A virtual museum of his presidency

Through a collection of deeply reported stories, videos, photographs, documents and graphics, experience Barack Obama’s historic time in office: as the first black president, as commander in chief, as a domestic and foreign policymaker, and as a husband and father.

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His journey to become a leader of consequence

How Barack Obama’s understanding of his place in the world, as a mixed-race American with a multicultural upbringing affected his presidency.

When Barack Obama worked as a community organizer amid the bleak industrial decay of Chicago’s far South Side during the 1980s, he tried to follow a mantra of that profession: Dream of the world as you wish it to be, but deal with the world as it is.

The notion of an Obama presidency was beyond imagining in the world as it was then. But, three decades later, it has happened, and a variation of that saying seems appropriate to the moment: Stop comparing Obama with the president you thought he might be, and deal with the one he has been.

Seven-plus years into his White House tenure, Obama is working through the final months before his presidency slips from present to past, from daily headlines to history books. That will happen at noontime on the 20th of January next year, but the talk of his legacy began much earlier and has intensified as he rounds the final corner of his improbable political career.

BOONE, IA - AUGUST 13: President Barack Obama makes a campaign stop during a three day bus tour in Boone, Iowa, Monday, August 13, 2012. (Photo By Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post
President Obama makes a campaign stop during a three-day bus tour in Boone, Iowa, in August 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Of the many ways of looking at Obama’s presidency, the first is to place it in the continuum of his life. The past is prologue for all presidents to one degree or another, even as the job tests them in ways that nothing before could. For Obama, the line connecting his life’s story with the reality of what he has been as the 44th president is consistently evident.

The first connection involves Obama’s particular form of ambition. His political design arrived relatively late. He was no grade school or high school or college leader. Unlike Bill Clinton, he did not have a mother telling everyone that her first-grader would grow up to be president. When Obama was a toddler in Honolulu, his white grandfather boasted that his grandson was a Hawaiian prince, but that was more to explain his skin color than to promote family aspirations.

But once ambition took hold of Obama, it was with an intense sense of mission, sometimes tempered by self-doubt but more often self-assured and sometimes bordering messianic. At the end of his sophomore year at Occidental College, he started to talk about wanting to change the world. At the end of his time as a community organizer in Chicago, he started to talk about how the only way to change the world was through electoral power. When he was defeated for the one and only time in his career in a race for Congress in 2000, he questioned whether he indeed had been chosen for greatness, as he had thought he was, but soon concluded that he needed another test and began preparing to run for the Senate seat from Illinois that he won in 2004.

That is the sensibility he took into the White House. It was not a careless slip when he said during the 2008 campaign that he wanted to emulate Ronald Reagan and change “the trajectory of America” in ways that recent presidents, including Clinton, had been unable to do. Obama did not just want to be president. His mission was to leave a legacy as a president of consequence, the liberal counter to Reagan. To gauge himself against the highest-ranked presidents, and to learn from their legacies, Obama held private White House sessions with an elite group of American historians.

WASHINGTON, DC - January 16: President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and former President George W. Bush deliver remarks in the Rose Garden of The White House. President Barack Obama meets with former President Bill Clinton and former President George W. Bush to discuss enlisting the help of the American people in the recovery and rebuilding effort in Haiti. Photos were taken on January 16, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Sat Jan 16 11:55:03 2010
Obama meets with former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in January 2010 to discuss the recovery and rebuilding efforts in Haiti after a devastating earthquake. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

It is now becoming increasingly possible to argue that he has neared his goal. His decisions were ineffective in stemming the human wave of disaster in Syria, and he has thus far failed to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to make anything more than marginal changes on two domestic issues of importance to him, immigration and gun control. But from the Affordable Care Act to the legalization of same-sex marriage and the nuclear deal with Iran, from the stimulus package that started the slow recovery from the 2008 recession to the Detroit auto industry bailout, from global warming and renewable energy initiatives to the veto of the Keystone pipeline, from the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden to the opening of relations with Cuba, the liberal achievements have added up, however one judges the policies.

