Written By: Kristal Brent Zook
The following is from the introduction to LIFE’s special issue paying tribute to Barack Obama as the former President turns 60:
From that first stunning address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the speech that launched him into national consciousness, Barack Obama made clear his yearning for a new kind of politics that would galvanize a fresh generation of voters. His white American mother and Black African father had “shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation,” he told the crowd to rousing response. They passed that faith on to him, and it stuck.
Between that speech and now, as America’s 44th president turns 60 and cultivates a post–White House life, Obama changed the United States, and the world. His legacy evolves, along with the evolving vantage point of history.
Obama’s election to the presidency “would mean . . . that the America I believed in was possible, that the democracy I believed in was within reach,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land, “ . . . that I wasn’t alone in believing that the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak and we inevitably fell back into clans and tribes.”
In terms of his character and temperament, there are points on which nearly everyone can agree. Obama was intelligent, restrained, dignified. An idealist, to be sure. A loving husband and father. Certainly, someone deeply dedicated to the mission he had been called to serve.
As he was the first African American president this country has seen, his presence and power in the White House were symbolic as well as actual, his identity embodying a part of our national identity that was messy and not easily defined. “Because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled,” Obama wrote, “I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast.”
That so many Americans embraced this man with a Muslim-sounding name, with all of his unknowns and aspirations, said something profound. His complicated background and experiences reminded us that America is full of contradiction and disappointment, but also hope. He was nothing if not the collective mirror we held up to remind ourselves not to succumb to cynicism.
Barack Obama never believed that his presidency would lead to a post-racial America. After all, this was a man who was placed under round-the-clock security by the Secret Service earlier in the campaign than any presidential candidate before him. Obama was not naive about racism. He simply refused to give in to it.
His tenure in the White House mattered not only in figurative terms but in concrete policy measures. He appointed the country’s first two Black attorneys general and instituted criminal justice reforms to address racial disparities impacting Black and brown people. He added more than 100 federal judges of color to the bench and nominated Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court justice, the first Latina to serve in that capacity.
Still, he refused to cast himself as only a “Black president” and was intent on being a bridge that could unite us all. In many ways, he did just that. Obama consistently won white voters, claiming nine states in 2008 that had voted Republican in 2004. His presidential campaigns registered thousands of young people and people of color—new voters who previously had been disengaged. Many white citizens of traditionally red rural districts cast their ballots for him. His open-arms approach to the electorate was a stance for which he received some criticism from African Americans, but not enough to dent his Gallup poll approval rating among Black voters, which remained in the 80-90 percent range throughout his eight years in office.
Politically, Obama’s accomplishments were numerous and varied, the most significant of them arguably being the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It provided health coverage to 20 million people, including 4 million Hispanic people and 3 million African Americans. As Thomas Holt, a University of Chicago professor emeritus of American and African American history, has described it, passage of the ACA placed Obama in the same historical ranks as Franklin D. Roosevelt for instituting Social Security and Lyndon B. Johnson for Medicare.
With that one victory, Obama achieved what generations of Democratic presidents had tried and failed to do. That such a feat was grounded in mostly moderate measures—such as allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26 and not denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions—often gets lost in translation.
Obama will also be remembered for rescuing the country from the brink of financial disaster, as the economic meltdown he inherited upon taking office was the worst America had faced since the Great Depression—with an unemployment rate that had reached 10 percent and thousands of foreclosures forced by the collapse of the housing market. Almost immediately as president, Obama put in place the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus package containing $787 billion in tax cuts and spending. The legislation, ultimately credited with saving some 2.5 million American jobs, was passed without a single Republican vote in the House.
Among Obama’s environmental actions, the Paris Agreement often gets top billing, but there is more to his record on climate change, according to political journalist Jonathan Darman, who in a New York magazine Q&A cited “tough EPA constraints on coal, a meaningful accord with China to cut emissions, serious stimulus spending on clean energy, new emissions standards for cars and trucks.” Darman added, “History may well reveal that Obama showed more personal courage on this issue than any other.”
