This new guy named Barack Obama was speaking forcefully, delivering one of his first speeches as an Illinois lawmaker with such eloquence that I turned up the volume on the squawk box that carried his voice from the Senate floor to my press room office one floor below.
“Who’s that?” I asked the statehouse pundit who happened to be sitting on our dusty orange couch.
“Barack Obama? Sounds like some kinda black militant,” he said, and went back to gnawing on his soggy cigar.
The year was 1997, and the Illinois Capitol was a place where newcomers got their labels shortly after arrival. After politely asking a man in the office to stop calling me “baby,” I was the man hater. An intern with Mexican parents was “that Chicano chick.” Obama was the latest black radical, based first on his name and then on his interest in criminal justice.
The son of a Kenyan man and a white woman born in Kansas, Obama knew a little something about being categorized, and he had other plans.
For the next 20 years, from my perch covering his career, I would watch people apply to him every label imaginable, from radical socialist to closet conservative, from naïve preacher to scheming partisan, from angry African to black man in name only.
Mostly, though, he was a defier of the conventional ways of categorizing people in terms of race, color, creed and political beliefs. As he left office, he promised he wouldn’t be the last black president, predicting that his successors would include a woman, a Latino and a Hindu – and even more incisively, presidents whose heritage defy shorthand.
Obama was longing for such a world when I first met him. One of his first efforts in office was a bill to discourage racial profiling by police officers.
Isn’t this pretty much a partisan vote? I asked him in the halls of the Capitol one day.
Not if I can help it, he answered. After he met again and again with police and lawmakers of every stripe, the bill went on to win support not just from Democrats and lawmakers from elite districts but also from white suburbanites and conservatives from outside the Chicago area. It passed without a single vote of opposition.
What got attention was whites’ broad support. What Obama learned, though, was that if he could make his case, he could get people on all sides of an issue to come together.
When he preached that message at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, vaulting him to national recognition, it seemed from the response as if his fellow Democrats were willing to follow him to that promised land.
Whether they were right or wrong, it sure seemed like a good story. So I moved from Springfield, Ill., to Washington in 2006, when Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, and soon after was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to follow Obama’s historic candidacy for the White House. I wrote about his year-plus campaign and election, and eventually began writing about his presidency for all of the newspapers owned by the Tribune’s parent company.
Obama’s passionate followers loved his vision of America as a land of opportunity for all, and he won the presidency partly because of how eloquently he challenged America’s dividing lines.
In office, Obama pushed back against established barriers. On foreign policy, that meant meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro. He plowed past Chinese government officials’ early skepticism of the women and black officials in his delegation until he and President Xi Jinping had forged mutual respect. They eventually negotiated a landmark carbon-reduction agreement.
In domestic matters, Obama tried to explain white America to black America and vice versa. Often, the backlash was brutal. He infuriated white officers when he suggested, during his first summer in office, that police “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor suspected of breaking into what turned out to be his own home. Police and activists alike chafed at Obama’s attempts to mediate during a memorial for dead police officers in Dallas last summer.
When Obama and I sat down together in the spring of 2015 at the annual dinner for the White House Correspondents’ Assn., during my term as the organization’s president, I asked him why he waded into such knotty matters where people were unlikely to be moved. He looked at me with an almost confused smile, like he couldn’t imagine what I was suggesting. One of his closest aides had his own theory in a private conversation we had shortly after.
“He always thinks he can convince people,” he said, “if he can just get them to listen.”
That didn’t work out so well during the 2016 campaign for president. Obama exhorted Democrat Hillary Clinton’s shared ideals of equality and fairness and insisted her opponent, Donald Trump, was unqualified for the job. The election of Trump, promising an end to all the “political correctness,” came as a repudiation of Obama’s core beliefs.
But there he was on Friday, leaving the Oval Office a final time, stumping for the same ideals. Just before he left Washington for a retreat in Palm Springs, he addressed supporters in an airport hangar. Many were tearful.
Obama told them to keep working.
“This is not a period,” he said. “This is a comma in the continuing story of building America.”
Obama isn’t done, as evidenced by the forward-looking spin of his parting words.
“Yes we did,” he said. “Yes we can.”