This was done at the same time that he faced criticism from various quarters for seeming aloof, if not arrogant, for not being more effective in his dealings with members of Congress of either party, for not being angry enough when some thought he should be, or for not being an alpha male leader.

A promise of unity

His accomplishments were bracketed by two acts of negation by opponents seeking to minimize his authority: first a vow by Republican leaders to do what it took to render him a one-term president; and then, with 11 months left in his second term, a pledge to deny him the appointment of a nominee for the crucial Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon. Obama’s White House years also saw an effort to delegitimize him personally by shrouding his story in fallacious myth — questioning whether he was a foreigner in our midst, secretly born in Kenya, despite records to the contrary, and insinuating that he was a closet Muslim, again defying established fact. Add to that a raucous new techno-political world of unending instant judgments and a decades-long erosion of economic stability for the working class and middle class that was making an increasingly large segment of the population, of various ideologies, feel left behind, uncertain, angry and divided, and the totality was a national condition that was anything but conducive to the promise of unity that brought Obama into the White House.

Barack Obama Sr., left, poses with his son, Barack Obama in this undated photograph made available to the media on Feb. 12, 2008. Obama, who may become the first black U.S. president, displays a penchant for defying convention and forging his own path that those who knew his family well trace back to the influence of his mother Ann Dunham. Source: Family photo via Bloomberg News
Barack Obama Sr. poses with his son in this undated photograph. (Family photo via Bloomberg News)

To the extent that his campaign rhetoric raised expectations that he could bridge the nation’s growing political divide, Obama owns responsibility for the way his presidency was perceived. His political rise, starting in 2004, when his keynote convention speech propelled him into the national consciousness, was based on his singular ability to tie his personal story as the son of a father from Kenya and mother from small-town Kansas to some transcendent common national purpose. Unity out of diversity, the ideal of the American mosaic that was constantly being tested, generation after generation, part reality, part myth. Even though Obama romanticized his parents’ relationship, which was brief and dysfunctional, his story of commonality was more than a campaign construct; it was deeply rooted in his sense of self.

As a young man, Obama at times felt apart from his high school and college friends of various races and perspectives as he watched them settle into defined niches in culture, outlook and occupation. He told one friend that he felt “large dollops of envy for them” but believed that because of his own life’s story, his mixed-race heritage, his experiences in multicultural Hawaii and exotic Indonesia, his childhood without “a structure or tradition to support me,” he had no choice but to seek the largest possible embrace of the world. “The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes, make them mine, me theirs,” he wrote. He carried that notion with him through his political career in Illinois and all the way to the White House, where it was challenged in ways he had never confronted before.


With most politicians, their strengths are their weaknesses, and their weaknesses are their strengths.

With Obama, one way that was apparent was in his coolness. At various times in his presidency, there were calls from all sides for him to be hotter. He was criticized by liberals for not expressing more anger at Republicans who were stifling his agenda, or at Wall Street financiers and mortgage lenders whose wheeler-dealing helped drag the country into recession. He was criticized by conservatives for not being more vociferous in denouncing Islamic terrorists, or belligerent in standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

** TO GO WITH STORY SLUGGED OBAMA SEMBLANZA ** **FILE* This 1960's photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows Obama with his mother Ann Dunham. Dunham met Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr. from Kenya, when both were students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; they married in 1960. (AP Photo/Obama Presidential Campaign) ** FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY,NO SALES **
A young Obama with his mother, Ann Dunham, in the 1960s. (Family photo via Associated Press)

His coolness as president can best be understood by the sociological forces that shaped him before he reached the White House. There is a saying among native Hawaiians that goes: Cool head, main thing. This was the culture in which Obama reached adolescence on the island of Oahu, and before that during the four years he lived with his mother in Jakarta. Never show too much. Never rush into things. Maintain a personal reserve and live by your own sense of time. This sensibility was heightened when he developed an affection for jazz, the coolest mode of music, as part of his self-tutorial on black society that he undertook while living with white grandparents in a place where there were very few African Americans. As he entered the political world, the predominantly white society made it clear to him the dangers of coming across as an angry black man. As a community organizer, he refined the skill of leading without being overt about it, making the dispossessed citizens he was organizing feel their own sense of empowerment. As a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, he developed an affinity for rational thought.