In his final speech in office, Obama included other accomplishments in his tally, reminding us that his administration saw the dawn of a new era with Cuba after 55 years of discord, that under his leadership military forces took out Osama bin Laden, that he succeeded in bringing marriage equality to LGBTQ couples, and that he was responsible for shutting down Iran’s nuclear weapons program “without firing a shot.”
Despite these many successes, a cloud loomed over his presidency. Obama watched a rising tide of right-wing extremism take hold across the country, a trend with roots in economic insecurity, fear of demographic shifts, and resentment over immigration—and in the election of Obama. The President seemed helpless to stem the tide. Hate crimes rose, and between 2010 and 2016 right-wing domestic terrorism skyrocketed from 6 percent to 35 percent of domestic terror attacks, according to the Center for American Progress. The most notorious racial incident during Obama’s presidency happened in June 2015, when a 21-year-old white supremacist murdered nine Black people, including pastors, at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel church.
It was while the country was led by a Black president that the Black Lives Matter movement exploded—incited by the August 2014 fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, by a white police officer, as well as the death a month earlier of a Black man in New York City named Eric Garner, who was put in a choke hold by a NYPD officer. There would be further outrage over subsequent incidents of police involvement in the deaths of other African Americans. (Black Lives Matter would be reinvigorated after Obama’s presidency, with protesters of all races taking to the streets in the spring and summer of 2020 following the George Floyd killing.)
The United States’ first Black president had been elected by an overwhelming margin, with the support of the largest congressional majority in years. And yet during his second term in particular, the country was roiled by racial unrest. How was it possible that these two realities existed at once? Many, including Obama, would wonder about this seeming contradiction.
“It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic,” Obama wrote in A Promised Land, “a sense that the natural order had been disrupted.” His presidency, not to mention his progressive policies, threatened the traditional power structure in the U.S., which had long been headed by white men. Furthermore, Obama sought to make America less bullying and bellicose. Kinder, more egalitarian.
He paid a price for such lofty ambitions. From the start of his first term, Republican congressional leadership created a wall of “all-out obstruction”—as Obama labeled it in A Promised Land—“a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.” Politico’s Michael Grunwald wrote in late 2016, “This [GOP] strategy of . . . treating him not just as a president from the opposing party but an extreme threat to the American way of life, has been a remarkable political success.” Grunwald quoted Republican operative Ed Rogers as saying, “A lot of us woke up every morning thinking about how to kick Obama, who could say the harshest thing about Obama on the air.” Obama himself had to admit, in A Promised Land, that the Republicans’ battle plan was deployed “with impressive discipline” the entirety of his time in office.
His opponents could not, however, negate the profound impact Obama had emotionally and psychically on many people in this country. Who can forget the charming image of him in the Oval Office bending down so a 5-year-old Black boy could touch his head, amazed that they had the same kind of hair? Wasn’t there something cool about a guy who blasted Jay-Z and Eminem in his headphones before a campaign debate? How could we not be moved by a commander-in-chief whose sorrow was so deep following the Charleston church massacre that, having no words left to give at a victim’s funeral, he broke into a heartfelt a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace”?
Obama recognized—was even motivated by—his own symbolic power. As he recounted in A Promised Land, one day in December 2006, not long before announcing his candidacy for president, Obama sat across from his wife, Michelle, at a table as a handful of campaign strategists went back and forth on staffing and logistics. The discussion had dragged on for an hour when Michelle (who made no secret of her distaste for Washington electoral politicking) posed a question: “Why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?”
The future president thought long and hard before answering. He thought about how much he loved his wife, about how they had met. He thought about what he was about to do. Then finally he answered.
“Here’s one thing I know for sure. . . .I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently.” And that “kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll . . . see their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded.”
“And that alone,” he added, “would be worth it.”
Here are a selection of photos from Barack Obama: His Life, His Work, His Living Legacy, available at newsstands and on Amazon.