How'd Obama do? At barbershop, they'll let you know
CHAMPAIGN — Spend any time in a barbershop in a black community, and you're likely to hear no shortage of opinions on a long list of topics.
On a rainy January morning at Rose & Taylor on North First Street, the barbers and patrons go back and forth about what's hot on Netflix, shopping for furniture and, as has often been the case the past eight years, politics.
Barack Obama's presidency is now less than two weeks from ending, a topic that's sure to dominate conversation among the clippers today, when he delivers his farewell address two hours to the north at McCormick Place in his adopted hometown of Chicago (8 p.m., WDWS).
"It was exciting; it was historic," Willie Comer said after getting his hair cut by Chris Williams. "It let me believe that my grandkids and my kids could be president, which was something that had eluded black people for so long that now it felt like it was attainable."
Williams fondly remembers the night of Nov. 4, 2008, too. Once the results became official, he called his dad, who was driving at the time, to share the moment and the news with him.
"I was absolutely excited, elated," he said. "It was great to share that moment with my dad and my newborn son at the time."
That part of Obama's legacy, all folks at the shop can agree on.
When it comes to policy, legacy and the impact on the black community, though, is where there will be some differing opinions, which is what drives conversations at barbershops.
Comer, the pastor at Berean Covenant Church in Champaign, feels like some pieces of Obama's legacy will be tainted, particularly in religious circles and the Christian community, because of his backing the Supreme Court's ruling to make same-sex marriage legal.
"With the whole fight with gay marriage, I think he'll forever have to deal with that because the Christian community will revert back to that because it grew under his legacy," Comer said.
It was a regular talking point in the shop in the summer of 2015, when the high court's ruling came down.
"There was a lot of talk about the gays and how some people didn't like that," barber Carlos Harvey said. "A lot of people had a lot of different opinions about that one."
Another frequent topic of conversation here is the resistance Obama encountered from Congress during his time in office.
The blame for that, Williams believes, is on the voters who didn't turn out in the midterm elections and allowed the House and Senate to be controlled by Republicans.
"The voters that put him in office by large numbers failed him," Williams said. "He wasn't able to push his agendas that would have worked for everybody. To only have a percentage of things implemented was overwhelming enough to solidify someone's legacy."
And according to the same folks who were filled with so much pride in November 2008, Obama left the black community wanting a little bit more.
"We thought the inner cities would become better, especially with him coming from Chicago. ... The violence that's in Chicago, people thought in those areas he would create some kind of policy that would deal with that. I don't think we got that," Comer said. "We thought we would get more jobs funneling into inner cities, where we would put African-American people and men back to work. I don't think that necessarily happened."
By and large, though, when Obama leaves office on Jan. 20, most here will look back on his time in Washington as a significant achievement for a segment of the population that never imagined a black man would occupy the Oval Office. And his backers say there has been no shortage of high points — taking out Osama Bin Laden and providing health care for millions of uncovered Americans, to name two.
"I'm glad he got into office and got some things taken care of," Harvey said. "He helped a lot of women in the workforce; we talk about that a lot opening doors for them and pushing the ceiling up a little higher than it was before him."
Added Comer: "Providing health care for people who have never had health care, those things were amazing."