama spoke those words in South Carolina in January 2008. As Trump makes his way to Washington with his gilded pitchfork, her assessment rings true for more than 62 million Americans who supported him and millions more who didn’t care enough to vote. She is leaving the White House with work unfinished and fresh troubles brewing. She was right that day at Mary’s Center, in her first weeks on the job, when she offered a verdict that applied as much to the nation as to herself. There are no miracles, no magic dust.

What Obama offered was something else. To audiences great and small, she presented conviction, savvy, a dose of inspiration and a certain faith that the battles were worth waging and the effort would pay off in the end.

Peter Slevin, a former Post national correspondent, is the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life.”

This story is part of a virtual museum of President Barack Obama’s presidency. In five parts — The First Black President, Commander in Chief, Obama’s America, Obama and the World and The First Family — we explore the triumphs and travails of his historic tenure.

Room One
The First Black President
Illustrations by James Steinberg
A hopeful moment on race
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Obama’s effort to heal racial divisions and uplift black America
Barack Obama's presidency signaled a "post-racial" America at first, but the racial conflict followed disproved that.

Barack Obama’s watershed 2008 election and the presidency that followed profoundly altered the aesthetics of American democracy, transforming the Founding Fathers’ narrow vision of politics and citizenship into something more expansive and more elegant. The American presidency suddenly looked very different, and for a moment America felt different, too.

The Obama victory helped fulfill one of the great ambitions of the civil rights struggle by showcasing the ability of extraordinarily talented black Americans to lead and excel in all facets of American life. First lady Michelle Obama, and daughters Sasha and Malia, extended this reimagining of black American life by providing a conspicuous vision of a healthy, loving and thriving African American family that defies still-prevalent racist stereotypes.

But some interpreted Obama’s triumph as much more.

SLUG: NA/OBAMA DATE: 10/31/08 CREDIT: Linda Davidson / staff/ The Washington Post LOCATION: Wicker Memorial Park, Gary, IN SUMMARY: Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a rally in Gary, IN. PICTURED: Members of the crowd respond to Obama as he makes his way down the ropeline. Some seek to shake his hand, others want to touch his head, some just want a hug. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Fri Oct 31 23:06:03 2008
Members of the crowd in Gary, Ind., seek to shake the candidate's hand or touch his head as he thanks them for their support in October 2008. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The victory was heralded as the arrival of a “post-racial” America, one in which the nation’s original sin of racial slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow discrimination had finally been absolved by the election of a black man as commander in chief. For a while, the nation basked in a racially harmonious afterglow.

A black president would influence generations of young children to embrace a new vision of American citizenship. The “Obama Coalition” of African American, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American voters had helped usher in an era in which institutional racism and pervasive inequality would fade as Americans embraced the nation’s multicultural promise.

Seven years later, such profound optimism seems misplaced. Almost immediately, the Obama presidency unleashed racial furies that have only multiplied over time. From the tea party’s racially tinged attacks on the president’s policy agenda to the “birther” movement’s more overtly racist fantasies asserting that Obama was not even an American citizen, the national racial climate grew more, and not less, fraught.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: NOVEMBER 6 -- President Barack Obama is re-elected to office in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama is feted in Chicago on Nov. 6, 2012, the night he is elected to his second term as commander in chief. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

If racial conflict, in the form of birthers, tea partyers and gnawing resentments, implicitly shadowed Obama’s first term, it erupted into open warfare during much of his second. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case gutted Voting Rights Act enforcement, throwing into question the signal achievement of the civil rights movement’s heroic period.


Beginning with the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the nation reopened an intense debate on the continued horror of institutional racism evidenced by a string of high-profile deaths of black men, women, boys and girls at the hands of law enforcement.

The organized demonstrations, protests and outrage of a new generation of civil rights activists turned the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into the clarion call for a new social justice movement. Black Lives Matter activists have forcefully argued that the U.S. criminal justice system represents a gateway to racial oppression, one marked by a drug war that disproportionately targets, punishes and warehouses young men and women of color. In her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued that mass incarceration represents a racial caste system that echoes the pervasive, structural inequality of a system of racial apartheid that persists.

