The grandfather clock in the northeast corner of the Oval Office ticks loudly as the President welcomes us to the ceremonial center of power most Americans associate with still photographs and movies. Initial greetings are formal, everything stiffly polite—until we present a four-year-old commemorative issue of ESSENCE that features a photo of the four Obamas posed on a staircase in their Chicago home.
“Look at them,” the President exclaims, examining his two smiling daughters, then just 10 and 7. “Sasha’s got no teeth! Now they’re just…” His words trail off. He can’t look away. “Malia’s 5’9″ [now],” he muses finally. “She’s going to high school next year.” He stares another moment, then pushes the book away with a rueful smile. “Don’t let me start off an interview with tears.”
Seated in the Oval Office in a dark blue suit, pale blue shirt, striped tie and ever-present American flag lapel pin, the President looks perfectly at ease. His top secret BlackBerry sits on a table at his elbow, just behind a vase of yellow roses. Four years ago a conversation with Barack Obama meant finding a quiet corner or the back of a campaign bus. Now it means negotiating multiple levels of security before arriving in the high-ceilinged Oval Office, where the HMS Resolute desk, used by presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes, gleams with not a scrap of paper in sight. A portrait of George Washington gazes down from its perch above the dormant fireplace. But over the President’s shoulder, another U.S. leader comes into view. A 12 5/8-inch bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., carved in bronze by noted African-American sculptor Charles Alston, rests on a raised platform. And on the wall just above the bust hangs a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The President’s clean desktop is misleading. He has had so much on his plate it’s remarkable every strand of hair on his head hasn’t turned pure white. And as the fall election approaches, he has to prove that there is much left only he can do. “First of all, the economy is improving, and the key is for us to build on the successes we’ve already put in place,” he says, laying out his case for reelection. “So we’ve got to implement health care reform. Regardless of what the Supreme Court does, if I don’t get another term it’s likely that a Republican president would try to reverse the gains we’ve made—and that’s 30 million people who suddenly lose their health care.”
It’s easy to lose track of just how much Mr. Obama has accomplished in so short a time: The pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden. The passage of that sweeping health care law. The establishment of an equal pay law. The successful rescues—critics say bailout—of Wall Street and the automobile industry. The support for gay marriage. And while all that has been underway, the Arab Spring has transformed the Middle East, Japan has survived a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, economies in Greece and Portugal have teetered on the edge of collapse, and the United States has begun to pull out—slowly but surely—from wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The President’s surprise visit to the latter on the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death effectively shut down a political argument about whether he was exploiting its success.
Now, though, is the season of accountability. Every poll—not to mention every chanting, screaming audience he addresses as he campaigns for reelection—confirms that most Americans like Barack Obama, the father and husband. But there are enough who actively dislike Barack Obama the President that both Democrats and Republicans believe this will be a tight election. The detractors’ emotions run hard and deep. These critics consider Obama a lightweight and out of touch with their values. They fret that their taxes are too high, and Washington is to blame. One of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s enduring campaign slogans is, Obama Isn’t Working. And if Americans hate Washington, Barack Obama now is Washington.
Mr. Romney will not be the only one faulting the President for his stewardship of the domestic economy. African-Americans are unemployed at nearly twice the rate as the national average. Among Black teens, the rate is nearly five times as high. Without prompting, the President reels off his plans to help communities that have been hardest hit. Cheaper refinancing. Linking health care and education resources. Expanding tuition assistance. All these things, he says, can help. “If your starting point is 40 percent unemployment in that community and we get it down to 25, that’s a lot of individual lives that have been helped,” he says. “But, objectively, that community is still having a tough time, whether it’s the South Side of Chicago or in Anacostia, right across the way here.”
Getting elected when you begin the race as a virtual unknown is in many ways a simpler task than persuading voters to sign up for another lap around a pitted and uneven track. If Americans are looking for someone to blame, the guy already in the Oval Office is a ripe and reasonable target. “I completely understand people who, having gone through three and a half, four really, tough years—and ten tough years before that in some cases because they haven’t seen their wages and incomes go up—feeling like, I want to see more improvement in my life and I want to see more improvement in my community than we’ve seen,” the President tells us. “When I first came into office and we were losing 750,000 jobs a month, and now over the last three months we’ve gained 600,000 jobs, I’m not seeing those people directly. Whereas, when you’re state senator or when you’re a community organizer, if you found somebody a job, you knew that person, you knew their story,” he says. “So I get people’s frustrations. And what I tell folks is that these problems weren’t created overnight, so they’re not going to be solved overnight. But our trajectory is the right one.”
Valerie Jarrett, the President’s old friend and close adviser, describes the difference between 2008 and 2012, noting the “colossal mess” that awaited them. “As the Vice-President likes to say, ‘We are not comparing the President to the almighty,’ ” she says. “We are comparing him to the alternative.” Civil rights icon and Obama supporter Vernon Jordan makes a similar point to a Sunday-morning congregation at Howard University’s Rankin Memorial Chapel. “This election is more important than 2008, for the simple fact that reaffirmation is more important than affirmation,” he says.
