(The Root) — Now, that wasn't so hard, was it? Four years into Barack Obama's presidency, this polyglot nation of ours finally seems to have become accustomed to the reality of a black man in the White House. It's especially significant that among those most at ease with this astonishing new normal is the president himself. To use an analogy drawn from baseball history, having spent his first term as Jackie Robinson, Obama seems prepared to spend the second as Larry Doby.
Robinson, baseball fans will recall, was selected to become the first black player in the major leagues in 1947 in large part because he had the strength to endure the racist taunts of opposing players and fans without losing his legendary temper. He was militant enough to have been court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus while serving in the Army during World War II. But during his first few seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson swallowed his anger, ignored the hostility and answered the provocations by simply outplaying his opponents. He had, as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey put it, "guts enough not to fight back."
Doby, who joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947 as the first black player in the American League, was a different proposition. Like Robinson, he initially responded to a tide of prejudice with quiet dignity and superior play. But he was best remembered by black men of my father's generation for an incident that occurred in 1957, when he replied to a brushback pitch from New York Yankee hurler Art Ditmar by charging the mound and knocking Ditmar on his rear with a powerful left hook. From that point on, blacks in the major leagues were going to fight back. The days of suffering in silence were over.
The parallel is obviously imperfect, but during his first term, Obama often seemed to have adopted the Robinson approach, chasing fruitlessly after bipartisan compromises, ignoring the outlandish claims of the Birther crowd about his supposedly exotic origins and downplaying the persistent plagues of poverty and inequality for blacks and gays. But battling back from the setbacks he suffered in the 2010 midterm election to earn a convincing victory over the plutocratic empty suit Mitt Romney seems to have made a new man of Obama.
Since then, in his confrontations with the Republican majority in the House over the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling, a new Doby-like Obama has emerged. He comes across now as more aggressive, far less eager to pursue agreements with his die-hard conservative opponents, more confident in his ability to lead.
He seems, to me at least, to be more comfortable in his own black skin and with his innately liberal political instincts. He now knows how to be president of this vast and still deeply divided country. And if I'm right, during the next two years, before he fades into lame-duck status, we will at last see the real Barack Obama, the transformational figure we thought we were electing four years ago.
It's a pity, in a way, that this newly liberated leader will play his part against such a drab landscape. The major, foreseeable challenges facing the nation seem dreary and uninspiring compared with the cataclysms that allowed George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to become our greatest presidents. Digging out of a recession, fighting disastrous climate change, rebuilding schools and infrastructure and reforming immigration policy are important, even urgent issues, but they do not rise to the level of saving the union or defeating Hitler.
That is why some pundits who listened to Obama's inaugural address found it flat and uninspiring. They want flamboyant visions spelled out in fiery rhetoric — exactly the sort of thing that Obama disdains. He is not inclined to make it easy on us by dumbing down his proposals to catchy slogans. The most stirring line he came up with in his inaugural address was, "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together." It doesn't exactly rank with FDR's admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" or JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
But then, it's plain, straightforward language perfectly suited for the long, slow and patient work that is still needed to get the country back on its feet again. We won't get there without leadership from a president who knows where he wants to go, who knows how to overcome unbending opposition and who is not afraid to speak from his deepest convictions.
That is the sort of leader Obama seems to have become. Nowhere is the president's retreat from the ambivalence of his first term more evident than in his ringing declaration that "our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
I never thought I would live to see the day when any president — let alone a black one, being sworn in for the second time — would deliver such a vow. I hope I live long enough to see an unchained Obama speak out as forcefully on issues that he tiptoed around during his first term — less like Jackie and more like Larry, swinging for the fences.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.