As the first America’s black president departs the White House this Friday Adeola Akinremi in Washington DC, reviews the Barack Obama years
Barrack Hussein Obama, the 44th American President with unrivalled record as the first black president of the most powerful country finished the race where he started, but without turning the baton over to a single individual as successor.
At the Grant Park, Chicago, where Obama started his campaign for the Oval Office of the United States eight years ago, he gave a farewell speech that reminisce about the past with a strong connection to where he hopes to see the country, though he exits the White House to become an ordinary resident in Washington DC.
It was his idea of exchanging the baton not with an individual, but with all Americans, believing that someone somewhere will make music out of his soul stirring speech to engage with the Americans for a future he didn’t see in the man who will take over from him on January 20.
Farewell speech is a tradition started by George Washington, but no American president has made it a call-to-action the way Obama did last Tuesday in Chicago.
“This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it… If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose.”
With tears welled up in the eyes of those who gathered to hear him speak and approval for his words with alternating applause, Obama closed the night with “Yes, we did. Yes, we can,”—his signature phrase.
But Mr. Obama, who leaves the stage as president of the United States this Friday will still perform the real ritual of handing over to his successor, the President-elect, Donald Trump, a Republican from outside Washington, who has been a thorn in the flesh for Obama and his legacies.
The well-travelled son of a Kenya senior bureaucrat and a white American mother, Obama struggled with one issue throughout his time in the White House. It was race.
At first glance, the election of the first black president in America history after 230 years will signal equality, better education and socio-economic progress for the minorities, where institutional racism will come to a complete end.
But Obama’s reluctance to confront race issue based on his race-neutral policy, the consequence of a few racial protests and comments that greeted his presidency has made even him to return to the issue at the end of his presidency.
“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states,” Obama told Fareed Zakaria in an explosive legacy interview aired by CNN. “Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the ‘birther’ movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.”
From one funeral to another that forced Obama to look over the crowd and sang the famous “Amazing Grace,” to work the crowd into an emotional atmosphere during the funeral for South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a pastor killed along with eight others in Charleston, S.C., church shooting by white supremacist Dylann Roof in June 2015, he surely found his voice on race issue that dogged his presidency.
All the same, the African-American communities and police departments have had continued broken relationship with high-profile shootings of unarmed black men, women, boys, girls and unjustified stop and search as witnessed in many black communities.
The growing movement of Black Lives Matters that organizes people to confront racial US criminal justice system from Baltimore to Florida explains the deep division between whites and black during Obama presidency.
The race issue that Obama battled throughout his presidency noticeably defeated the historic value of the 2008 election that brought the first black president to the office.
In his farewell address, Obama acknowledged that race issue has worsened, though he hid behind statistics to scale it down, yet Obama spoke frankly.
“There’s a second threat to our democracy — and this one is as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.
“So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system. That is what our Constitution and our highest ideals require. But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change,” he said with undivided attention.
Peniel Joseph, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy explained in piece why no one person, regardless of influence and position of office can remedy the shape of inequality, saying “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.”
But Obama’s footprints in other areas are hard to erase. For instance, on the eve of his inauguration several American families had already lost their houses and jobs to a global recession that held America’s economy by the throat. The recovery from recession that placed America economy back on track and returned it to the global first position was the first success of Obama’s presidency.
Statistically, the United States witnessed economic gains under Obama more than the previous presidents as poverty fell, income increased, health insurance coverage ballooned for everyone in all categories of social strata.
The US median household’s income in 2015 according to the Census Bureau was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year. It was the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967, the Bureau confirmed.
On foreign policy and terrorism, Obama arrived White House as a war-weary president who wanted American boots out of Iraq and Afghanistan so quickly. He did.
Besides, it was Obama who ended the 10-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, America’s worst enemy and the world most wanted terrorist.
With an elite team of Navy SEALs that crossed into Pakistan and precariously landed in a compound in Abbottabad, where CIA operatives had tracked Bin Laden to a hideout, Obama and his security team in Washington DC watched the mission progressed and saw the end of Bin Laden in real time through drone footage and radio communication. The world became a restful place. It lasted until Islamic State bared its fangs.
So as Obama departs White House, the situation in Syria continues to worry him. After he decimated the Al-Qaida terrorist group with the killing of Bin Laden, the world truly heaved a sigh of relief, but no sooner had that happened that the world saw the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) taking territories in Syria and recruiting fighters from around the globe, providing fresh global challenge for the United States in counter-terrorism efforts.
Of course, Obama leaves the White House this Friday with American boots still in Syria as US army battles ISIS on one hand and President Bashar al-Assad with worst human rights record, and protected by Russian’s Vladimir Putin, a situation he didn’t envisage at the start of his presidency.
Russia’s determination to keep its significant economic and military interests in Syria, such as a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus made al-Assad regime important regime for Russia to build alliance with. Russia has had a naval facility in Tartus since Soviet times and it is Russia’s only base in the Mediterranean.
Obama’s signature healthcare reform dubbed Obamacare may have been a subject of controversy, but it is something of legacy for Obama. For the first time in the history of America, Obama implemented healthcare reform that provided coverage for some 10.4 million people already. The government anticipated that 13.8 million people will be using the coverage by 2017.
Surprisingly, despite the opposition currently faced by Obamacare with the election of Donald Trump who has promised to repeal and replace the policy, more than 100,000 people rushed to add their names to the insurance days after Trump was elected.
“Today’s enrollment numbers confirm that some of the doomsday predictions about the marketplace are not bearing out,” said Health Secretary Sylvia Burwell. “American people don’t want to go backwards. They don’t want to gamble with their healthcare during a repeal and delay.”
On another front, Cuba was thought to be an impossible mission for several American presidents for decades, but Obama broke the barrier travelling down to Havana for a handshake with Raul Castro to cement new America-Cuba relationship.
Obama’s steady dancing steps with Castro in Havana stunned everyone around the globe, but provided a clear message of hope to Cubans who had long been kept at arm’s length by American government since decades. Mr. Obama’s engagement and dialogue policy during his eight years stay in the White House and Mr. Castro’s amenability to free-market ideas broke down the old battle line.
And despite the challenge faced in the hands of Republicans in getting immigration bill passed and the blocking of his executive action at the court by mostly Republican states who filed lawsuit against his plan to keep a category of immigrants in America, Obama reminded Americans in his farewell speech that change has come to America.
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history. If I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11. If I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens. If I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did. That’s what you did.
“You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
The Obamas are music fans with electric and fervent energy, and they like artistes of all kinds. With performances by highly-rated American musicians such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean Swizz Beatz, Busta Rhymes, and Ludacris, among others, at the White House, the super couple and their lively daughters will surely be missed in the Oval Office.
For the first black family in the White House, family values, integrity and commitment to a united country made the Obamas a cynosure of all eyes.
From a mammoth crowd that listened to his moving speech with pleasure in Berlin, Germany, days before his election in 2008, to everyone around the world who shed joyful tears to see a black man become president and the commander-in-chief in America, the emotion will be the same on Friday when Obama withdraws his feet from the gas for his presidency to come to a full stop. Obama has defied history and despair to give America change and hope.