In 2007 ESSENCE sat down with Michelle Obama during the campaign’s most heady days, when arenas were jammed with sweaty, chanting Obama supporters, and will.i.am was making inspirational videos. “You cannot wait for Barack to emote us into change,” she told us then. “He’s going to stumble; he’s going to make mistakes.” Four years later I ask the President: Was Mrs. Obama right? “Oh, absolutely,” he responds instantly, adding with a smile, “First of all, my wife is always right.” But he quickly grows serious. “What she and I have always understood is our job is to try to describe for people what’s possible, to put our shoulder to the wheel, but to let everybody know, you guys have got to push with us, that this doesn’t happen just because I snap my fingers,” he notes, snapping his fingers lightly. “This doesn’t get done because I wave a magic wand. This is a big country,” he continues. “It’s a politically polarized country. Democracy is messy. Congress right now is, let’s face it, dysfunctional. And so the process of change is one of just grinding it out.”
Part of that grind has been the series of political trade-offs the Obama administration has been forced to make along the way. Whether it was stepping away from a climate-change commitment, breaking a promise to close the Guantanamo detention center within a year, or authorizing the targeted killing of an American-born alleged terrorist, he has frequently disappointed some of his biggest supporters.
One of the biggest trade-offs, the President acknowledges, was the decision to scale back his plan for public health insurance coverage. “The health care bill was, I think, a perfect example of the challenges involved in getting big stuff done in this town and the negotiations that you have to go through not just with the other party, but often with your own party, to get something done,” he admits. “Ultimately, because of the health care bill, 30 million people—7 million African-Americans—are going to have health care coverage that they didn’t have before. Women are going to have preventive services as part of their insurance, including contraceptive care. That makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”
The racial subtext of this history-making presidency has also been a recurring theme. When Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested on his porch steps, the President’s assertion that police “acted stupidly” caused a stir.
More recently, when he was asked to comment on the Trayvon Martin shooting case, his muted observation that if he had a son, he would have looked like the unarmed 17-year-old made waves. During the ESSENCE interview, we never have to directly ask about race. It is a given, and the President gently injects it into the conversation, especially when we ask about the disproportionate impact felt within minority communities as a result of the collapsed housing bubble. “This has been our biggest challenge,” he says. “When that bubble popped, families all across the country suffered. And you’re right, African-American and Hispanic families suffered disproportionately, partly because they had been targets of some of these subprime lending practices.”
The President addresses the push and pull of political life weeks later as he, along with his wife, kicks off his campaign in Ohio and Virginia—he with shirtsleeves rolled up; she in turquoise. “I told you in 2008 that I wasn’t a perfect man, and I will never be a perfect President. But I promised you then that I would always tell you what I thought. And I would wake up every single day fighting for you as hard as I know how.”
Back at the White House, the President and First Lady are separately candid about the advantages and limitations of life in this peculiar political spotlight. “It is an extraordinary privilege to be here,” the President says, motioning to include the Oval Office and the rest of the White House beyond the door. “And you’ve got everybody looking after your creature comforts and making sure that travel is convenient, and a nice piece of real estate, and you’re working 30 seconds away from where you live, so you don’t have any commute time.” He chuckles. “So there are all kinds of great things about it,” he says. “But the capacity to go into a neighborhood, sit down, have a conversation, meet people that you wouldn’t expect to be meeting—that’s what’s been lost.”
His family’s life, naturally, is almost unrecognizable from what it was three and a half years ago, before they moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of this is nature: As Barack Obama’s daughters are speeding into young womanhood, their father’s hair is even more shockingly gray up close than it appears at a distance. Some of it is simply the trappings of the office. The First Lady—conveniently photographed on one occasion pushing a shopping cart at a Target—told an audience of children visiting the White House recently that she sometimes longs to simply go for a walk. “If I could change something, I’d be able to sneak around a little bit more,” she says, smiling. “But it causes people a lot of stress when I do that, so I try not to.”
When the President and First Lady do get to spend family time together, they savor it. “My job has definitely kept me away from home more often than I would have liked,” the President says. “Just about every night I’m here in Washington, I make sure to have dinner with Michelle and the girls, and when we sit down to eat, my focus is entirely on them. I try to find other ways to spend time with my family too, whether that’s helping to coach Sasha’s basketball team or a date night with Michelle.”
A little boy visiting the East Room asks Mrs. Obama whether she would ever want to go back to her “old life,” and she laughs. “My old life? I don’t know if that’s possible. One of the things I’ve learned growing up and being a grown-up is that you always look forward—you look to where you’re going to go, as opposed to looking back,” she explains. “So we’re going to see how, what the future has for us.” The President looks forward as well. “I’ve always approached my presidency as a long-term proposition,” he says. “I didn’t run for office just to clean up the mess I inherited. I didn’t run for office just to return to the status quo. Understanding that some of the things I get done, we may not see the benefits from them for ten years. But that’s how change happens.
Gwen Ifill is a senior correspondent for PBS NewsHour.