What Will Be Obama's Psychological Legacy?

His presidency could be a catalyst for change.

Posted Feb 21, 2013

by Laura Pittman, guest contributor

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the inauguration and State of the Union address for President Barack Obama. Many wonder what Obama’s political legacy will be; on the other hand, I ponder what his psychological legacy will be.

People can name many famous African Americans from the entertainment and sports arenas, but successful African-American professionals and politicians cannot as easily be identified. Thus, President Obama’s presidency may serve as a unique catalyst to creating psychological change, both for the population as a whole and for the African-American community.

Several psychological constructs provide a foundation to explore this question. First, social psychologists have examined implicit biases, which are thought to be outside an individual’s awareness or control, through the Implicit Association Task (IAT).

To test for implicit racial bias with this task, participants must simultaneously classify faces as either black or white and categorize words as either good or bad. Individuals with implicit racial bias will respond more quickly if they view the words and race as linked (e.g., black faces and negative words) compared to when they see no link (e.g., black faces and positive words).

To try this yourself, visit Project Implicit online.

Using the data from this website, no change in racial implicit bias was found in any demographic group, comparing biases before Obama’s candidacy, during his presidential candidacy and during his early presidency (Schmidt & Nosek, 2010). Yet, others have also explored this question and found more positive results.

The IAT was given to non-black college students after viewing a series of negative exemplars of black men (e.g., O.J. Simpson). Less negative bias was found if Obama was presented after the negative exemplars than if he was not (Columb & Plant, 2011). Thus, globally these implicit racial biases certainly remain in our society; however, having the regular reminder that Barack Obama is our president may help counter biases about black men that are reinforced by the media.

The psychological changes that might result from Obama’s presidency are perhaps even more likely among African Americans themselves. In fact, African-American college students showed increases in their positive racial identity from a few days before to a few days after the election of Obama, more readily thinking of their race as central to who they are, viewing themselves more positively as African Americans, and believing the broader public perceived African Americans more positively (Fuller-Rowell, Burrow, & Ong, 2011). While some of these changes decreased as the election faded, the changes in their perceptions of how the broader public perceived African Americans endured five months after the election.

This change in how African Americans think others perceive them may be particularly salient to children, who are envisioning what they may be able to become as adults. We know that children from African-American backgrounds often feel threatened in the school setting, scared that those around them will perceive them as incapable.

In fact, soon after the election of Barack Obama, a study examined just this among a group of sixth graders from primarily lower- and middle-class families. Half of them were asked to write about the significance of the Obama election, while the others were asked to write about what they might keep in their locker, and questions about health and exercise.

Minority children who had spent time thinking about the significance of the Obama election reported feeling less threatened in the classroom than those who had not, both immediately after this and six months later; however, this difference had dissipated by one year later.

In addition, students from both minority and non-minority backgrounds who had thought about Obama’s election showed increases in their grades in Quarter 2 (post-election) as compared to their grades in Quarter 1 (pre-election), where no changes were found in the control condition (Purdie-Vaughns, Sumner, & Cohen, 2011).

So, is there evidence that Obama may influence a change in the psychology of our country?

While evidence about the broader public is more mixed, among African-American children and young adults, having an African-American president appears to have had a positive effect on their perceptions of themselves and even can influence how they approach school.

The unknown remains whether these changes were related only to the 2008 election and would fade over time. This may be especially true if the broader public does not approve of his political legacy. It may be that his psychological legacy actually is tied to his political legacy.

Dr. Laura Pittman is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses about developmental psychopathology, ethics, and diversity issues in clinical psychology. Her research is focused on how family, school, and cultural contexts influence psychological and academic outcomes among children and adolescents.


Columb, C., & Plant, E. A. (2011). Revisiting the Obama effect: Exposure to Obama reduces implicit prejudice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 499-501.

Fuller-Rowell, T. E., Burrow, A. L., & Ong, A.D. (2011). Changes in racial identity among African American college students following the election of Barack Obama. Developmental Psychology, 47, 1608-1618.

Purdie-Vaughns, V., Sumner, R., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). Sasha and Malia: Re-envisioning African American youth. In G.S. Parks & M. W. Hughey (Eds.), The Obamas and a (Post) racial America? (pp. 166-190). New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, K., & Nosek, B. A. (2010). Implicit (and explicit) racial attitudes barely changed during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and early presidency. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 308-314.