This is an opinion piece.
(MEDIA GENERAL) — Whether you love him or hate him, Barack Obama’s presidency is coming to an end.
Obama was unique in many ways as our country’s commander-in-chief. He was the first black president. He was the first president to read “Mean Tweets.” To some, he was the first Muslim president who also was born in Kenya and is conspiring with the mole people to destroy the United States by fighting for regulations to combat climate change.
Aside from the progressive legislation that President Obama helped pass in his eight years in office, he will forever be remembered for the moments that helped define who he was as a president: Someone who is relatable and worked to show empathy and compassion to the American public and the world.
For eight years of President Obama, here are eight of the best moments of Obama’s presidency:
1. ‘I want to know if my hair is just like yours’
Years from now, regardless of Obama’s legislative legacy and what happens to it under the Trump administration, Obama will be remembered most as the first black president. Given the history of race in the United States – and throughout the world – the color of his skin represents the progress that our society has made in acceptance and can stand as a point of pride to generations of African Americans.
His legacy as the first black president is symbolized perfectly in an off-the-cuff photo caught by White House photographer Pete Souza in 2009.
According to a New York Times account, President Obama was posing for a photo with Carlton Philadelphia and his family. Philadelphia, a former Marine, was leaving the White House staff after a two-year stint with the National Security Council. In small talk, Philadelphia’s 5-year-old son, Jacob, quietly wondered if the president’s hair felt like his own. “I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” Jacob asked.
To his question, President Obama bent down and offered for Jacob to feel it for himself. The rest is photo history.
For years, African Americans weren’t allowed basic human freedoms in the United States. For decades after that, African Americans still fought for equal voting rights. The fight for racial equality – which still continues today – reached a climax in Obama’s nomination. For a young black boy to be able to reach out and confirm that even his wildest goals are possible is an iconic moment.
2. ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound’
One of Obama’s most poignant moments as president didn’t take place in the Oval Office or in the Rose Garden, but at a pulpit as he delivered a eulogy for South Carolina Sen. Clementa Pinckney — one of nine black parishioners senselessly gunned down inside their church. Pinckney, also a reverend, was leading a Bible study that fateful Wednesday night.
In the days after the attack, we learned more about the victims of the heinous attack, as well as more about confessed killer Dylann Roof, who has calmly stated the plot was meant to trigger a race war. To try and heal a nation that felt split politically and emotionally, President Obama took to the lectern to deliver a message on grace and love to remember Sen. Pinckney.
Toward the end of his eulogy, with the audience fully engaged with his message, Obama delivered the following lines: “[Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind. But more importantly, an open heart. That’s what I felt this week – an open heart. That more than any particular policy is what’s called upon right now, I think. It’s what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.’ That ‘reservoir of goodness.’ If we can find that grace, anything is possible.”
He pauses as the crowd claps approvingly.
“If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
He pauses, resembling a pastor as much as he is president.
He pauses again.
He pauses once more, looking down at his notes, reflecting in thought, before slowly easing into the first verse of that hymn every churchgoing American knows so well. The rest of the arena at the College of Charleston joined in before he even finished the first line.
The room was charged by his message and his ability to strike a potent nerve. Even concluding the hymn on a quiet note, Obama turned full-on preacher to close his eulogy, shouting alongside a supplemental organ that the victims in Roof’s senseless act “found that grace” and asking that “God continue to shed his grace on the United States of America,” hitting the word “united” with emphasis.
3. ‘Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world’
The night of May 1, 2011, with his shoulders held firm and high, President Barack Obama was able to announce that Osama bin Laden, Public enemy No. 1, is dead.
The moment wasn’t as much Obama’s as it was the country’s – a flash of uncontrolled release nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. It was a moment that brought us back to the fall of 2001 – a country standing together, long before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Great Recession and the resulting political infighting.
President Obama got to take a victory lap, commending the intelligence officials and armed forces for a successful mission and the American public for standing up for their country during its “pursuit of justice.” He wrapped up his speech with a call for unity.
“And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. …Let us remember that we can do [whatever we set our mind to] not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
4. ‘The truth is, generally I look very sharp in jeans’
I made the declaration that one of President Obama’s most redeeming qualities is how relatable he is to so many people. What’s more relatable than a fashion faux pas?
His outfit at the 2009 MLB All-Star Game still gets hailed as one of his “least cool” moments in office. Sporting a Chicago White Sox jacket, a pair of loose, high-waist jeans and white running shoes, Obama truly looked like a dad, not a dignitary.
He was – rightfully – harangued by critics, but he has responded well. Years later, in an interview with Ryan Seacrest, Obama acknowledged the mistake.
“The truth is, generally I look very sharp in jeans,” he said. “There was one episode [in 2009] in which I was wearing some loose jeans mainly because I was out on the pitcher’s mound and I didn’t want to feel confined while I was pitching, and I think I’ve paid my penance for that. I got whacked pretty good. Since that time, my jeans fit very well.”
