I remember the first time I met Barack Obama. It was in 2003 when the young Illinois state legislator entered the boardroom of our corporate headquarters to meet with our editorial board to discuss his campaign for the U.S. Senate. Although initially skeptical of his prospects, our team found him to be poised, confident, and visionary. We were so impressed that we embedded our then-Managing Editor Kenneth Meeks into his campaign to cover him on the hustings. In our October 2004 issue—ahead of virtually all media at that time—we hailed Barack Obama “The Next Big Thing in Politics.”
We couldn’t have been more prescient. Roughly six years after that meeting, that state legislator would make history as the first African American to occupy the White House and, in carrying forth his vision and meeting the challenges of his office, would become one of the most consequential presidents in American history.
The election of Barack Obama in November 2008 coincided with my first few months as editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise. As such, I was determined that we would cover the significance of this moment as well as share with our audience an insider’s view to White House policymaking. As such, our entire content team gained an opportunity to take a front seat to witness history, following all aspects of his campaign of hope and change. In fact, we embraced it—BLACK ENTERPRISE was the first media company to endorse Barack Obama for president. We boldly declared: “Yes We Must!”
We covered him from the energizing Democratic National Convention in 2008 where he delivered a powerful nomination speech to his historic whistle-stop tour with vice president-to-be Joe Biden to the presidential swearing-in ceremony that marked his first inauguration in which more than 1.4 million consumed the streets of the nation’s capital to participate in the milestone. Throughout all the pomp and circumstance, I was struck that Obama represented one of “the children of the Dream”—those like myself and my peers born shortly after 1960 who were the first to take full advantage of the opportunities made possible by the civil rights moment led by Martin Luther King Jr. How awe-inspiring it was that he had come to power in the ultimate position as Leader of the Free World.
Since the Nixon presidency and the six presidencies that followed, BLACK ENTERPRISE had always covered the White House. This time was different.
It gave me so much pride that BLACK ENTERPRISE would also gain national attention as we covered the president. On the very day that I attended his first presidential press conference in early February 2009, I would gain the opportunity to interview President Obama, making BE the first magazine to conduct a Q&A with the newly inaugurated president. I received calls from national publications, including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, “shocked” that we received the call. I told them that it was most fitting that our publication was first and that our audience deserved to know firsthand the president’s plans for them and the nation. I feel the same today.
Serving as our White House correspondent, I gained the same access to coverage as all the leading national publications and broadcast media—many times seated in the front row of press conferences as well as well-positioned at most major announcements, congressional addresses, or policy sessions. I must share that there were moments that filled me with personal pride; such as when I received a personal invitation in July 2009 to join a group of several other African American journalists to travel with and interview him on Air Force One. The occasion: The 100th Anniversary of the NAACP. It wasn’t lost on me the power of that moment in which a group of black journalists gained an exclusive audience with the first black president on one of the greatest symbols of power and authority in the world. We had traveled a great distance in a century.
Our coverage of eight years of the Obama presidency was marked by both promise and tumult. It was my charge that our primary role would be to dissect White House policy, explain presidential action, and make sense of political dysfunction for our audience during some financially and economically daunting times. Lest we forget, eight years ago, President Obama took the helm of a nation on the edge of a cliff. He tackled a litany of problems that had not been faced by an incoming president in more than a generation—a nation crippled by one of its worst economic crises; a national unemployment rate that rose above 10%; an American automotive industry that had been wrecked; and two wars in which he vowed to end American involvement. And he was forced to handle those issues, dealing with Republicans unresponsive despite his overtures of collaboration, civility, and compromise. Despite the challenges, Obama faced them with a comprehensive strategy, unyielding focus, and an impressive, cool display of grace under pressure.
President Obama repaired the economy by placing the nation on the path to recovery after the brutal Great Recession, enabling a multitude of homeowners to avoid foreclosure, saving Detroit and millions of jobs after the forced bankruptcies and restructuring of GM and Chrysler, and implementing reforms to strengthen the financial services industry and protect consumers. At the same time, he pulled troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq while remaking the nation with the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, providing access to 30 million uninsured Americans—a big freaking deal, indeed.
With the surge of activity from this scandal-free, Nobel Prize-winning leader, the first casualty of his presidency was the notion of a post-racial America. The Obamas offered the image of a most dignified Commander-in-Chief and a representation of the First Family that could make all of America proud. From the birther movement to the alarming number of police shooting deaths of unarmed African Americans, the past eight years continued to demonstrate harrowing examples of our nation’s deep racial divide. Some incidences such as the tragic death of Trayvon Martin—which gave rise to the Black Lives matter movement—offered the president rare but powerful moments to express his views on race, shining a bright spotlight on an issue in which America still continues to not engage in an honest conversation. Ironically, this racial discord came at a time when the nation celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the most notable civil rights milestones: the 1963 March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In covering the administration, I had concerns with some of its policies. During my 2012 Oval Office 20-minute interview—another amazing career highlight—I challenged the president with a question on his administration’s lack of focus on minority business development. His response: “I want all Americans to have opportunity. I am not the president of black America. I am the president of the United States of America.” That statement gained much attention from the national press and not many fans from the black business community. Another area was the change in eligibility status for Parent Plus Loans that reduced revenues for myriad HBCUs when scores of parents were unable to gain the necessary financing to send their kids to college. Moreover, proposals to curtail gun violence and reinstate key provisions of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, gained virtually no traction.
Clearly one of history’s most productive presidents—he demonstrated the effective use of executive orders to circumvent Republican resistance—Obama’s achievements are massive, from K-12 education to My Brother’s Keeper to criminal justice reform to climate change. He and first lady Michelle Obama effectively used the White House to promote technology, innovation, culture, health, and other aspects of American life.
In my interactions with the president—I once literally ran into him after taking a wrong turn at the Capitol after one of his State of the Union addresses—I discovered his deep love of family, great affection for children, heartfelt concern for the downtrodden and disenfranchised, reverence for his forbearers, unyielding loyalty to our country, unwavering confidence in the American people and unequivocal faith in the future. In fact, that overriding sentiment was revealed in my conversation with presidential candidate Obama in an Iowa high school during our January 2008 cover shoot. He would end each interaction with his customary “appreciate you.”
President Obama held true to his beliefs as he discharged his duties in a mission to remake America. Yes, history will ultimately judge him. But he will remain one of our most consequential leaders and an inspirational force for a generation—and possibly generations to come.
I, for one, look forward to covering his post-presidency and have fully appreciated sitting in the front row of history.
—Derek T. Dingle, Editor-in-Chief, Black Enterprise