The silhouette of President Obama as he reviews an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Planalto Palace in Brasilia in March 2011. Obama was on a two-day visit to Brazil as part of a tour that included Chile and El Salvador. (Pedro Santana/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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The beginning seems so far away now.

Eight years ago, the nation elected its first African American president and put a black family in the White House. Many reveled in the moment, the promise and the pride of it. A country not yet 150 years from slavery had reached a huge milestone.

On a frigid January morning, Barack Hussein Obama took his first oath of office, using Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, a book of red and gold splendor that Michelle Obama held as daughters Malia and Sasha watched.

To be first means glory and pain.

In the beginning some engaged in a bit of magical thinking about a “post-racial” America.

Others knew better, that the country was far from such a thing.

Then there were those who saw a world turned upside down: Where others saw promise, they saw peril. Social progress looked like a threat.

But there the Obamas stood, a portrait of family and fortitude.


First lady Michelle Obama and President Obama, holding a tortilla from a White House Cinco de Mayo celebration, enter the elevator to the residence after the event in May 2009. (Samantha Appleton/White House)

The Obamas dance as the band Earth, Wind and Fire performs at the Governors Ball in the State Dining Room of the White House in February 2009. (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama moves his meeting with senior advisers outside to the Rose Garden on a nice spring morning in May 2009. (Pete Souza/White House)

Bo, one of the Obamas’ two Portuguese water dogs, waits for the president to enter the outer Oval Office from the Colonnade in November 2013. Bo was a gift to Obama’s children from Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2009. A second dog, Sunny, came to the White House in 2013. (Pete Souza/White House)

The Obamas greet Virginia McLaurin, then age 106, in the Blue Room of the White House before a reception celebrating African American History Month in February 2016. Video of the centenarian meeting the president and first lady went viral on the Internet. (Lawrence Jackson/White House)

The Obamas and guests wear 3-D glasses during a Super Bowl party in the family theater at the White House in 2009. Guests, including family, friends, staff and members of Congress, watched the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Arizona Cardinals. (Pete Souza/White House)

Michelle Obama and Jimmy Fallon compete in a potato sack race in the East Room of the White House while taping a segment for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” in January 2012. The segment involved several physical challenges to mark the second anniversary of Obama’s “Let’s Move!” fitness initiative. (Chuck Kennedy/White House)

The president while fly fishing in Montana in August 2009. He and his guide both thought he had hooked a fish; unfortunately, he had not. Later the president joked that it was “catch and release.” (Pete Souza/White House)

Obama greets U.S. troops at a mess hall at Bagram air base in March 2010. Obama visited Afghanistan four times in his presidency. In eight years, he has spent almost seven months on foreign travel. (Pete Souza/White House)

 

Through it all — the rescuing of a collapsed economy; the fights to address health care and climate change and national security; and the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and efforts at education, immigration and gun control; the unyielding wars and drone strikes and deportations; an open Guantanamo; and Republican obstructionism — this is what held fast: dignity, family, a joyfulness to be of service.

Even in the face of racism — pointed or veiled — they forged ahead through the work, and loved and laughed and celebrated.

On a personal level, their marriage balanced romance and purpose.

On a presidential one, U.S. troops were prioritized, issues such as equal pay and criminal justice tackled.

And there was the birth of White House cool. The doors flung wide for the arts and for children. A garden was flush with vegetables.

The Beltway brigade called President Obama aloof. But that’s not what many Americans saw. They would come to know him not only as POTUS, but as a husband and a father.

He amazed with his range: He could lecture on the Constitution and explain the profundities of rap artist Kendrick Lamar.

And surprised: A man with impeccable comedic timing — often self-deprecating — and steeled nerves. Remember that 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner where he skewered Donald Trump as U.S. Special Operations forces were pursuing bin Laden?

And charmed: When had you ever heard a president break out with Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”?

And graced us with his passion: singing “Amazing Grace” during his too-often role as consoler in chief. That day he was eulogizing the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the slain Charleston Nine.