Differing approaches

All of this created a president who was comfortable coolly working in his own way at his own speed, waiting for events to turn his way.

Was he too cool in his dealings with other politicians? One way to consider that question is by comparing him with Clinton. Both came out of geographic isolation, Hawaii and southwest Arkansas, far from the center of power, in states that had never before offered up presidents. Both came out of troubled families defined by fatherlessness and alcoholism. Both at various times felt a sense of abandonment. Obama had the additional quandary of trying to figure out his racial identity. And the two dealt with their largely similar situations in diametrically different ways.

Rather than deal with the problems and contradictions of his life head-on, Clinton became skilled at moving around and past them. He had an insatiable need to be around people for affirmation. As a teenager, he would ask a friend to come over to the house just to watch him do a crossword puzzle. His life became all about survival and reading the room. He kept shoeboxes full of file cards of the names and phone numbers of people who might help him someday. His nature was to always move forward. He would wake up each day and forgive himself and keep going. His motto became “What’s next?” He refined these skills to become a political force of nature, a master of transactional politics. This got him to the White House, and into trouble in the White House, and out of trouble again, in acycle of loss and recovery.

Obama spent much of his young adulthood, from when he left Hawaii for the mainland and college in 1979 to the time he left Chicago for Harvard Law School nearly a decade later, trying to figure himself out, examining the racial, cultural, personal, sociological and political contradictions that life threw at him. He internalized everything, first withdrawing from the world during a period in New York City and then slowly reentering it as he was finding his identity as a community organizer in Chicago.

Rather than plow forward relentlessly, like Clinton, Obama slowed down. He woke up each day and wrote in his journal, analyzing the world and his place in it. He emerged from that process with a sense of self that helped him rise in politics all the way to the White House, then led him into difficulties in the White House, or at least criticism for the way he operated. His sensibility was that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, why couldn’t the rest of the country resolve the larger contradictions of American life? Why couldn’t Congress? The answer from Republicans was that his actions were different from his words, and that while he talked the language of compromise, he did not often act on it. He had built an impressive organization to get elected, but it relied more on the idea of Obama than on a long history of personal contacts. He did not have a figurative equivalent of Clinton’s shoebox full of allies, and he did not share his Democratic predecessor’s profound need to be around people. He was not as interested in the personal side of politics that was so second nature to presidents such as Clinton and Lyndon Johnson.

Politicians of both parties complained that Obama seemed distant. He was not calling them often enough. When he could be schmoozing with members of Congress, cajoling them and making them feel important, he was often back in the residence having dinner with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, or out golfing with the same tight group of high school chums and White House subordinates.

done/lw/ SLUG: _JN15372.JPG. Inauguration 2009. DATE: January, 20, 2009 CREDIT: Jonathan Newton / TWP. LOCATION: Washington, DC. CAPTION: INAUGURATION 2009 StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Tue Jan 20 12:54:06 2009 Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Obama is sworn in as the 44th president by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Jan. 20, 2009. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Here again, some history provided context. Much of Obama’s early life had been a long search for home, which he finally found with Michelle and their girls, Malia and Sasha. There were times when Obama was an Illinois state senator and living for a few months at a time in a hotel room in Springfield, when Michelle made clear her unhappiness with his political obsession, and the sense of home that he had strived so hard to find was jeopardized. Once he reached the White House, with all the demands on his time, if there was a choice, he was more inclined to be with his family than hang out with politicians. A weakness in one sense, a strength in another, enriching the image of the first-ever black first family.

A complex question

The fact that Obama was the first black president, and that his family was the first African American first family, provides him with an uncontested hold on history. Not long into his presidency, even to mention that seemed beside the point, if not tedious, but it was a prejudice-shattering event when he was elected in 2008, and its magnitude is not likely to diminish. Even as some of the political rhetoric this year longs for a past America, the odds are greater that as the century progresses, no matter what happens in the 2016 election, Obama will be seen as the pioneer who broke an archaic and distant 220-year period of white male dominance.