DENVER, COLORADO: OCTOBER 24 -- A fan hugs President Barack Obama as he works the rope line following a rally at City Park in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
A supporter hugs President Obama as he works the rope line following a rally in Denver in October 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s first-term caution on race matters was punctured by his controversial remarks that police “acted stupidly” in the mistaken identity arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University’s prominent African American studies professor, in 2009. Four years later he entered the breach once more by proclaiming that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

In the aftermath of racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and a racially motivated massacre in Charleston, S.C., Obama went further. In 2015, Obama found his voice in a series of stirring speeches in Selma, Ala., and Charleston, where he acknowledged America’s long and continuous history of racial injustice.

Policy-wise Obama has launched a private philanthropic effort, My Brother’s Keeper, designed to assist low-income black boys, and became the first president to visit a federal prison in a call for prison reform that foreshadowed the administration’s efforts to release federal inmates facing long sentences on relatively minor drug charges.

Despite these efforts, many of Obama’s African American supporters have expressed profound disappointment over the president’s refusal to forcefully pursue racial and economic justice policies for his most loyal political constituency.

From this perspective, the Obama presidency has played out as a cruel joke on members of the African American community who, despite providing indispensable votes, critical support and unstinting loyalty, find themselves largely shut out from the nation’s post-Great Recession economic recovery. Blacks have, critics suggested, traded away substantive policy demands for the largely symbolic psychological and emotional victory of having a black president and first family in the White House for eight years.


Others find that assessment harsh, noting that Obama’s most impressive policy achievements have received scant promotion from the White House or acknowledgment in the mainstream media.

History will decide the full measure of the importance, success, failures and shortcomings of the Obama presidency. With regard to race, Obama’s historical significance is ensured; only his impact and legacy are up for debate. In retrospect, the burden of transforming America’s tortured racial history in two four-year presidential terms proved impossible, even as its promise helped to catapult Obama to the nation’s highest office.

DES MOINES, IOWA: NOVEMBER 5 -- President Barack Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, November 5, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines on Nov. 5, 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s presidency elides important aspects of the civil rights struggle, especially the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King, for a time, served as the racial justice consciousness for two presidents — John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Many who hoped Obama might be able to serve both roles — as president and racial justice advocate — have been disappointed. Yet there is a revelatory clarity in that disappointment, proving that Obama is not King or Frederick Douglass, but Abraham Lincoln, Kennedy and Johnson. Even a black president, perhaps especially a black president, could not untangle racism’s Gordian knot on the body politic. Yet in acknowledging the limitations of Obama’s presidency on healing racial divisions and the shortcomings of his policies in uplifting black America, we may reach a newfound political maturity that recognizes that no one person — no matter how powerful — can single-handedly rectify structures of inequality constructed over centuries.

Peniel Joseph is professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

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The speech on race that saved Obama’s candidacy
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was almost derailed after racially charged sermons by his former minister, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ were released. After initiall downplaying the controversy, Obama faced it head on during his "A more perfect union" speech given in Philadelphia at the National Consitution Center.
A soliloquy in Philadelphia
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The beer summit
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Being number one means nothing until there’s a number two.

L. Douglas Wilder
First black governor since Reconstruction
The other trailblazers
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On a bridge in Selma
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If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Barack Obama
In his own words
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The backlash
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A new aesthetic
See photos

Some young Americans have known only one president in their lifetime.

So we asked their thoughts on President Obama as he leaves office.
Kids on Obama
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Crime, justice and race
Read story
Obama in Africa
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A record 69
of African Americans turned out to vote in 2008, surpassing white turnout rates for the first time.
Source: U.S. Elections Project analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data
The Obama electorate
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Your Obama presidency
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Room Two
Commander in Chief
Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
Perspectives on the president of a nation at war:

Has he failed to understand the nature of war or shown the virtues of patience to win the long game?