Earlier, the tragedy had been in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults had been gunned down. At a White House news conference that December day, he was a father wiping away tears. Later he showed flashes of anger when gun-control proposals did not move forward.


He confounded, too, as presidents do. There was the promise of transparency and the criticism that his administration was too closed.

He exceeded expectations and disappointed: whether it was what the left wanted, or what some African Americans had hoped, or what peace activists demanded.

The president grew weary at times — and gray — but Obama has always clung to that confidence and optimism, rooted in struggle and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., himself quoting Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Michelle Obama with former South African president Nelson Mandela at his home in South Africa in June 2011. Obama’s week in South Africa and Botswana was one of her most ambitious solo international visits. Mandela died in 2013. (Samantha Appleton/White House)

President Obama and Vice President Biden wait for their lunch during an unannounced visit to Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington in May 2009. Despite their different personalities, the two forged a strong friendship. Biden asked Obama to deliver the eulogy at the funeral for Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama walks with mentees from My Brother’s Keeper on the South Lawn of the White House in October 2014. Obama started My Brother’s Keeper “because what we want to do is help more young people, especially kids of color, get mentorships and the resources and the guidance they need to succeed.” (Pete Souza/White House)

Michelle Obama touches the Hokie Stone before walking onto the field at Lane Stadium to give the Virginia Tech commencement address in Blacksburg, Va., in May 2012. (Lawrence Jackson/White House)

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama share a moment while recording a video for the Milan Expo at the White House in March 2015. Michelle Obama led the presidential delegation to the world’s-fair-style event in Italy that June. (Amanda Lucidon/White House)

The Obamas’ hands rest on the railing of a boat during their tour of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City Beach, Fla., in August 2010. (Pete Souza/White House)

The president and first lady and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, disembark Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at the end of their trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador in March 2011. (Pete Souza/White House)


Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha, left, and Malia visit the Great Wall of China in Mutianyu, China, during a visit in March 2014. Malia graduated high school in June 2016; after a gap year, she’ll head to Harvard. The Obamas aim to stay in Washington for a few more years, allowing Sasha, now 15, to finish high school. (Amanda Lucidon/White House)

The Obamas watch Laura Jarrett and Tony Balkissoon exchange vows during their wedding at the home of Jarrett’s mother, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, in Chicago in June 2012. (Pete Souza/White House)

The president and first lady attend the “Christmas in Washington” concert taping at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in December 2009. (Pete Souza/White House)

What of it all will endure?

In every election, Americans bare a piece of our soul and begin a fresh leg of this journey we’ve traveled for just 240 years.

Today, our young country is caught in the crosswinds of technology and globalization. For some that has meant anger, fear and hate.

To the dismay of many and the delight of others, there is the pledge to undo the Obama policies, to erase them as if they had been written with a dry-erase marker on a whiteboard.

Is it possible to erase a historic presidency? After all, these years have set the table on 21st-century issues.

What then do we take away from the age of Obama? From the man?

The vote matters. Vigilance, too. And equality demands more of us.

Yet, we have a generation of children whose first president was a man of color. Who saw a first lady move with determined authority.

The day after the election, Obama told Rolling Stone: “We have helped … shape a generation to think about being inclusive, being fair, caring about the environment. And they will have growing influence year by year, which means that America over time will continue to get better.”

Obama’s words displayed key parts of his legacy: fortitude and optimism.

Will they, too, we must ask ourselves, be a part of our own?

Pete Souza is the official White House photographer. All photos are released by the White House.

(Source imagery for animations, from top) 1. President Obama’s first signature as president on a proclamation after being sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009. (Molly Riley/AFP/Getty Images) 2. Excerpt from a note written by President Obama during his visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Nov. 17, 2011. (Samuel Cardwell/AFP/Getty Images)  3. A prayer left in the Western Wall by presidential candidate Barack Obama on July 24, 2008, during his visit to Jerusalem. (AFP/Getty Images)

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