Trailblazers have to meet unrealistic expectations.
It has been the same throughout history. The first person to do something is always under a large amount of scrutiny. He or she is under the microscope for a number of reasons, primarily because they are viewed as someone who is representative of a larger group of people. As unfair as it might be, it is the burden these trailblazers face and it is a burden they take on, sometimes by chance and sometimes by choice. For those who take on this burden by choice, they are often forced to compromise themselves or their values in order to appear acceptable to those who might be openly rooting for their failure.
One example that comes to mind is that of Jackie Robinson. In the late 1940s, African-American athletes were in no way seen as equals to their White peers and American sports remained segregated. To sow the seed in the American public's mind that African-Americans could be seen as equals, Brooklyn Dodgers club president and general manager Branch Rickey interviewed a number of Negro League players who could potentially be that trailblazer. For Rickey, talent was one consideration but another one was the player's demeanor. He knew that this baseball player would be subjected to unprecedented levels of hatred and racial slurs. Rickey famously said he wanted a player "with guts enough not to fight back" and it was Jackie Robinson who ultimately was deemed to have the combination of talent and character needed to succeed.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Flash forward sixty years to a biracial senator from Illinois. A skinny kid with big ears and a funny name as they say. Barack Hussein Obama was not the first African-American to run for president. He was far from it. So early on, when Obama was down 30 points in the polls ahead of the Iowa caucus in 2008, nobody paid him much attention. But then something funny happened. An African-American man somehow won over the White working-class of America's heartland and won the Iowa caucus. Not only that but then he continued winning at the expense of Hillary Clinton and the vaunted Clinton machine. At this point, for the first time in our nation's history, it appeared that there was a chance that for the first time we might have an African-American at the top of the presidential ticket of a major political party.
So what happened? Why accusations of Barack Obama being an extreme radical of course!
Like Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama too had to face unprecedented levels of scrutiny. That started in March of 2008 when videos surfaced of Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, giving fiery sermons, Obama was forced to give a press conference where he simultaneously disowned Wright's words but also explained the root cause of Wright's misplaced and misguided anger. By providing a historical context for Wright's words, Obama was essentially explaining the African-American struggle to White America. It was a speech that put Obama's oratory skill on clear display and rather than hurt his chances, it actually helped him in the long run as he was able to use the speech to make inroads to certain populations who saw him as unfamiliar simply due to the color of his skin. Many White Americans were forced to admit they didn't know a lot about the African-American experience or struggle and Obama's speech actually made many of them aware of this for the very first time.
It was this incident with Reverend Jeremiah Wright that was Barack Obama's introduction to those who would attempt to use his race to bring him down. Because that's all there was. Obama was a man of sturdy character. He was a faithful husband. A devoted father. He was highly educated. He taught constitutional law. He served as a community organizer in one of Chicago's most challenging neighborhoods. He was an early opponent of the Iraq War and publicly spoke out against it. If Barack Obama had been a White man, he would have been measuring the White House drapes when he first announced his candidacy in February of 2007.
But he wasn't a White man. And because of that, Republicans feared him and everything that he stood for.
So when Barack Hussein Obama was overwhelmingly elected as our country's first African-American president in November of 2008, Republicans vowed to do everything in their power to ensure his failure. Because if he truly succeeded, it meant that all African-Americans could grow up thinking they could one day be president. Not only African-Americans but other people of color too! Barack Obama's success meant that any child of color who grew up with a single parent, whose family was supported by welfare, who went to school with student loans, who attended higher education thanks to the success of affirmative action, that this student could also grow up to be president just like Barack Obama. That was a dangerous seed to plant in the minds of our country's youth and to squash this idea Republicans tried to ensure that Obama's presidency would be so disastrous that White America would never again even consider a president of color.
