Enid Rogers, 52, of Sierra Leone, left, laughs at her friend Ellena Barnett,… (Gabriel B. Tait / MCT )
WASHINGTON — The first time Barack Obama ran, the euphoria that attended his election captivated Kamilah Aquil. Then came his presidency, a bracing reality check.
Hope faded. Not enough changed. But for Aquil, that doesn't make Obama a disappointment.
It does make this second inauguration Monday a landmark she never expected and one she considers even more profound than the first. He's not just the first black president, but a man Americans trusted enough, missteps and all, to give another shot at shepherding our country.
That's one reason Aquil, a Los Angeles County probation officer, was headed for Washington last week with her 13-year-old son, Makhi Garvey.
I met them on the flight from Los Angeles, and questioned her — as I have dozens of black strangers in the last few weeks — about her verdict on Obama, who drew a record turnout of black voters in November, but less enthusiasm than in 2008.
Aquil has heard the grumbling that Obama hasn't done enough to relieve black suffering. She doesn't see it that way. "He puts it out on the table and tries to advocate for the country as a whole," she said. "He can only do so much."
Aquil was born and raised in Compton. She veered off track as a teenager, but an adult she admired steered her "off the path of destruction" and pointed her toward college.
She thinks about that when she sees her son watching President Obama. "It's his influence, who he is as an individual," she says, looking beyond the president's politics to praise his patience, tenacity and balance.
For her, and for millions of African Americans whose votes kept Obama in office, this president's reelection didn't turn on the standard question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
It was tied as well to a bigger vision, a sense that their footing is more solid and their children's future brighter because a black man — this particular black man — resides in the White House.
There have been reams written in the last four years about the ways race complicated the leadership challenges faced by the nation's first black president.
Now, as Obama enters his second term, those themes are already being replayed.
Ben Jealous, head of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, is as tired of answering the question as I've become of asking. Has Obama delivered for the masses of black people who helped put him in office?
Jealous sighs — its meaning clear in the silence:
Isn't it enough that the man expanded access to healthcare, dispatched Osama bin Laden and steered the nation through the worst recession in 70 years?
"I'm waiting for the article about the white president who disappointed the white people the most," Jealous said.
"How come nobody ever asked that question: How did white people feel about Bill Clinton, about George Bush?"
Because a white president has always been perceived to be the leader of all the people.
Obama's appraisal is muddied by uncertain expectations.
That middle-of-the-road guy we saw on the campaign trail was also fist-bumping, singing Al Green and listening to Common. Surely he would honor his roots, and black folks would have something coming.
Aquil put it more bluntly. "Some of us have issues — this sense of entitlement," she said. "We're always looking for the hookup. People thought, 'We have one in office now. We're going to get this or that.'"
Obama has collected high-profile black detractors — academics, politicians, commentators — disappointed that he hasn't done more to tackle poverty and racial injustice.
"The president owes Black folk. BIG time," wrote commentator Tavis Smiley in the Huffington Post.
"Other constituencies have gained ground under Obama," Smiley told me. "But unless something significantly different is about to happen in this second term, the numbers may well indicate that black people did worse under Obama."
"Black people have had his back," Smiley said. But other groups seem to have his ear: Latinos on immigration reform. Women on healthcare rights. Gays and lesbians on marriage.
Those groups are following a path we trod generations ago, galvanized by Martin Luther King Jr., pounding on the door to end Jim Crow.
But the broad problems impeding black progress today — unemployment, poor education, incarceration — aren't so focused, so fundamental, as getting permission to sit at the front of a bus or drink from a whites-only fountain.
The last 50 years of "two steps forward, one step back" have shown that we can't undo the damage of generations of injustice simply by passing a law.
"Obama did some concrete things to make life better," the Rev. Al Sharpton insisted. "People want him to put his fist up and say, 'This is the black agenda.'
"He is not that kind of president … and we should not expect him to be."
Some of the criticism is just "player hating" by blacks trying to build support for their own agendas, Sharpton said.