Rarely, if ever, in American history has a president spoken more personally, emotionally or candidly than Barack Obama these past three weeks. Almost as though he had experienced a religious conversion, the president decided to be himself, to show who he was inside, to share his true character with the American people. It was a refreshing, powerful, transforming turn – one that showed us a different kind of president than we have seen before.
The first appearance of this new “real” Barack Obama came in the eulogy he delivered at the funeral of Beau Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s 46-year-old son who died of brain cancer. It was a eulogy presented by a friend, not by the commander-in chief. Deeply personal, Obama’s remarks spoke to the character of Beau Biden – his courage, what he exemplified in the hierarchy of human values by turning down higher offices in order to be true to his constituents. Above all, it spoke to the meaning of friendship, and how important the ties of community are to this individual. His voice breaking, Obama expressed his love for the Biden family, proudly proclaiming that he and Michelle were part of that family.
This was not political. It was deeply personal.
If anyone missed the message Obama was conveying in the Biden eulogy, the stunning sermon Obama preached in Charleston at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney should have made it clear. Barack Obama had decided to be free, to express a different persona in his last 18 months in office than he had before.
For much of his time in office, Obama had walked a delicate line on issues of race, always careful to avoid being too personal when a question of race was in the news, committed to remaining “above” the competing forces. But he began his eulogy in Charleston by speaking from a different perspective. Instead of striving to remain “above” it all, Obama proudly declared that he was speaking as a black man. Moreover, he was doing so as a member – a proud participant – in a black institution, the AME church.
From that foundation, Obama proceeded. But instead of delivering a “political” address
on the massacre in Charleston, he chose instead to preach a deeply personal sermon on the issue of grace. Displaying the passion, poignancy and prophetic vision of a true believer, Obama climbed the mountains and descended into the valleys of the tragedy that had occurred in Charleston. Boldly but simply, he talked about slavery as America’s “original sin.” No president had ever called it that before. He went on to talk about the acts of grace that had helped make Charleston an experience different from that of Baltimore or Ferguson.
Above all, Obama made this a personal message, “his” message as a black man. In a perfect concluding gesture that encapsulated all that made this presentation different, Obama led the congregation, quietly, then resoundingly, in singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Most, but not all, commentators missed what they had just seen. This was a different Barack Obama. He had thrown off the shackles of being “political,” always careful never to step too far over the line of conventional politics, assiduously clinging to the role of being “above” racial politics, the president of all the people.
At that moment, he was a black man, speaking from his faith – a parishioner in a black church, sharing a deeply personal vision of God’s grace.
No American president – not even Abraham Lincoln – has ever done what Barack Obama has done during this past month: be truly himself, in public, unashamedly. It was his gift to the America people. Barack Obama was free, at last.
William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University. The former president of the Organization of American Historians, he has written widely about the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the American presidency.