But what kind of black president has he been?


His life illuminates the complexity of that question. His white mother, who conscientiously taught him black history at an early age but died nearly a decade before her son reached the White House, would have been proud that he broke the racial barrier. But she also inculcated him in the humanist idea of the universality of humankind, a philosophy that her life exemplified as she married a Kenyan and later an Indonesian and worked to help empower women in many of the poorest countries in the world. Obama eventually found his own comfort as a black man with a black family, but his public persona, and his political persona, was more like his mother’s.

DES MOINES, IOWA: NOVEMBER 5 -- An emotional 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)
An emotional Obama wraps up his final campaign with a stop in Des Moines on the eve of Election Day in 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

At various times during his career, Obama faced criticism from some African Americans that, because Obama did not grow up in a minority community and received an Ivy League education, he was not “black enough.” That argument was one of the reasons he lost that 2000 congressional race to Bobby L. Rush, a former Black Panther, but fortunes shift and attitudes along with them; there was no more poignant and revealing scene at Obama’s final State of the Union address to Congress than Rep. Rush waiting anxiously at the edge of the aisle and reaching out in the hope of recognition from the passing president.

As president, Obama rarely broke character to show what was inside. He was reluctant to bring race into the political discussion, and never publicly stated what many of his supporters believed: that some of the antagonism toward his presidency was rooted in racism. He wished to be judged by the content of his presidency rather than the color of his skin. One exception came after February 2012, when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Florida by a gun-toting neighborhood zealot. In July 2013, commenting on the verdict in the case, Obama talked about the common experience of African American men being followed when shopping in a department store, or being passed up by a taxi on the street, or a car door lock clicking as they walked by — all of which he said had happened to him. He said Trayvon Martin could have been his son, and then added, “another way of saying that is: Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

Nearly two years later, in June 2015, Obama hit what might be considered the most powerful emotional note of his presidency, a legacy moment, by finding a universal message in black spiritual expression. Time after time during his two terms, he had performed the difficult task of trying to console the country after another mass shooting, choking up with tears whenever he talked about little children being the victims, as they had been in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Now he was delivering the heart-rending message one more time, nearing the end of a eulogy in Charleston, S.C., for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine African Americans killed by a young white gunman during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is unlikely that any other president could have done what Barack Obama did that day, when all the separate parts of his life story came together with a national longing for reconciliation as he started to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. . . .”

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‘The Obamas came from a place we all came from’
How the first family reshaped perceptions of the black family in America.
SLUG: NA-OBAMA DATE: 11/04/2008 CREDIT: NIKKI KAHN/THE WASHINGTON POST LOCATION: CHICAGO, IL  CAPTION: Supporters celebrate Sen. Barack Obama the 44th President of the United States of America in Hutchinson Field in Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday, November 29, 2008.   StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on  Wed Nov  5 00:45:03 2008
President-elect Barack Obama and his family celebrate his election at Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Families can be mysterious, intense and, more often than not, indecipherable to the outside world. Most families seem to endure similar gyrations and upheavals. There are moments of failure and success. There is admirable endurance. To study any individual family is to crisscross tricky terrain, and to invite an endless and almost timeless inquiry.

As Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama — the first family, along with grandma Marian Robinson — depart the White House, it is worth looking back at their visage. What did it mean to have a black family, for eight years, astride the political and cultural colossus of American society? How much did the “African” in “African American” resonate?

There perhaps is no other family unit in America that has been analyzed, poked and studied as much as the black family. Its habits, customs, rituals and odyssey have been tabulated, collated and stored for generations. The hyper-curiosity is rooted in slavery and the gouging, sweeping damage it wreaked upon a race of people.

After Emancipation, chroniclers with notebooks traveled far and wide to interview former slaves. They also began showing up after Reconstruction, that halcyon period after the Civil War when blacks were given access to the ballot box and saw the election of black politicians.

