Guest commentary by Stéphanie Thomson
Before he’d even stepped foot in the White House, Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, was destined to make history. In a country where segregation between black and white Americans was legal as late as 1964, that was already quite an achievement.
Barack Obama’s election poster Barack Obama’s election poster Image: Library of Congress
Now, as his two terms at the helm of the world’s most powerful country draw to a close, what else will he be remembered for? That’s a tricky thing to predict; a “fools errand” even, according to what the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon Wood told New York Magazine when asked the same question. Often, a person’s legacy only becomes clear decades later.
But while it might indeed be too soon to identify the defining policies of Obama’s presidency, there have been a few memorable moments that say as much about him as a person as they do about his time as president.
The beer summit
When Henry Louis Gates Jr, an African-American Harvard professor, was arrested outside his home by a white police officer responding to a burglary report, it triggered a national debate about racial profiling. The situation intensified when Obama said that the police had “acted stupidly” during the incident.
Obama’s attempt to de-escalate the situation by inviting both parties to the White House for what the press dubbed “the beer summit” led to this iconic photo, earning him a reputation for a sometimes unconventional approach to diplomacy.
President Barack Obama at the ‘Amazing Grace’
Six years later, and race relations in the US had hit a new low, after several high-profile shootings of unarmed black men. It was against this backdrop of heightened racial tensions that Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine African Americans during a prayer service in Charleston.
At the funeral of one of the victims, senior pastor and South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, Obama gave a moving eulogy, breaking out into song at the end. It was, the Atlantic wrote, “his single most accomplished rhetorical performance”.
Shedding a tear for the victims of gun violence
Several mass shootings have taken place in the US during Obama’s presidency, none more shocking than Sandy Hook, where 20 children aged between six and seven were murdered. At the time Obama had hoped their deaths would help galvanize the country into action, but all subsequent attempts at gun control were blocked.
Four years later, in an emotional speech announcing fresh plans to push through change, Obama shed his normally cool exterior and openly cried as he spoke of the “college kids in Santa Barbara, high schoolers in Columbine, and first graders in Newtown”, whose “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were stripped”.
A stand-up comedian in the White House
“Obama has a comic sensibility that’s edgier and more pop-culture-influenced than we’re used to hearing from politicians,” the Washington Post wrote in an article on the role comedy has played in Obama’s presidency.
Who can forget the White House Correspondents Dinner when he finally laid to rest speculations about his country of birth, or the time he appeared on Zach Galifianakis’ cult comedy show Between Two Ferns.
But he almost always used his comedy to make more important points – like the time he posed with a selfie stick to promote health insurance.
Obama the family man
“Kids love me – partly because my ears are big, and so I look a little like a cartoon character,” Obama told Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And Obama seems to love kids.
Some of the most defining photos from his time in office aren’t those from state visits or with other world leaders: they’re of Obama with children. So much so that at the start of the year, #ObamaAndKids was trending online.
And this could be one of his most important legacies, according to the New York Magazine profile of the outgoing president. “He was most effective as a ‘normal’ president, and he helped put the presidency back on a human scale … Future historians will give him full marks for that.”
— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) February 20, 2016