Obama's Legacy: Who'll Carry His Torch?

President Barack Obama's legacy will depend in large part on his success in cultivating and inspiring a new wave of like-minded leaders.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed remembers visiting President Barack Obama’s re-election headquarters in Chicago last year and noticing how young everyone was — not just the entry-level volunteers, but seasoned aides in their 20s and 30s who ran the meetings and made key decisions.

He left thinking he may have witnessed the future of the Democratic Party: a new generation of leaders who’ve molded themselves in Obama’s image, and could one day represent the president’s legacy, either behind the scenes or as elected officials.

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"I can give you name after name of people (from Obama's campaign) who for the next 30 years will be influencing the political process," Reed said. "You have a political operative class that won what was probably the most difficult modern election for a sitting president. So a lot of people in America are going to want to speak with them about what they did and how they accomplished it."

As Obama embarks on his second term, he is looking for ways to make a lasting impact on American life: not only by shaping its policies and politics, but also by creating opportunities for potential torchbearers who share his ideological focus on center-left pragmatism.

Some of this is done explicitly, as in Reed’s example, with the president recruiting a bench of young talent to join his campaign or White House staff. There are also established politicians whose aspirations have become more plausible with Obama's rise. Finally, there are countless others who have been moved to seek public office one day.

Historians and political analysts caution that with four years still left in Obama's presidency, it is too early to judge how well he is cultivating this aspect of his legacy. But the results could help determine whether the first black president, already a breakthrough leader by virtue of who he is and what he represents, ends up a transcendent political figure as well.

"One of the things people think about when they consider great presidents is whether they created people in their mold," historian and writer Jelani Cobb said.

Take Ronald Reagan. Whether you agreed with him or not, Reagan was a president "who produced this whole generation of people inspired by what he did," Cobb said.

"I don't think we can tell with Obama that quickly," he added, "but I think that will be a measure of whether he goes down as a good president or… someone who was a great president."

Obama represents a new political model because he came to power without feeling beholden to the black civil rights-era politicians, said Michael Dawson, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago.

Those older leaders adhered to progressive ideologies framed by the experiences of poor and working-class African-Americans, Dawson said. Obama, by contrast, appeals to a more middle-class demographic, including people, black and white, who are willing to embrace centrist or even slightly conservative policies, such as charter schools.

There are already several politicians who fit that mold and whose profiles have risen during Obama's time in the White House. They include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Reed, the Atlanta mayor.

Some of these politicians have been nurtured by Obama, but most were already well into their careers by the time he ran for president and are now benefiting from his appeal.

At the same time, there are many others, much younger, who have worked for Obama and can be considered his protégés.

Among the names offered by people interviewed for this story were Michael Blake, who helped organize Obama's campaign in Iowa and worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement; Tharon Johnson, a former Reed operative who assembled Obama's southern strategy; Michael Strautmanis, a longtime Obama confidante who worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement; and Chicago Alderman William Burns, who's been working on Obama campaigns since his 1995 run for Illinois state Senate.

Maya Rockeymoore, a political consultant and policy analyst, said that Obama's greatest impact won't be known for many years, as younger Americans, particularly black ones, grow up wanting to follow the president's footsteps.

"We will probably never be able to quantify the number of individuals across the country who have been inspired by a man who overcame great odds to become the first African-American president in history," Rockeymoore said. "There are children across the country who see they have the capability to do that, and consider it."

That sense of widened opportunity for minorities and women was a key aspect of Obama's successful re-election strategy, and will be fundamental to his political legacy, Reed said. "Fundamental fairness and inclusion: that is the ideology that is going to prevail over the next decade. The cadre of leaders who emerge in Obama's wake will be people who believe in this 'politics of addition.'"

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively about "post-racial" black leaders, pointed out that in 2008, when Obama was first elected president, many African-American officeholders who seemed poised to rise — former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty — lost re-election campaigns in part because in their attempts to appeal to voters of other races they failed to pay enough attention to blacks.

There are many critics who believe Obama committed the same sin in his first term — but that didn't hurt him at the polls in November.

Nonetheless, Gillespie said, Obama will likely motivate more minorities and women to take a chance at politics, and that is a profound legacy unto itself.

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