Eight years ago, Gary Stokes worked his way through the crowds on the National Mall with his oldest son, hoping to get a glimpse of Barack Obama as he took the oath of office.
More than a million people had the same idea. Stokes, now general manager of KSPS public television in Spokane, said he didn’t get anywhere near the stage.
“That day, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to see it again in my lifetime,” Stokes said in an interview last week. “And I wanted to be there for it.”
Obama will leave office Friday, ending the term of America’s first black president. The milestone, widely heralded on election night in 2008, gave way to a presidency fraught with challenges that exposed lingering racial animosity in America, said several members of Spokane’s black community.
Through it all, they said, Obama and his family provided an example for future generations.
“I was super excited,” said Jacyln Archer, a 25-year-old student at Eastern Washington University, of her expectations when Obama was elected. “I felt like, for the first time, the image of government was not just a 50-year-old white guy.”
Archer, who was recently elected as vice chair of the Spokane County Democratic Central Committee, said she did not agree with all of Obama’s politics, particularly his foreign policy. Still, his presidency afforded her a blueprint to become politically active.
“It’s made me feel more American,” Archer said. “It’s made me feel better about being a black female in America.”
Political foes have faulted Obama for circumventing the legislative process and issuing executive orders in the face of an intransigent Congress opposed to his agenda. James Wilburn, the past president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said he admired that about Obama’s presidency.
“His enemies, when he came in, they said on the first day of office, they’re not going to work with him. They weren’t going to support any of his policies,” Wilburn said. “He found a way around that in some of the things he was able to do. I admire him for that. He didn’t say, ‘Ya’ll are doing me wrong.’ He went on and tried anyway.”
Wilburn praised Obama for expanding health care, a political decision that has been attacked for increasing the amount households must pay by incoming President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers. Both have pledged to reverse Obama’s efforts.
Phil Tyler, current president of the Spokane NAACP, said he believed some of the efforts to fight – and now roll back – Obama’s policies might be rooted in implicit bias against him after eight years in office.
“Was it truly party lines, or was it just, I’m not going to let this person get something through?” Tyler said.
Tyler, like many others, dismissed the claim that race relations in America are worse following Obama’s presidency.
“That’s simply not true. What the reality is, is that racism has always been hiding in plain sight,” Tyler said.
Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, the Spokane resident descended from slaves sold by Georgetown University, said if the relationship has frayed, it’s unfair to lay that at the president’s feet.
“I did not know they had that much hate in America,” said Bayonne-Johnson, referencing racially charged statements like the one by former Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing comparing the first family to primates. “I really worried for his safety, sometimes.”
Clergy leaders looked past Obama’s politics and praised him for his comportment in office, and attention to the plight of the poor. The Rev. Chet Andrews, who has led the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church for more than 40 years, quoted the words of Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good./And what does the Lord require of you?/To act justly and to love mercy/and to walk humbly with your God.”
“It was what his heart was, to make things better,” Andrews said.
Obama “changed the face of America,” and offered a paternal role model the country could look up to, said the Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, leader of the New Hope Baptist Church.
“He has a genuine love of people,” Watkins said. “I’m proud of him, as a person, not just as a president.”
David Casteal, a sixth-grade teacher at Cooper Elementary, said most of his students don’t even think twice about Obama being president.
“The real irony of it is they have grown up with only a black president so they know nothing else,” he said. “To them it hasn’t been that significant.”
Criticism of Obama has not come just from political foes. Throughout his presidency, some argued he didn’t do enough as the first black president to address the concerns of black Americans. Bayonne-Johnson said she repeatedly saw that throughout Obama’s presidency, but pointed to his work for the poor as a way of tackling those problems without displaying favoritism for any one group.
“I know where people are coming from, but I think he did enough,” she said.
Wilburn said some may have had unrealistic expectations when Obama entered office.
“He’s one man, and we’re talking about 400 years of degradation and inequality,” Wilburn said. “He’s not going to turn all that around in just eight years.”
Stokes said he saw a man take “a bold first step” on that Inauguration Day in 2009, amid dizzying expectations. While some may not agree with Obama’s policies, philosophy or governing strategy, Stokes said he hoped observers will make note of his contribution to history.
“I like to hope there’s a sense amongst people out there that this was one unique thing,” Stokes said. “Then say, OK, he was the president, he did what presidents do. He did some things I like, and some things I didn’t, but the republic still stands.”
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