For eight years, Barack Obama had to put up with unprecedented levels of hatred and racism directed at him from conservatives. The levels of hate ranged from the utterly farcical to vicious vitriol and everything in between. It started almost immediately in 2009 when conservatives criticized Obama for hosting a "beer summit" to help address racial tensions between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Officer James Crowley. That same year, conservatives said Obama was "indoctrinating" our students by addressing them on their first day of school and offering up words of encouragement. They also started an eight-year battle for freedom of religion in what would become known as the War On Christmas. This non-existent "war" was unquestionably a thinly-veiled attempt to portray Barack Obama to be un-Christian and it would later give way to the often debunked "Barack Obama is a Muslim" myth that continues to be prevalent in conservative circles to this day.
Those early attempts to delegitimize the country's first African-American president were simple character attacks. Yet once it became clear that Obama actually intended to govern and that he intended to govern with a supermajority in the Senate and a democratically-controlled House then Republicans began to panic. With democratic control in both houses, Barack Obama went to bat working on an issue that had eluded Democrats for a generation: health care reform. What came to be known as the Affordable Care Act was legislation that was only enacted thanks to Democratic votes, including those 60 votes in a filibuster-proof Senate. Once this monumental law was enacted, a law that had the potential to place Barack Hussein Obama's photo on mantles throughout the country, Republicans saw no choice but to attack the law and, in turn, the man behind the law.
So they did. Republicans termed the law "Obamacare" in hopes that attaching the president's name to the legislation would forever taint him and his legacy. Their egregious claim that there would be "death panels" associated with the law became a nationwide rallying cry. During a State of the Union address, Republican congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina openly accused Barack Obama of lying when he correctly stated that the Affordable Care Act would not cover undocumented immigrants. Despite being upheld not once but twice by the Supreme Court, Republicans continued to symbolically vote to repeal the law and ended up doing so over 60 times throughout Barack Obama's presidency. For Republicans, the Affordable Care Act was a disaster in that not only was it successful legislation, but it was successful legislation that was clearly attached to Barack Obama's name.
And Republicans simply couldn't afford the country's first African-American president to be successful.
So in the fall of 2010 Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House, conspired with their members to create a no-compromise pledge, designed to make Barack Obama a one-term president. The vowed to put party before country to assure that Barack Obama would not be successful, no matter how much this inaction might hurt the American people. Due largely to the slow pace of the recovery at the time, Republicans were able to convince gullible Americans that Barack Obama wasn't doing enough to help the American people. Combined with the successful AstroTurf Tea Party movement, which presented itself as a grassroots movement but was actually funded by the Koch brothers, Republicans were able to win back the House, thereby derailing all progress the Obama administration had made up to that point.
The 112th Congress was the least productive Congress since the late 1940s. Hardly surprising when the majority of new members identified themselves with the Tea Party movement, a movement designed to take up positions in government while simultaneously decrying the usefulness of government. Thanks to their do-nothing stance, Barack Obama struggled to enact program and policies that would benefit everyday Americans including jobs bills, infrastructure bills, and even something as beneficial as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In August of 2011, thanks to Republican obstruction, the United States lost its AAA credit rating for the first time in history. This reduction had nothing to do with the United States' financial status but instead was a reflection of the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. However, Republicans gleefully used the incident to blame the downgrade on Barack Obama's economic policies.
But it was more than simply undermining Barack Obama's politics; it was about undermining the man himself in an effort to delegitimize his presidency. In early 2011, businessman Donald Trump made headlines by openly questioning Obama's place of birth. Trump's efforts gave rise to the birther movement, a movement founded on the racist belief that there was no way an African-American could be a legitimate American president. Despite releasing his birth certificate in April of 2011, the movement continued to persist over the course of the next five and a half years. Despite a movement steeped in racism, Barack Obama never sunk to the birthers' level. Instead, the took it all in stride. Less than three weeks after releasing his birth certificate, Barack Obama released his "birth video" at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner. That video was simply the opening scene of Disney's The Lion King.
Yet despite all these attacks, Republicans saw that Barack Obama still had a viable chance to be reelected. Unemployment was dropping, the private sector was adding jobs, we had withdrawn the bulk of our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden had been killed, and the American auto industry had completely recovered. With this impressive record, Republicans were left trying to figure out exactly how they could still ensure that Barack Obama was only a single-term president. So they resorted to their bread and butter: they lied about his record.
