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.
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.”
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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