In 1936, under the aegis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program, a group of unemployed writers from the Federal Writers Project set out to interview former slaves. For two years, roaming mostly around the southern states, the writers collected more than 2,000 first-person narratives of those who had been held in bondage. The writers would often find themselves emotionally spent after the encounters. Conservative politicians railed against the program, eventually dooming it. But the narratives, now housed at the Library of Congress, endure as testament to what befell black families inside the borders of their own country.

Literature and cinema have also weighed in on the complexities of black family life. On college campuses today, the oral histories from the 1960s — when so much thundering above ground took place — remain quite popular.

The black family has always been fascinating and ripe for study.

But what of a black family that seemingly comes out of nowhere and glides into the White House, against all odds, to preside over a nation? Black families used to have to fight to get a seat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Then come Barack and Michelle Obama, president and first lady. What would the presence of this particular family mean to the nation? Given the history of America, what tropes and stereotypes might they upend about the black family?

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  U.S President Barack Obama (L) hugs the first lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) as daughters Malia (3rd L) and Sasha(2nd R) and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts look on after taking the oath of office in the Blue Room of the White House January 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden were officially sworn in a day before the ceremonial inaugural swearing-in.  (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
President Obama after taking the oath of office in the Blue Room of the White House on Jan. 20, 2013. Daughters Malia and Sasha and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts were also present. (Pool photo by Doug Mills/Getty Images)

“The images of this family have been so fortifying for African Americans,” says Emily Bernard, a University of Vermont professor and co-author of “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs.” “We’ve been battling misrepresentation since our arrival into this country: the jezebels, the buffoon. We’ve been battling all that on a cultural front.” She goes on: “In 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois said we need to see positive images of ourselves, and to make a visual narrative for white America to demonstrate our integrity.”

Bernard believes the Obamas, as a black family, have accomplished something notable in the annals of White House living.

“You can’t fake how much joy they take in each other as a family,” she says. “Malia and Sasha have the burden to represent the race. And they’re exceptional and normal at the same time. The family is not scandalous. Those girls are delightfully ordinary.”

Like many, Bernard has been growing wistful about the Obama family departing the White House. “My grandmother said no way a black man could be president. She couldn’t see the potential,” Bernard recalls. “It’s truly amazing. A lot of people sacrificed so I could teach at the University of Vermont. For us with brown skin, we are descendants from that generation. The Obamas came from a place we all came from.”

Bernard has also noted the cultural flourishes the Obamas have brought to the White House, leaving her feeling that they did not forget their roots. “President Obama has maintained a soulfulness I don’t think we’ve seen in a modern presidency,” she says.

In the public eye

The America that bothered to notice got its first sustained visual glimpse of the black family — sitting together, in calm repose — by looking upon daguerreotypes published after the Civil War. They were photos of reunited black families, brought together before the camera lens to celebrate life and freedom in the era of Jubilee. The figures in the photos couldn’t help but look exhausted in their often ill-fitting clothes.

In the looming years, the struggle remained monumental. Segregation sat the black family on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, from community to community, for decades. Black newspapers, battling to stay alive, often bent their focus toward black dysfunction. Crime sold plenty of copies of the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News. The black family, beyond its own black-oriented publications — which rarely wound up in white households — seemed almost other-worldly.

It can seem daunting to set the Obama family outside the White House, to envision them being compared to mortals.

“I think the narrative of the Obama family may be,” says Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and director of its Center for Humanities, “that some people will look at them and say, ‘They’re the exception. They’re not the typical black family.’ The response to that by many black people will be, ‘Here is the black family to aspire to. Here is a black father contributing to his loving family.’ And still other blacks will say, ‘We know a lot of other black families like the Obamas. It’s just that people haven’t noticed them because they’ve been focusing on the dysfunctional part of black family life.”

That has been an issue for many decades — and one that black artists have worked to address. One of the more memorable looks at black family life in modern times took place on a Broadway stage in 1959. The play was “A Raisin in the Sun,” written by Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry was born in Chicago, where Michelle Obama was born and where Barack Obama began his political career.

