Last modified: Sunday, April 14, 2013

ASHFIELD — The March 7 issue of the New York Review of Books contains two remarkable photographs. One, illustrating a review of several books about the financial crisis that began in 2007, shows President Obama, according to the caption, “taking questions from business leaders” last December, after his re-election. (Actually it shows Obama patiently explaining something to a dazed group, mostly men, most of them Republicans, who are still trying to figure out what has hit them.)

The other photograph, accompanying an article about General David Petraeus, shows the president introducing his “new national security team” (Leon Panetta, Petraeus, General John Allen, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Afghanistan) in April 2011. In each case, the president is the only non-white person in the picture.

Four years ago, many members of Congress refused to take this man seriously. They contemptuously declared their intention to limit him to a single term. With his re-election, the tide of opinion has turned. People now take him for granted as our president. No serious person questions his legitimacy.

An African-American friend from Cleveland recently sent me a calendar. Called “The Obama Years,” it says on the back, “President Obama’s story is an all-American story ... the story of a man who believed that hard work and education were the means of getting ahead.” His presidency “brings great pride to people of color all around the world.” The calendar is full of interest, but the highlights are the photographs, most of them taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer.

For January, the president is shown touring the Martin Luther King Memorial. March: a gorgeous picture of the White House with Obama entering the South Portico. June: the president and Mrs. Obama, dazzling, enjoying a performance by Gladys Knight in the East Room of the White House. October: departing from 10 Downing St. with the prime minister of England. December: relaxed, in a dress shirt and tie, shooting hoops with Jay Carney. It’s the kind of thing we used to see with John Kennedy and his superbly photogenic family.

The end of Black History Month is a good time to consider how far this remarkable man has taken us.

A century and a half ago, virtually all Americans of African descent were slaves. After emancipation and for many decades thereafter, they were subject to unimaginably harsh legal and social discrimination. A short half-century ago, it required a titanic struggle to pass a law protecting African-Americans against harassment in “public accommodations” (restaurants, stores, bus terminals).

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. Most of our neighbors were either Jewish or of Irish, Polish or Italian descent. The city was thoroughly segregated racially. I was not acquainted with a single black person.

As I grew into my teens and beyond, I became aware that race relations in Buffalo had a terrible history. In the years following World War I, Buffalo, like most industrial cities, was wracked by strikes. To break the unions, the management of Bethlehem Steel Co. in Lackawanna imported train-car loads of black laborers from the Deep South. The inevitable result: fierce clashes between white union laborers and black “scabs.” Buffalo became a cauldron of mutual loathing.

I have not lived there since the 1950s. I do not know if Buffalonians today, white or black, trace their enmity to these early 20th-century roots. No doubt there are plenty of fresh wounds to keep racial tensions fresh.

It is against this background — centuries of racial slavery and segregation, followed by a century and a half of struggle and resistance — that Obama’s significance can be measured.

From a white man’s perspective, his performance in office has been a revelation. Many of us were thrilled when he won in 2008. We knew how smart he was, how tough, resourceful and cool.

We knew that he faced daunting challenges, and we were impressed by the team he assembled. For many of us, his performance during that first term vindicated our faith in him.

The beginning of the second term marks a real turn for this president and for the nation. He is no longer such an exceptional president. He seems more sure of his political footing, more confident, more determined. No more foolishness about a post-partisan presidency. It’s a shame, in a way. I was fascinated by his effort to “move beyond” partisanship, but as long as we have this Constitution, it is quixotic to think you can achieve anything substantial in Congress without drawing partisan lines and cultivating your party’s support.

And so we return to normal politics. It will be less thrilling, but in the context of American history, it represents a huge milestone.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be emailed at


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