The date is December 10, 2014, I am up late watching the Late Night Show with David Letterman, up to the stage comes, my now favourite rapper, J. Cole and he is performing an improvised verse as an introduction to one of his songs on the now critically acclaimed 2014 Forest Hills Drive Album. The entire verse was a hard hitting social commentary on the state of affairs in America, particularly amidst the uproar following the controversial police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was powerful, but the part that stood out for me was his assessment of the Presidency of one Barack Hussein Obama aka number 44. His Obama report card read as follows:
“I’m so elated, we celebrated like Obama / waited until his last day in office / to tell the nation, brothers is getting their reparations, hey! / A man can dream, can he? / No disrespect, in terms of change / I haven’t seen any / Maybe he had good intentions / But was stifled by the system / and was sad to learn that he actually couldn’t bring any/ That’s what I get for thinking this world is fair, they let a brother steer the ship and never told him that the ship was sinking…”
The sentiments in that performance echoed one of the many thoughts I too had about the impact of the Presidency of Barack Obama, which at its inception seemed (at least to some) to beckon a new day in America and perhaps the world, yet at the end or nearing it one can’t help feeling disappointment. Ever since that day and that performance I have been writing this blog post on the legacy of Obama on and off in my mind. A lot has happened since then and the nature of the mental essay has shifted back and forth many times, but seeing snippets of President Obama’s farewell speech and watching a video of him spending one of his last days in office serving a meal to his White House Staff alongside his family has reinforced how all over the place my feelings regarding his legacy are.
The mental essay on this day has stopped at a point where my mind sees many Obamas, in fact what I initially thought were three Obamas has now manifested as four in my mind:
- Candidate Obama
- Symbol Obama
- President Obama
- Barry O the person(a)
What will follow are my incoherent and summarized attempts at explaining what I mean by these Obamas and what each means for his legacy.
A politician is a politician is a politician and generally we don’t speak positively about politicians. In Jamaican vernacular – “dem a wicked” or so most people would like to believe. But something about this well-spoken young Senator representing Chicago seemed different not the least because when had what many considered a funny sounding name. Candidate Obama just seemed to resonate with everything that is positive and what one would want from a new breed of leadership. He was young and naïve enough to think differently from established norms even to a fault. He embraced young people and embraced them where they were through seemingly unprecedented use of social media. He created a message of hope for the future and the possibility of positive change all while sounding like the most engaging spokesman or dare I say preacher in the process. Put even simpler, Candidate Obama was a joy to see at work and to listen to. Also key to the appeal of Candidate Obama was the potential of him becoming a powerful symbol – the First Black President of the United States of America.
Election night November 4, 2008 is here, the ballots have been counted and the formerly unthinkable has indeed happened. Independent since 1776, the land of chattel slavery and Jim Crow elected a black man, a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to its highest office. A black family was to take residence in that big White House that was actually built by slaves. No wonder, that from Washington, to Kingston to the Motherland, black people all over the world were overcome with emotions. Along with the lifting of the US Embargo on Cuba or the granting of reparations as a result of the transatlantic slave trade, America having a black President is one of those things that “they” said would never happen in my lifetime. I am typing, but my words by no means can capture the genuine feeling of accomplishment, euphoria and pride many persons felt with the breaking of this impossible barrier.
But the pride and the symbolism did not end just with the victory for the past eight years, and especially in the wake of the nasty under belly of the 2016 election campaign, the luster of this lovely family residing in the White House, showcasing for the world to see that the impossible can be possible and all persons no matter who they are can aspire to be what they want to be. All while exuding class and elegance.
Honeymoons don’t last forever though, and the luxury of being a hopeful candidate that is a monumental symbol had to give way to governance. Back to the J. Cole song. Many persons, particularly the African American community almost bestowed a messianic hope on the shoulders of Mr. Obama. Undoubtedly persons with such lofty expectations were bound to be disappointed as a man is just a man and even more a politician. Even more than that I have come to the conclusion that the Institution of the President of the United States is bigger than any one of its holders and like J. Cole I honestly feel Mr. Obama may have been constrained from being any revolutionary change agent by this reality.
So in his farewell speech he listed his achievements and they are clear, the ship was sinking in many respects not least the economy. Whatever measure may choose without getting into graphs and charts, under his watch the US emerged in a good position on the other side of the worst economic recession since the 1920s. In terms of domestic safety and security, the statistics suggest America is safer than it has ever been. “Obamacare” was passed and depending on who you ask that has been positive as well. For others “marriage equality” is also seen as a positive.
But serious shortcomings are there as well especially on the international front. The exponential use of unmanned drones as a war tool and the deaths of many innocents and non-innocents, the devastation of Syria and Libya are things that can be laid squarely at the feet of this administration. On the home front, whether his fault or not , it seems the killing or brutal treatment of persons of colour by members of law enforcement with almost impunity has skyrocketed, with many detractors feeling as though the president has lent his voice to other issues far more than the plight of primarily the black community.
On balance, as a non-citizen of the US that has to live in a world where the US is the major super power, I cannot in good conscience say I believe the Presidency of Barack Obama has significantly affected us in the developing world in a positive manner. Many persons may see this as too kind an assessment as by many measures the world could be worse off.
Barry O the Person(a)
Unequivocally, I am not a fan of President Obama. Perhaps that is why, I have developed this Multiple Personality Disorder for him because I cannot shake the guilt of wishing I could hang out with him though. Barack Obama the person or at least the persona that we see publicly is so cool, so smooth on so many levels. He is seemingly down to earth, he is au fait with the latest Music, he is able to have meaningful conversation about the latest sporting event, he uses local slang when he travels and even more admirable he appears to not lord over the “small people” that he is “The Leader of the Free World.”
What is perhaps the cherry on top is the public relationship he has with his wife and children. The man never ever misses an opportunity to “big up” the love of his life and their children. He appears to be a serious family man that puts his family before even the stresses of Presidency.
As I said before, as a basketball fan and knowing his love for basketball as well, despite all my misgivings about Barack Obama I can’t shake the feeling that it would be an honour to play a game to 21 against Barry O and talk about life.
A lot has been said above without being able to say all that was meant but ultimately in 8 days the White House will again revert to its more natural hue, though with a tinge of orange. Feels like the “Change We Can Believe In” days were just yesterday but alas time waits for no man and Mr. Obama’s fate is with the history writers now. I’m sure like Fidel Castro it is his hope that history will judge him fairly and positively. He has marks on both sides of the score card probably more on the failure side if I am totally honest. But his other manifestations, particularly Symbol Obama and Barry O the person(a) have left an indelible mark and I have no doubt in my mind that under the current political circumstances, even his harshest critics, myself guiltily included, will miss him and miss him sooner than we think… like within a week we will miss him BIGLY.
The part of this song quoted above can be seen at around the 2:35 mark. (No copyright infringement was intended and “Reasoning With The Cunning One” does not own or take responsibility for the content of external links. – ALWAYS WANTED TO SAY THAT LOL)