From the moment President Obama began speaking last night at his final State of the Union address, you knew he was a free man. Gone was the stiff formality of the event from years past, replaced by a light-hearted introduction in which he jokingly promised a shorter speech so the presidential candidates in the room could get back to Iowa.
Also gone was the usual laundry list of unlikely legislation which presidents typically introduce during the annual ritual. Last night the president said he didn't want to focus solely on the next year. Instead, he chose to focus on "the next five years, ten years, and beyond."
This was a moment about Barack Obama's legacy. A year from today we will begin the final week of his presidency. The historic Obama administration is slowly coming to an end.
Savor this moment. Years from now, young people will ask what was it like when America had its first Black president. They may not appreciate the sense of pride we felt watching a Black man sworn in to hold the highest office in the land. They may not realize how our hearts swelled with joy when he and his beautiful family simply walked across Lafayette Park on their way to Easter services. And they may not understand the bond that connected us when he unexpectedly sang Amazing Grace during a eulogy for a Black pastor in Charleston.
Ever since that Tuesday evening in November 2008 when America elected its first Black president, we knew this special ride could not last forever. Over the course of two terms in office, we got to see an African-American man as commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military, saluted by highly decorated colonels and generals everywhere he walked.
We watched as the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother moved confidently across the world stage, standing tall next to the leaders of superpowers like Russia and China, standing up to demand change in our failed relationships with the leaders of Iran and Cuba, and standing for human rights and continued development and investment in nations from Senegal to South Africa across an often ignored continent.
And we smiled as a graceful Black man in a white-majority country served as our head of state, greeting world leaders from Pope Francis to Queen Elizabeth while carrying the dignity of a nation and a people on his shoulders.
No, this is no ordinary time. I've lived through nine presidencies in my lifetime, and I don't know if I, or we, will ever see a president like Barack Obama again. Here stands a special man, not perfect by any means, but perfect for this moment in his willingness to tackle complex issues of our time and in his ability to understand and articulate conflicting public viewpoints on deeply divisive issues. Here is a man who could talk intelligently and patiently to almost anyone, if they simply had the patience to listen.
From the very beginning, Barack Obama's symbolic status as the nation's first Black president ensured that history would not ignore him. But the Obama administration was never just about symbolism. It was also about accomplishments. As I've said before, Barack Obama may be the best president since World War II. Some of us still think it's important that the president helped rescue the economy from the worst recession since the Great Depression, saved the auto industry, passed the most sweeping health care reform in 50 years, captured Osama Bin Laden, re-opened relations with Cuba, reversed the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and guided us toward the end of the tunnel of endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That he did this against the headwinds of persistent opposition from Republicans, who predicted repeatedly and wrongly that his policies would ruin the economy, kill millions of jobs, and blow a hole in the deficit reflects how little credit he receives for taking decisive action in the face of determined resistance. Those "job-killing" policies despised by the opposition did not stop the nation from creating 9 million new jobs, doubling the stock market, cutting the deficit in half and putting the nation on a path toward energy independence.
And while some have argued the president did nothing for African-Americans, they overlook the dramatic reduction in the Black unemployment rate, which has been cut in half from 16.8 percent in 2010 to 8.3 percent last month, or the stunning reduction in the health care uninsured rate for African-Americans. Or his appointment of two successive African-American attorneys general who have put the Justice Department finally on the side of justice for African-Americans after decades of counterproductive "tough-on-crime" policies.
By his own admission, President Obama failed to change the tone in Washington these past seven years. "The rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better," he acknowledged last night. But even as critics over the past eight years have predicted socialism, terrorism, death panels, disease, tyranny and economic collapse, a soft-spoken, elegant, intelligent Black man with a strong conscience kept reminding us to be better than our fears.
"That’s the country we love," Obama said last night. "Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)