The 2012 presidential election will be remembered for Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" remark. But leading up to that moment was a conscientious attack by Republicans to delegitimize Barack Obama's accomplishments. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch claimed that October's jobs report was "cooked" which showed unemployment rate dip under 8% for the first time in Obama's presidency. This view was shared by countless Republicans who refused to believe that Obama's policies were actually working. Republicans also sought to delegitimize Barack Obama's sound foreign policy. Mitt Romney openly questioned Barack Obama's patriotism during the second presidential debate by insisting that Obama refused to call the attack on the consulate in Benghazi a terrorist attack. However, CNN moderator Candy Crowley stepped in and correctly asserted that Barack Obama had, in fact, called the incident an "act of terror" the day after the attack occurred. Once that happened, Mitt Romney and Republicans effectively lost any opportunity they had to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
And so Barack Obama, our first African-American president, was elected to a second term. This destroyed the Republican narrative that Obama won simply because of the celebrity factor. The narrative that said he won because people didn't know any better. The narrative that said that he won because he was an unknown and people didn't really know who he was. Now, people knew him and knew exactly what he was about. He wasn't simply a celebrity but was a man who had successfully led the free world for four years and had earned the right to lead it for four more. Now the issue for Republicans simply became how they could prevent this man from amassing any sort of legacy. Their new goal was to ensure that Barack Obama's accomplishments failed to endure.
Over the next two years, we saw exactly that. In 2013, Republicans shut down the government for 16 days in an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They repeatedly refused to act on gun control, even in the wake of the Newtown massacre in April of 2013. They shot down immigration reform in July of 2014 despite Republicans knowing full well it would cost them with Latino voters down the road. When all was said and done the 113th Congress was even worse than the 112th and earned its spot among the least productive congresses in history and an embarrassingly low 15% approval rating.
Then in 2014, Republicans regained control of the Senate and were able to effectively end Barack Obama's chances of passing any meaningful legislation. Multiple votes ending up going directly along party lines with complete disregard for the safety and well-being of the American people. A deficit neutral infrastructure bill was shot down in March of 2015. Senate Republicans refused to even consider and vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland over an eleven-month window starting in February of 2016. The Senate again refused to pass new gun control in the wake of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in June of 2016. Despite the fact that the 115th Congress was slightly more productive than its previous two predecessors, it still failed to enact meaningful legislation proposed and supported by Barack Obama.
Rather than allow himself to be thwarted by his opponents, Barack Obama rose above the unprecedented levels of obstruction to outsmart and outmaneuver his opposition. He started off by using his constitutionally-granted executive authority. After the midterm elections of 2014, Obama signed an executive order that would shield nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. In December, he issued a directive that would help to normalize relations with Cuba. Thanks to a clarion call during his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama was able to singlehandedly elevate the minimum wage discussion in this country and because of his call to action we now have countless states and cities with an increased minimum wage. In July of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran Deal, was finalized helping to greatly reduce the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. In December of 2015, Obama helped the United States join 194 other countries in agreeing to the Paris Agreement to address worldwide concerns over climate change. In January of 2016, he announced an executive order to simply enforce existing gun control legislation that had slipped through the cracks. Despite zero support from Republicans in congress, Barack Obama had become a "consequential president" and one who was overwhelmingly popular up through his last days in office.
Yet despite all these successes in the face of opposition, perhaps what is most impressive about Barack Hussein Obama is the manner in which he did it. Like Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama had to have the courage not to fight back. Whereas for Robinson that fight was a literal refrain from fisticuffs, for Barack Obama that fight involved balancing his own character versus the expectations placed upon him because of his race. He couldn't be or even appear to be the Angry Black Man. He couldn't talk or dress like they do "on the street." He couldn't be seen dancing or listening to music that was "too Black." He couldn't be seen as an absent father, an abusive husband, a lazy worker, or any other stereotype that White America may have had about him. He couldn't do any of this because he was the first, and firsts like him are always held to a higher standard.