5. ‘Harry, don’t shoot him’
He’s relatable, he’s sensitive, he’s progressive, he’s cool – and he’s got jokes. Aside from being widely described as the “coolest” president in some time, President Obama is a natural comedian. Not to say he’s as polished as a professional, but some of the jokes he delivered in his White House correspondents’ dinners actually had the consistent flow of a joke teller.
Obama has always leaned on his coolness when making entertainment appearances and it suited him well. To reach out to younger voters and promote the federal health care exchanges, Obama put himself out there, producing PSAs and doing bits for entertainment programs. And he had memorable moments, too, like his appearance on “Between Two Ferns” and his “Mean Tweets” segments with Jimmy Kimmel.
My personal favorite was his sit-down interview with Jerry Seinfeld on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
Talking with Seinfeld isn’t easy. Seinfeld isn’t a natural communicator; he’s such a sharp analyst that it seems like for most people it takes time to get comfortable around him. But Obama has the wit, charm and experience – and gravitas – to lighten the mood and put Seinfeld on his heels.
My favorite part of his appearance on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is the tag before the credits. Obama is sitting at his Oval Office desk as the crew is setting up for a shot. Show producers are explaining to Obama and White House staff how Seinfeld will appear behind the president, knocking on his window. Obama nonchalantly says to a Secret Service guard, “Harry, don’t shoot him. He’s a very funny guy. We all like him. My poll numbers would go down if you did harm to Jerry Seinfeld.”
I mean, I laughed, and unlike the zingers at the press correspondents’ dinners, I assume the joke wasn’t scripted or workshopped.
6. ‘Let’s go see the marshmallow’
Part of what makes Obama seem so relatable is how genuine he comes across to everyday Americans. You see it when he’s interacting with his admirers out on the campaign trail or even with young kids. He’s a smooth, natural communicator. You don’t detect any act or façade. He effortlessly connects with people on their level.
That’s no more evident than when he annually hosts groups of science fair winners at the White House.
During his administration, President Obama instituted the White House Science Fair. His logic: “If we are recognizing athletic achievement, we should also be recognizing academic achievement and science achievement. If we invite the team that wins the Super Bowl to the White House, then we need to invite some Science Fair winners to the White House, as well.”
You can tell by his interactions with the students that he’s genuinely interested in their studies and is using his platform to advocate the importance of education and study of the sciences.
Watch this video of then eighth-grader Joey Hudy, of Phoenix, Arizona, presenting his marshmallow air cannon at the 2012 White House Science Fair. You can tell Joey wasn’t expecting to actually fire the cannon during his presentation. And judging by Obama’s offhand comment about upsetting the Secret Service for firing the air cannon, you’d believe Obama used some of his presidential powers to have his way and actually fire the thing. Luckily, Joey came prepared.
And watch his face light up when they fire the cannon. He’s genuinely excited!
“Let’s go see the marshmallow; see what happened,” he exclaims, as he and Joey walk to the other side of the room.
7. ‘I have no more campaigns to run’
Despite many of Obama’s efforts to work to unite the country in one direction, much of the American public is split into heavily politicized and vitriolic factions – as evidenced by the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election. Obama, in most ways, did his best to set policy and connect with Americans without addressing the opposition. But when he was forced to trade barbs with his opposition, he usually got the last laugh.
My personal favorite comeback came off the cuff during the 2015 State of the Union address. During his speech, Obama said, “I have no more campaigns to run,” which triggered a snarky applause from a group of assumed Republicans in the chamber. Obama paused at the slight, preparing to move on with his address, before countering with “I know because I won both of them.” Applause break, smile, wink, chuckle, and back to the address.
President Obama 1, Hecklers 0.
8. ‘Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad’
One of President Obama’s most emotional moments is also one of his most controversial so this section will come with a preface: To those who believe the Sandy Hook shootings were fake, I implore you to check your facts with literally any reputable news source.
More than four years after the Newtown shootings – where 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 first-graders – President Obama still is shaken by the tragedy, and he references it often, as he repeatedly is forced to address the nation following another mass shooting.
In a January 2016 speech to discuss a series of executive actions to help curb mass shootings in the United States, Obama couldn’t keep it together. Despite his best efforts while addressing mass shootings, Obama got choked up when he got to Newtown. With his emotions getting the best of him, Obama is forced to pause in his speech and wipe a tear from his eye, before commenting, “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.”
The moment was cemented by the photos of a teary-eyed President Obama. It represents a lot of things.
A moment that goes down as a call to action that went unheard by the Republican Congress and swept aside by the 2016 election.
A moment for detractors to claim Obama was trying to use the tragedy of Newtown to capitalize on his own interests.
A moment in which a president starting his eighth year in office is frustrated and exhausted for standing on what seems to be the losing side of the gun control debate as mass shootings continue.
Even in the instances where it would seem so difficult to do, President Obama was always calm, cool, genuine and relatable.