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.
Because a white president has always been perceived to be the leader of all the people.
Obama's appraisal is muddied by uncertain expectations.