When the Extraordinary is Taken for Granted

Fifteen months ago, Barack Obama's election was widely heralded as an epochal moment, a healing event, in the nation's history. He was the first African American president; the first black man elected to lead any western democracy. And whatever else he was, whatever specific policies he was proposing, that, inevitably, was the dominant story of the moment. "Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory," the New York Times banner headline, on November 5th, proclaimed.

In and of itself, Obama's election was indeed a startling achievement. He had crashed through the ultimate color barrier in a display of broad electoral power, of crossover appeal, that most commentators would have deemed impossible only a few years -- or even a few months -- earlier.

Shortly after the inauguration, I spoke with Loretta Augustine-Herron, one of Obama's old friends from his community organizing days. "Someone asked me," she said, "did I think he owed African Americans something?" Because so many African Americans came out to vote for Obama during the primaries, because so many went to the polls in November, giving him a vital edge in states like North Carolina, was there an expectation that he would somehow have to repay this debt once he attained power? Did Obama, who, as far back as his election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review had so carefully marketed himself as the everyman candidate, need to be a "black president" who prioritized the needs of black citizens, to retain the loyalty of African American voters?

Herron didn't think so. "Any debt that he would have owed us was totally wiped out when he attained the Oval Office. Once he became president, it took away the myth about how far we could go and who we could be. We can be anybody we want to be. He did that for us. That's something you can't put a price tag on." And now, she said, it was time for him to be a president for all Americans.

Another of Obama's friends recalled how, after the civil rights movement, she had always told her children, and then her grandchildren, that they could be anything and anyone they wanted to be. And yet, she confided, in her heart of hearts, in that private space she rarely let others into, she had never truly believed they could be president. There were invisible limits to opportunity even in a post-segregation, post-Civil Rights Act, post-Voting Rights Act, era. But, with Obama's election, she had let her sense of possibility blossom. Now she really believed her words when she told her grandchildren they could soar.

The tears shed by so many millions of Americans the night of November 4th, 2008 were in large measure tears of joy -- and of sheer pride: pride that a country pockmarked by lynchings, the rantings of segregationist governors, citizens' councils, and KKK terror as recently as the 1960s, had come so far in the decades since. Pride that a calculus of bigotry hadn't triumphed during those frantic last days of campaigning.

These days, more than four hundred brutal 24-hour news cycles later, that sense of astonishment, of history-shaking momentousness, that emotional sense that nothing would ever be quite the same again, has faded into a distant memory. Commentators who in early 2009 were gushing at Obama's every word, every thought, every action, are now bending over backwards to re-establish their cynical bona fides. They have become, again, hard-bitten. The president-elect who could do no wrong has somehow 'morphed into the president who can do no right.

Obama is being judged on the success or failure of specific policies, on his administration's ability to tackle huge economic and foreign policy crises, and on his political mettle and his ability to navigate D.C.'s oft-treacherous landscape. And that is as it should be. No politician, however meteoric a candidate he or she might have been, and however paradigm-changing their election was, can long rest on their laurels. Yet, at the same time, today, on the eve of Black History Month, it is at least worth noting the extent to which the extraordinary has been normalized under the country's forty-fourth president.

We look at Barack, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia Obama in the White House, and we no longer do a double-take. We hear the words "President Barack Obama" and we no longer think "wait a second; that sounds a bit odd."

That, alone, is a vast accomplishment. At the most personal of levels -- the level of the gut-check, the subconscious mental tic - Obama's presence on the international political stage has changed how America sees itself and, by extension, how other countries see America. And it has opened up a new chapter, a new set of possibilities, in the country's history.

Of course, I very much hope that President Obama manages to put in place his signature policy reforms. It would be a tragedy beyond words if, with huge Congressional majorities as well as control of the presidency, the Democratic Party fails to create a decent healthcare system for the country. It would be catastrophic if climate change is not tackled and if jobs aren't created. And it would be devastating to the culture of political participation for decades to come if the motivated millions who entered politics for the first time in 2008, to campaign for Obama -- many of them poor, many of them members of racial minorities -- withdraw into apathy as they become evermore disillusioned with Washington's infinite capacity to slow change down to sloth's pace.

But even if many of Obama's policy goals flounder, when his legacy is eventually toted up that foundational achievement, the improbable fact of his election, will still render him one of the country's most historically important leaders.

Forty five years after King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Obama shattered a color barrier that many Americans, deep in their hearts, didn't think would ever be shattered. He did so in style; he did so by touting a message of unity; and he did so with a deep, empathic, understanding of the hopes and fears, the grievances and also the aspirations of Americans from different racial and economic backgrounds.

It was a remarkable feat. And yet it is a feat that, barely a year later, amidst the sausage-making messiness of day-to-day politics, we seem to have forgotten about -- or, at the very least, to take for granted. A year is, indeed, a very, very long time in politics.