When Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007, African-American voters didn’t flock to him. Was he black enough? they asked. Would he stand up for their issues? Could he win?
By late January 2008, when then-Senator Obama won the South Carolina primary, he had clearly captured the hearts of black America. His mixed-race heritage and multicultural upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia – far from the typical African-American back story – didn’t matter. He had moved to the South Side of Chicago, married a black woman, and joined a black church.
“He made a lot of cultural decisions that signaled that he identifies as African-American,” says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
In both of his presidential victories, Obama swept the black vote – 95 percent in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. Now, deep into his second term, that support has dipped into the mid-80s, but remains the bedrock of his overall support.
African-Americans interviewed in Little Rock, Ark., say they’re proud to have a black president, though they don’t see much difference in their day-to-day lives since Obama took office.
“My life is pretty much the same as it was when Bush was in there – it hasn’t changed much for the better or the worse,” says Guss, a mechanic who asked that his last name not be used.
“White men put Obama in the White House, and white men still control this country,” he says, adding: “I’m old and I’ve seen a lot, and in the end, it doesn’t matter if Obama is black or white, he’s a politician. They make promises. They don’t keep them.”
Chane Morrow, a lifestyle artist and musician in his mid-30s, says he grew up believing he’d never see a black president. Obama’s inauguration didn’t scream of “hope,” he says, but rather, “don’t limit the possible.”
Mr. Morrow, a graduate of Stanford University, says he had fairly low expectations for Obama’s reign, given the situation he inherited, and has been disappointed by some of his moves, or inaction.
But “I will still say he surpassed what I thought we’d get from him,” he says. “Plus he hasn’t ever let these ‘boys’ rattle him.”
“Given the firestorm he received from his position and blatantly racist attacks,” he adds, “that’s impressive.”
Ray Jones, an unemployed man in his late 20s who lives with his parents, expresses mixed feelings about Obama.
“Sure, I’m glad there’s a black man up there, but it’s not putting money in my pocket,” says Mr. Jones, who finished high school but did not go to college. “I can’t find a job, or I find one and they only want you to work part time and then lay you off and you start over. They pay horrible.”
“I got an Obama shirt and I wear it. I’m proud,” he says. “I guess things are better, health care and all, but they aren’t great.”
Political observers have wondered if Obama would inspire a new generation of politicians, of any race.
It may be a bit soon for the political “children” of Obama to start running, but in Little Rock, Vivian Flowers is set to take her seat in the Arkansas legislature. She won the Democratic primary in May, and faces no opposition in November.
Ms. Flowers says she has wanted to run for years, and Obama’s win didn’t influence her directly. But she does draw on his example.
“I actually use his election to try to inspire others to run,” she says. “So many people hate politics and don’t believe it will make a difference. Or they believe elections are rigged and their votes don’t really count. I believe you will see more black, Latino, and gay Americans running for higher [statewide and congressional] office in Arkansas and across the nation because of the precedent President Obama set.”