“Yes, we can…yes, we did.”
These were the bookend pledges of Barack Obama -- the words he used to describe the start, and now the end, of an extraordinary eight-year presidency full of expectations that he'd deliver on hope and change for Americans, especially people of color.
Obama entered the White House as what’s been described as a “living symbol,” the first black man to lead the world's most powerful nation and to break a color line that stood for 220 years. Yet, as he delivered those inspiring pledges in Chicago on that chilly election eve in 2008 and then again back in his hometown this past January, the legacy of the Obama years has been a mix of successes, missed opportunities, and disappointments.
To many, like myself, President Obama represented steps toward realizing the dream of a post-racial society in America, as he pushed through tremendous changes impacting minority communities, including here in Broward County.
He implemented criminal justice reforms, protected hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation, and appointing racially diverse leaders to key cabinet and administrative jobs, including the first two black attorneys general. He helped bring our country back from the worst recession since the Great Depression (the jobless rate has dropped from 7.6% to 4.7% -- and from 12.7% to 7.8% for African Americans).
He is also credited with a major expansion of health care that secured insurance for nearly 20 million Americans, including nearly three million African Americans. And his administration has helped boost educational standards in many failing school districts (the high school graduation rate for African Americans has increased from 66.1% to 85%).
Of course, let’s not forget his grace, eloquence and character, as well as that of First Lady Michelle Obama, at home and abroad, even in the face of Congressional opposition unprecedented in its intensity. The Obamas are a lasting example to us all and exceptional symbols of black success.
At the same time, President Obama had shortcomings and outright setbacks, such as the lack of significant economic development of urban centers, persistence of gun violence, and continuation of high foreclosure and bank closure rates in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
And his presidency did not usher in racial harmony, as we had all hoped for. Unfortunately, both blacks and whites now believe, in latest polls, that race relations have deteriorated. Growing tensions over police shootings of African Americans prompted protests in many cities and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nonetheless, our National Urban League, which has long rated the successes and setbacks of presidential administrations, has given the Obama administration an overall rating of “Excellent,” our second-highest rating. I echo the words of Marc Morial, president and CEO of National Urban League, that I am confident the long arc of history will judge President Obama favorably.
The Baughtom Line: It took more than two centuries for our country to elect a black president. It will likely take many years after President Obama leaves office to appreciate and figure out what it all means.