Opinion

Renée Graham

A president who looked like me

Illinois state senator and then-Senate candidate Barack Obama addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2004 as the keynote speaker.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

Illinois state senator and then-Senate candidate Barack Obama addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2004 as the keynote speaker.

Like many people, I first heard the name Barack Obama when he was an Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. In his keynote speech, he championed unity for an increasingly divided nation splintering into red and blue states. Back then, even fragile solidarity still seemed possible.

When Obama finished to raucous applause, I said to friends, “Ladies and gentlemen, your first black president!” It was a joke, not a nifty feat of prognostication. Not for a second did I believe I’d live to see an African-American as this nation’s chief executive — and certainly not some guy with a name few could pronounce or would remember the next day.

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Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and former Illinois US senator Carol Moseley Braun had all been Democratic presidential candidates, but their campaigns were symbolic. Everyone, including the candidates, knew they would never get near a nomination. Bigotry ran too deep in this nation’s blood. After all, this was a country that had only elected one Catholic president, and that had been nearly 50 years earlier.

Obama spoke of hope, but hope is an ephemeral concept for African-Americans. To be black in America often means being disillusioned. It means confronting the incessant message (sometimes sadly internalized) that you’ll never be good enough, and that getting to the door doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed through it. Even if you’re finally given the key, don’t be surprised to find the locks have been changed.

With Obama’s election, I was filled with new anxieties that any scandal or miscue would be surreptitiously blamed on his race, and all African-Americans would feel that blow. He would be held to a different standard. If he failed — and I knew this was unfair — the perception would be that the entire race had failed.

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By any measure, Obama’s presidency was not a failure. On Friday, he’ll leave the White House with a 60 percent approval rating, according a Washington Post/ABC News poll this week. Yes, there is work undone, but he leaves this nation in better shape than when he inherited it. This is not to say that Obama was without weaknesses, or that I agreed with every policy. Yet he steadily led this unruly nation through eras of economic and social tumult; at the same time, he publicly shrugged off expectations, both high and low, marking him as either a savior or a political naïf who would quickly come undone.

It wasn’t just what he did — the flawed but admirable Affordable Care Act; his support for same-sex marriage and openly LGBT service members in the military; signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; or his efforts to reverse, through more commutations than any other American president in history, decades of draconian sentencing laws that fed mass incarcerations, especially for people of color. Always, it was the poise and wit with which he did it. To be sure, I sometimes found his unflagging optimism in the snarling face of racism and Republican obstructionism infuriating. When they go low, I sometimes think it’s just fine to go lower; one can’t reason with a pool of piranhas. I wanted him to go off, to harshly put his critics in their place, even as I knew any angry outburst would never serve him well.

As we approach a new president with an emphatically different way of conducting himself, I’ll remember how Obama, the best president in my lifetime, ran this nation and treated its citizens. Sure, some people for reasons only they can understand, will be happy to see him go. As for me, I’ll recall that for eight years I witnessed something extraordinary that for most of my life seemed well beyond even the grasp of my dreams — a president and a first family who looked like me.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham
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