WASHINGTON, DC - July, 16: After the house cameras have turned back to the game, President Barack Obama gives his wife Michelle Obama a kiss after NOT kissing her during "Kiss Cam" during an exhibition game against Brazil at the Verizon Center, July 16, 2012.  (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
President Obama and the first lady kiss at Verizon Center during a Team USA exhibition game against Brazil in July 2012. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The Hansberry drama was about a poor black Chicago family and how a $10,000 life insurance check would test the moral courage and steadfastness of various family members. Just before the play opened on Broadway in the spring of 1959, Hansberry wrote a letter to her mother. “Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks — people who are the very essence of human dignity.”

The president and first lady had a much-publicized “date night” in 2014, when they ventured to Broadway to see the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which starred, among others, Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose.

America is still struggling to embrace the “human dignity” of African Americans reflected in Hansberry’s play. Early says he believes that as the years roll forward, President Obama will be central to that. He believes Obama will assume the mantle — whether he wishes it for himself or not — of the premiere black father figure, replacing the scandal-tarred, fictional father played by Bill Cosby on his long-running TV show. “Obama will have that role even more now,” he says.

President Obama’s post-presidency plans are bountiful. A gifted writer, he will turn attention to his memoirs. There is the presidential library to attend to. But his prayed-for attention to black America will be robust, and a plea he is apt to answer quickly. His unprecedented 2015 visit to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma struck a chord among black families, all too many of whom have been touched, in some way, by the criminal justice system.

Obama’s effort to explain to white America the heartbreak of black families when Trayvon Martin, black and unarmed, was shot and killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of all charges was palpable and searing. In a nation that has never had a candid conversation about race — unlike South Africa after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission — he will find himself expected to play the role of shaman, poet, conciliator and statesman.

Many expect Michelle Obama to also play an active role in the discourse that relates to the nation’s well-being. She has been an advocate for women’s rights, healthy eating and civility.

‘Positive reverberations’

In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama rolled into Columbus, Ohio, to gauge his presidential prospects. He met Donna James, a business executive, and her husband, Larry James, a partner at a law firm that bears his name. They hosted a gathering for Obama. “He was just a normal, thoughtful human being,” recalls Donna James, whom Obama would later appoint chairman of the National Women’s Business Council. James watched Obama and his family lay their impress upon the White House. She says she was struck by the couple’s decision to bring Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother, to the White House with them.

“It was out of this sense of family,” James says. “It’s out of black culture. Latino people do the same thing. It was a loving family thing to do, and also very smart.”

There is little doubt that the Obamas represented a boon to the spread of blackness out into mainstream American society. Some wonder whether this hid a sea of white resentment, giving way to the racially charged campaign and election of Donald Trump.

Hollywood has not been known as an inclusive laboratory for black-oriented films. But with the Obamas in the White House, there was a noticeable uptick in cinematic diversity. Films such as “The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Selma” and, most recently, “Southside With You,” about Barack Obama’s courtship of Michelle Robinson, all elicited a conversational line pointing back to the White House and its occupants.

President Barack Obama, center, walks as he holds hands with Amelia Boynton, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga,, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. From front left are Marian Robinson, Sasha Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Obama crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge with some prominent figures to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

“One level of the positive reverberations and interest in black history is because of Michelle and her kids,” says Peniel Joseph, a historian and professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “For elites — artists — Obama was the best thing that ever happened. You found a lot more people interested in black life.”

Joseph says the complexity of President Obama’s family background — white American mother, black Kenyan father — was something that was easily digestible to many blacks. “Blacks know people with Africans in their family,” he offers. “And black folks just loved the way Michelle looked. In their mind, someone like Obama [a Harvard Law School grad] often married white women.”

Obama not only married a black woman, but married one proud of her black heritage; Joseph feels that invigorated discussions about black family life. Although the Obamas hosted a variety of musical events at the White House — country, blues, rock — it did not go unnoticed by blacks that the pride seemed to swell with a kind of warm cultural magic when the likes of Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Esperanza Spalding were in the White House. After all, there was a time when black minstrel acts were the only black entertainment seen inside the White House.

“Because of Michelle’s family,” adds Joseph, “you see how family structure is quintessential to understanding the black family: There is slavery, freedom, the Great Migration, and out of all that, you somehow carve a space in America to have kids and are able to make a way for those kids to make it to Princeton.”

