It is easy to become emotional over the re-election of Barack Hussein Obama. After all, this is not the first but the second time that a black man has been chosen by black, white and brown people in a still majority-white electorate as president of the United States.
Our history as a people is not so old that we do not know how black men (and women and children) were and still are treated in this country. Now there is a black man, once again, in the White House.
But what does that mean?
The answer lies in what has happened in the past four years and what the next presidential term can bring.
For a segment of the nation, Mr. Obama’s election as president in November 2008 was the worst possible thing that could happen to America. He was seen as not American enough, even though he was born in Hawaii to an American mother.
He was seen as suffused with “socialist” ideas in a country that is rabidly capitalist, as a closet Muslim in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. And, of course, he was seen as a black man in the most powerful position in the world.
Many of the problems that Mr. Obama had to confront as president were compounded by the deliberate distortions about his background. It was difficult enough for any president —white or black — to tackle the major issues which he faced when he took office. But the slanderous comments about him as a person reinforced the perception among some Americans that he is not quite one of us.
The subliminal but painfully obvious and un-American refrain, now the Republican mantra, “Take back America,” reaffirms an ethos of racial isolationism and white superiority.
That attitude provided fertile ground for some in the Republican Party to cultivate a policy of no support for and no compromise with the country’s elected leader.
Yet, Mr. Obama still was able to bring stability to an economy that was collapsing when he was inaugurated, sidelining some of the no doubt grand-iose plans he had for his presidency. With virtually no help from Republicans in Congress, he still scored major achievements such as the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the so-called Obamacare health reform law — as well as reform of the laws governing the behavior of Wall Street, and he saved the auto industry from collapse.
Despite such accomplishments, Americans are known to vote on the basis of pocketbook issues and the continued weak state of the economy alone should have led to Mr. Obama’s defeat. The fact that it did not reflects the nation’s confidence in his policies as the right prescription for what ails us.
But the first term of the Obama presidency did something more. It exposed the still raw and fierce hostility in some Americans for other Americans. Much of the opposition to Mr. Obama during his first term derived from an understandable clash of ideology between today’s Democratic Party and today’s Republican Party.
The cut-and-thrust of high-level politics affirms our democracy, even when it is compromised by the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions from corporate entities — which are now legally defined as people with a right to freedom of speech — and from groups such as trade unions. But it has been hard to avoid the conclusion that the unusual stubborn resistance of the Republicans in Congress to anything proposed by Mr. Obama emanated from something deeper in the psyche of some Americans.
That something has been the color of his skin. W.E.B. Du Bois said in his groundbreaking 1903 treatise The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” The Republican Party has sought to maintain the relevance of that prophetic statement by creating the basis for its 21st century applicability.
The determination to drive Mr. Obama from office took on an almost holy mission for some of his implacable opponents whose political philosophy is rooted in an America that shall remain white and guided by an intolerant interpretation of Judeo-Christianity. Some of the very self-proclaimed champions of American democracy have not hesitated to take steps to frustrate the very processes that make that democracy viable.
But America has not and will not succumb to the ill will of the now dominant ultra-right wing of the Republican Party. Moreover, neither black nor brown Americans will ever again be victimized by the Jedi mind tricks of state legislatures which sought to restore and re-energize the specter of Jim Crow voter suppression and racial dehumanization.
Therein lies the key to what happens in the next four years. Will the majority who, once again, returned him to the White House, remain on the sidelines while the minority seek to usurp the system and make it as difficult as possible for him to conduct the affairs of state?
Even within his own party, Mr. Obama faced strong opposition, such as the resistance by some Democrats in the U.S. Senate that led to the dilution of the Affordable Care Act and almost caused its defeat.
In Mr. Obama’s favor this time is the reality that he cannot run for re-election for a third term. While he will no doubt be cognizant of the fact that he has his party’s interests to protect, he can be less constrained in the pursuit of policies that will distinguish his presidency as not just another president but as a president who is black, a son of Africa and a son of America.
The advantage of a leader’s being from a racial or ethnic group other than the predominant white culture of the country is the ability to add another dimension to the national debate.
That is not based on just skin color, as can be seen in the stupefying opinions which Justice Clarence Thomas has joined during all his time so far on the U.S. Supreme Court, compared to the enlightened opinions that emanated from the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose spot on the court Mr. Thomas inherited.
There can be little doubt that Mr. Obama has the background to make a substantial, unique contribution to the advancement of the American experiment as his real legacy. His life story is well known, despite the best efforts of his detractors to question everything but that he is actually a human being.
That story speaks of a background that ideally equips Mr. Obama as the quintessential 21st century president, someone who has lived in the world of today, not just in America.
After all, he is the child of a father who was a Kenyan, bridging the span between Africa and America. He is also the child of a white American mother, allowing him to straddle the two dominant cultures of America.
He was born in Hawaii – the first president to come from the only state that has never had a white majority – and he spent time in the Southeastern nation of Indonesia while growing up. His middle name is common among Muslims, and one that he takes pride in acknowledging, but he fervently embraces Chris-
Leadership does not operate in a vacuum but in a milieu created from life experiences. In a world where the majority is overwhelmingly non-white and in an America whose Anglo-Saxon dominance will inevitably decline, a leader such as Mr. Obama can start the process of adjusting to the real world and help us all to understand that, however chauvinistic we may want to be nationally, trying to maintain ourselves as an island in a sea of rapid change is a wholly unsustainable proposition.
Yes, we are definitely looking to Mr. Obama to step up his emphasis on the economy and lead the charge towards the creation of more jobs. We know that, despite what Mr. Mitt Romney said on the campaign trail, there is only so much that any president can do in terms of economic growth.
Hopefully the forces that worked to stymie his efforts over the past four years will have realized the fundamentally anti-American nature of their motivates, as is the case of those who sought to frustrate the ability of some Americans to vote.
We are also definitely expecting that Mr. Obama will continue to pursue a responsible foreign policy that will balance a global role with domestic imperatives.
But we stay convinced that there is more to Barack Hussein Obama than just being president.
He is a child of the future. And he is here among us. As a nation we voted with our soul when we decided to keep him in the White House. Now we must give him a chance to not just rise to the challenges of the day but also to challenge us to be ready to meet the future.