On war and leadership
Read essays
The parade of generals
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We won some good fights and we lost the war.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Former Marine infantryman
A tour of duty
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One enemy after another
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No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

Barack Obama
Words of war and peace
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The last convoy
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The rise of ISIS
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Weighing intervention
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An army of drones
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Struggle after service
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After the killing of Osama bin Laden,
of Americans approved of Obama’s efforts to stem terrorism.
Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls, 2011
Fear at home
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Your fight, your stories
Share your story
Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
Economic brinksmanship
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The price of Obamacare
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A new state of unions
See photo essay
Shots fired
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A cultural shift
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‘Healing the planet’
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What is it like to be the last black president?

Zach Galifianakis
Host of “Between Two Ferns”
Making presidential comedy
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A mark in the wilderness
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While the nation’s economy recovered steadily, over
6 in 10
Americans said the country was on the wrong track.
Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls
American reactions
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Your America
Share your story
Room Four
Obama and the World
Illustrations by Jasu Hu
Determined restraint
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For Muslims, unanswered prayers
Read story
Open hand, clenched fist
Read Q&A
Talking to Tehran
Watch video
Closer now – and cigars!
Read story
In 2015 and 2016, an average
of people throughout the world had a favorable opinion of the United States.
Pew Research Center
Standing in the world
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Friends, adversaries
See photos
A pivot to Asia
Read story
52 trips.
58 countries.
217 days
the country.
Air Force One miles
Read story
Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
The new modern family
Read essay

The Obama family has really uplifted the image of the black family from the moment we saw them.

Stacie Lee Banks, 53
Longtime Washingtonian
White House, black women
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The first lady’s last stand
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He does not walk. He strolls with a black man’s head-up posture.

Robin Givhan
Fashion critic, The Washington Post
It’s an Obama thing
See photos
In the cultural mix
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White House parents
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In fall 2009,
of Americans said they liked the way the Obama family leads their life in the White House.
Pew Research Center/National Public Radio poll
The most popular of them all?
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The O’Bidens
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The first dogs
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Obama’s Legacy
  • Terence Samuel, project editor
  • Allison Michaels, project manager, digital editor
  • Shannon Croom, multiplatform editor
  • Courtney Rukan, multiplatform editor
  • Emily Chow, graphics assignment editor
Design and development
  • Seth Blanchard
  • Emily Yount
  • Suzette Moyer, art director
  • James Steinberg, illustrator (The First Black President)
  • Brian Stauffer, illustrator (Commander in Chief)
  • Thandiwe Tshabalala, illustrator (Obama’s America)
  • Jasu Hu, illustrator (Obama and the World)
  • Erin K. Robinson, illustrator (The First Family)
  • Dalton Bennett
  • Gillian Brockell
  • Bastein Inzaurralde
  • Claritza Jimenez
  • Ashleigh Joplin
  • Whitney Leaming
  • Osman Malik
  • Zoeann Murphy
  • Erin O’Conner
  • Sarah Parnass
  • Mahnaz Rezaie
  • Jorge Ribas
  • Whitney Shefte
  • Peter Stevenson
Photo editing
  • Stephen Cook
  • Robert Miller
  • Kenneth Dickerman
  • Wendy Galietta
  • Bronwen Latimer
  • Dee Swann
Writing and reporting
  • Derek Chollet
  • Elliot Cohen
  • Christian Davenport
  • Ivo H. Daalder
  • Mike DeBonis
  • Karen DeYoung
  • Juliet Eilperin
  • Michael Fletcher
  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff
  • Robin Givhan
  • Will Haygood
  • Sari Horwitz
  • Greg Jaffe
  • Peniel Joseph
  • Paul Kane
  • Wesley Lowery
  • David Maraniss
  • Greg Miller
  • Steven Mufson
  • David Nakamura
  • John Pomfret
  • Missy Ryan
  • Peter Slevin
  • Kevin Sullivan
  • Krissah Thompson
  • Neely Tucker
  • William Wan
  • Vanessa Williams
Research and graphics
  • Darla Cameron
  • Scott Clement
  • Emily Guskin
  • Tim Meko
  • Stephanie Stamm
  • Aaron Steckelberg
  • Elise Viebeck