Michelle Obama is a Princeton graduate.

Joseph also says the mere presence of the Obama family on the national stage keeps manifesting itself in a nation’s dialogue. “Bill O’Reilly said that slaves were well fed, as if he had dined out with slaves,” says Joseph, referring to the TV commentator. Joseph feels such raw commentary — seen as offensive to many across the racial landscape — was loosed because of the presence of Obama. “Many people made a secret covenant that with Obama elected, institutional racism was over. Instead, by electing the first black president, we all got deeper into the narrative of racism and slavery. In a lot of ways, certain white people feel betrayed by Obama because they felt once he was elected, Obama wouldn’t have to talk about race. But we’re seeing more examples of late, like Georgetown University coming to grips with slavery.”

The university recently announced it would find ways to aid the descendants of the 272 slaves it once sold to keep the school afloat. The school also announced other measures, such as a slavery exhibit and a memorial to those slaves linked to the school.

If, at times, the everyday presence of a black American family in the nation’s mind-set has seemed to unleash forces both good and not so good, there are some things that will resonate and be spoken of for generations to come: A black father as president walked his girls hand-in-hand across the lawn of the most powerful address in the world. A black mother gazed at that tableau and took herself back to the stories of beaten-down slaves who once tilled the White House lawns where her husband and daughters loped — and she then became fearless in letting the world know the gritty dreamlike magic of such a scene. And a black grandmother — Lorraine Hansberry’s “Mama” all through these eight long history- defying years — looked out from her own White House window upon it all. A woman who stayed silent to the world, her presence an echo back over the years of America and the black family.

Haygood is a journalist, professor and author known for his 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” about Eugene Allen. The movie “The Butler” was based on his story.

Next story from Obama’s Legacy
How black women saw themselves reflected in the Obama White House
As the Obamas’ time on Pennsylvania Avenue comes to a close, three generations of black women in Washington reflect on three generations of black women in the White House.

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
Watch video
The first lady’s last stand
Read essay

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
Watch video
White House parents
Read story
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?
See graphics
The O’Bidens
Read story
The first dogs
Read story
Room One
The First Black President
Illustrations by James Steinberg
A hopeful moment on race
Read story
A soliloquy in Philadelphia
Watch video
The beer summit
Watch video

Being number one means nothing until there’s a number two.

L. Douglas Wilder
First black governor since Reconstruction
The other trailblazers
Read story
On a bridge in Selma
See photos

If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Barack Obama
In his own words
Watch video
The backlash
Read story
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
Watch video
Crime, justice and race
Read story
Obama in Africa
Read story
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
See graphics
Your Obama presidency
Share your story
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
Watch video

We won some good fights and we lost the war.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Former Marine infantryman
A tour of duty
See photos
One enemy after another
See graphics

No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

Barack Obama
Words of war and peace
Watch video
The last convoy
Read story
The rise of ISIS
See photos
Weighing intervention
Watch video
An army of drones
Read story
Struggle after service
Watch video
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
See graphics
Your fight, your stories
Share your story
Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
Eight turbulent years
Watch video

Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
Economic brinksmanship
Read essay
The price of Obamacare
Read story
A new state of unions
See photo essay
Shots fired
Watch video
A cultural shift
Watch video
‘Healing the planet’
Read essay

What is it like to be the last black president?

Zach Galifianakis
Host of “Between Two Ferns”
Making presidential comedy
Watch video
A mark in the wilderness
See graphics
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
See graphic
Your America
Share your story
Room Four
Obama and the World
Illustrations by Jasu Hu
Determined restraint
Read story
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
See graphic
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
Share your story

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Obama’s Legacy
  • Terence Samuel, project editor
  • Allison Michaels, project manager, digital editor
  • Shannon Croom, multiplatform editor
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Design and development
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  • Thandiwe Tshabalala, illustrator (Obama’s America)
  • Jasu Hu, illustrator (Obama and the World)
  • Erin K. Robinson, illustrator (The First Family)
  • Dalton Bennett
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  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff
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Research and graphics
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