And amazingly, Barack Obama met and even exceeded this standard. He earned international praise for his cool, calm demeanor even in the heat of debates or the campaign trail. He was a dedicated husband whose commitment and dedication to his spouse showed him to be an amazingly loving man. He was an involved father who was able to help raise two beautiful young women all while simultaneously serving as leader of the free world. He seemingly drifted from social situation to social situation and seemed equally at ease honoring a championship sports team at the White House as he did hosting a state dinner. He exchanged conversations with Kendrick Lamar just as easily as he did with Betty White. He sat through classic R&B performances one night and Hamilton the next. Through it all, he presented himself with a dignity and grace that helped restore America's reputation in the world.
But he also had to deal with issues that made him point man for race relations in the entire country. In March of 2012, he famously addressed the Trayvon Martin shooting by saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." In June of 2015, the gave the eulogy for the slain victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, a shooting committed by a White supremacist. Obama's support of the Black Lives Matter movement made him a constant target for his opponents who claimed he was deepening the racial divide in this country. Too many people had the naive belief that his election and presidency were supposed to somehow magically make America into a post-racial society so when news stories came around showing police officers murdering unarmed African-Americans, this was seen as Barack Obama's fault. What Obama's critics failed to realize is that police violence toward people of color had always been an issue, but it was not until the country had a person of color in the White House that serious discussions could be had for the very first time.
Barack Obama did all this knowing the burden he was taking on. He would be a human litmus test for whether or not an African-Americans could be president of this country. As unfair as it was, Barack Obama was aware of this. He famously would read 10 letters a day from everyday Americas, helping to ground him and remind him of why he was doing the work he was doing. Through it all, he never forgot his roots. It's why he founded his My Brothers' Keeper Initiative that would help mentor young African-American males, many of whom, like Obama, lacked a strong father figure in their lives. Images of him against the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument or on the Rosa Parks bus have become iconic in that they show the invisible weight Barack Obama has been forced to carry these past eight years. It was the weight of not only 320 million Americans relying on him but the weight of 400 years of African-Americans who were seen as undeserving of the main job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And it is a weight now, that Barack Obama can finally lift from his shoulders. He did it. He proved himself to be the bigger man. He went high when they went low, even when members of his own political party were encouraging him to get down in the trenches with his opponents. But Barack Obama knew better. He knew that getting down into the gutter was exactly what Republicans wanted. In the aftermath of a disheartening election result, Obama remained poised and dignified. He expressed his adulation for the Constitution and the succession process. He vowed to work with the same president-elect who had previously questioned his very own legitimacy. Despite having to endure eight years of attacks and an incoming administration that threatened his legacy, Barack Obama remained committed to the expectations placed upon him from his very first day in office.
Historians will eventually judge Barack Obama based on the success of his policies, both foreign and domestic. They will analyze the impact of the Stimulus Bill as part of the Recovery Act as to whether or not it was large enough. They will look at the loss of coal jobs in rural Appalachia. They will look at the Iraq withdrawal and determine if adequate forces were left in the region. They will look at Syria and debate whether or not the United States should have intervened. They will look at the foreign policy pivot to East Asia and whether or not the Trans-Pacific Partnership should have been approved. And they will look at the political climate in 2017 that consisted of a greatly polarized nation.
But historians can and should recognize just how remarkable a man that Barack Hussein Obama is and what he had to overcome. The hostility. The hate. The heartlessness. An entire political party actively working against the American president for six of his eight years in office. The record-level of death threats received every day. Despite all that, Barack Obama achieved remarkable things and did it with a skill and grace unparalleled in American history. Like Jackie Robinson before him, Barack Obama has opened the door for a generation of African-Americans to engage in a career path that should have been opened to them a long time ago.
And not even Republican racism can stop them now.
Trailblazers have to meet unrealistic expectations.