News Analysis: Obama’s Place in History

By John Rudolph – FI2W Executive Producer

When I was a kid my friends and I used to talk about when the first black U.S. president would be elected. It was a fair question in the 1960s for students at a mixed-race school in New York City. In that era black Americans were achieving “firsts” all the time – the first black Supreme Court Justice (Thurgood Marshall), the first black woman elected to Congress (Shirley Chisholm), the first black to win an Academy Award for best actor (Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Fields), and the first black actress to star in her own TV show (Diahann Carrol in Julia).

Despite those achievements, and many others, the idea of a black person occupying the White House seemed a very long way off. The Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black Power movement were in full swing. So was the white backlash against them – leading my school mates and me to predict that it might be a century before enough white Americans would be willing to cast their vote for a black candidate seeking the nation’s highest office.

We were wrong. This historic event occurred much sooner than any of us imagined, and for reasons that never entered our discussions. As America struggled, often violently, over racial integration and equal rights, we could not picture the multi-racial, multi-cultural nation that would emerge to elect a president some have called “post-racial.”

The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was one of the seeds sown in that decade that has as much to do with Obama’s victory as the long fight for equality and justice for African Americans. By removing a system of quotas that favored white northern European immigrants, the law helped level the playing field for people around the world who wanted to come to America. They have been coming ever since, creating a nation that has grown more and more diverse over time, and which increasingly sees diversity and multi-racialism as a normal part of life.

In the world of presidential politics, the ground for Obama’s successful candidacy was laid by none other than the Bush family. The elder President Bush was the first multi-regional candidate. At a time when geographically balancing the presidential ticket still mattered a lot, Bush Sr. could comfortably claim roots in both New England and Texas. Now Obama has taken regional identity politics to the next level, with his Hawaiian childhood, his Illinois political base, and his Harvard education, he’s got a personal connection to almost every time zone in the U.S.

The day after Obama’s victory, some pundits were already warning that he promised too much during his campaign, that people’s expectations for him are unrealistically high, and that he is bound to leave Americans disappointed. Obama said as much himself in his victory speech in Chicago:

“There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president. And we know the government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”

With an economic crisis to deal with, two wars, climate change, and a broken immigration system in desperate need of an overhaul, the president-elect clearly has his work cut out for him. He is bound to disappoint many people along the way, and make enemies of others. But if he can be a transformative president, in the same way he has already transformed the business of becoming president, then his shortcomings (and there could be many of them) will be outweighed by the change he represents.

History, both Obama’s personal story and history of the U.S., have shaped the president-elect into a man that so many different people can identify with. He’s black and white, he has family connections to Africa, Asia, and Europe. Because of his Irish roots some have even joked that his name could be spelled O’bama. He is a Christian, but with a middle name that many associate with Islam.

As long as people continue to see a part of themselves in the next president they may be more inclined to forgive his missteps. With Obama’s election we have entered uncharted territory. Rather than feeling scared, many Americans are excited about the future and confident in his abilities as a leader.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.