Photo Essay - The Obama Presidency
President Obama tours the General Electric plant in Schenectady, NY (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009 at the height of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The bursting of America's housing bubble in 2007 was followed by a severe financial panic in 2008, and a sharp rise in unemployment from 5 percent in January 2008 to 7.8 percent a year later. The most pressing issue was to continue the Bush administration's belated effort to rescue the ailing American auto industry and restore lost confidence in the nation's large banks. Although he was criticized from the left for not taking more punitive actions against the banks and the financial services industry for causing the economic crisis, Obama did rely on traditional Keynesian measures to boost the over-all level of demand in the economy, spur consumer spending, and save jobs. Congress passed his $840 billion stimulus package in February 2009—supported by only three GOP Senators and no House Republicans—but its full impact on the economy would not be felt for another two years. Nationally, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and at 16.8 percent for African Americans in March 2010. Thereafter it declined month on month and year on year, dropping to 4.9 percent overall and 8.8 percent for African Americans by February 2016, seven years after the stimulus. The impact of the $80 billion auto bailout was more immediate and dramatic in manufacturing states like Michigan and Ohio, where General Motors posted a $7.6 billion profit in 2011.
President Obama and Vice President Biden applaud as the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act passes in the House (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the most comprehensive revision of the American health care system since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. Obamacare—a term the president came to embrace—was designed to lower the number of Americans without health care insurance, which then stood at 15.7 percent. For the first time, insurance companies were required to accept all applicants, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The Act required all individuals (with a small number of exceptions) to carry health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Those on low incomes would receive subsidies to comply with this mandate. Medicaid eligibility was also expanded to include those earning 133 percent of the official poverty level. Though the legislation fell short of some liberal Democrats' hopes for a single payer system based on the Canadian or European model, the Act brought the dream of universal health coverage closer than ever before. That goal had eluded Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Ultimately, the president's efforts to keep the GOP on board proved fruitless—not a single Republican in either the House or Senate supported it, although his compromises ensured enough support from moderate to conservative Democrats to eke out a narrow 219 to 212 vote in the House. (34 House Democrats voted against). The initial rollout of Obamacare suffered from teething troubles. Enrollees complained about premiums and limited coverage, and faced significant challenges in Court and attempts to repeal in Congress. To the surprise of many, Chief Justice John G. Roberts joined in the Supreme Court's 6-3 decision to uphold the ACA in King v. Burwell (2015). By 2016 the uninsured rate had fallen to a record 8.6 percent, nearly half the figure before Obamacare.
President Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 (Chuck Kennedy/Official White House Photo)
Although Obama was personally committed to upholding the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans, his administration moved cautiously—some said too cautiously—in using the presidential "bully pulpit" to advance those rights. In part this was tactical—Bill Clinton's 2009 effort to end the US ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual military personnel was fiercely resisted by the military and in Congress and stymied Clinton's other early initiatives, such as health care. The resulting compromise was December 1993's Defense Directive 1304.26, most commonly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," (DADT), which still banned openly LGBT personnel from military service, but directed that applicants not to be asked about their sexual orientation. From the beginning of DADT civil rights organizations including OutServe, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Log Cabin Republicans, and the Human Rights Campaign, fought for repeal, but it would remain in operation for 18 years. President Obama finally made ending the ban a priority in his 2010 State of the Union Address, but faced strong opposition in Congress, including filibusters led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ). On December 18, 2010, the Senate joined the House in passing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act, which the President signed four days later. Although openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans could now serve their nation, the repeal did not cover transgender personnel. On June 30, 2016, the Obama administration ended that ban as well, a decision affecting as many as 15,000 active and reserve trans military personnel. The DADT repeal also helped lay the groundwork for Obama's eventual journey from support of only civil unions during his first run for the presidency to full marriage equality for gays and lesbians during his second campaign in May 2012.
President Obama and the national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, monitor the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
Obama had famously opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an unnecessary "dumb war" that distracted from the more pressing need to defeat those responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America: al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden. In his June 4, 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, the President made clear that 9/11 and other atrocities by al-Qaeda and its allies "are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam [and] the Holy Koran." As such, he continued the Bush administration's war against al-Qaeda and in May 2009 stepped up efforts to capture or kill Bin Laden, who had escaped to Pakistan during the American attack on Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001. By August 2010 Obama's National Security team had assembled credible evidence that Bin Laden was hiding in a secret, well-guarded compound in Abbottabad, a city only 30 miles from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. Eight months later, after rejecting plans to bomb the compound from the air, or assassinate Bin Laden with a small drone, and despite the reservations of Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama ordered an audacious and dangerous raid into Pakistan territory just before midnight, May 2011, by a team of 23 Navy SEALs and a Pashto translator, aboard two stealth Black Hawk helicopters. This widely distributed official photograph shows the president and his closest advisors monitoring the raid, the anxiety clear on their faces. By 3 AM the next morning the SEALs had returned to Afghanistan, their mission complete, with the corpse of a man later identified by DNA evidence as Bin Laden.
First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech to parents and other supporters in Alpharetta, GA on the first anniversary of her 'Let's Move!' campaign (Lawrence Jackson/Official White House Photo)
Given the general warmth of public opinion—both in America and abroad—towards Michelle Obama as she left the White House in 2017, it is worth remembering that her entrance on the political stage ten years earlier was not met with universal approval. Right-wing talk radio and emerging social media networks depicted her as "angry," hostile to whites, and unpatriotic. The fact that she was of black, working-class origins, but also educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School, particularly infuriated her most bitter opponents, some of whom depicted her in crudely racist and misogynistic terms. Her two terms as FLOTUS, however, inspired a more enduring counter-narrative of a complex and authentic figure, who refashioned the role of First Lady while executing the traditional duties expected of her quasi-constitutional office. She campaigned energetically to promote active lifestyles and healthy food choices for children, while also using her bully pulpit to persuade the food and drinks industry to be more transparent in food labeling. She also worked with Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden to tackle problems of unemployment, homelessness, and health and wellness among military families returning to civilian life. All the while Michelle Obama earned broad respect, along with her husband, for raising two bright and insightful daughters away from the glare of publicity, and for a personal sense of style and fashion that was sometimes bold, and always reflected her comfort within her own skin. Those achievements contributed to a peak in her approval rating at 72 percent as she left the White House. As with her husband, there was a sharp racial divide, with 80–90 percent of African American, Hispanics, millennials, and Democrats, but only 44 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of whites, supportive, according to a December 2016 Pew survey. Though she strongly disavowed a political future, her powerful address to the 2016 Democratic National Convention firmly cemented her as the most beloved member of her party as it faced the uncertainty of the Donald Trump era.
President Obama comforts North Point Marina owner, Donna Vanzant, while touring damage from Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, NJ (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
American Presidents have traditionally assumed the role of consoling the nation in times of crisis and tragedy. But as the first African American President, serving during a contentious and polarized decade, Barack Obama's efforts to offer comfort and guidance were among the most controversial aspects of his time in office. While many were deeply moved by his speeches calling for unity and reform, his opponents accused him of overstepping his role and using the tragedies for political gain. Over twenty times, Obama made an appearance following a mass shooting, an epidemic of violence that stirred bitter debate over gun control and "homegrown" terrorism. The President often used this platform to push for new regulations meant to restrict firearm sales, triggering a backlash from gun rights advocates. Among the most emotional of these speeches was the one Obama gave following the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, massacre in 2012. Abandoning his usual oratory, the President broke down in tears. "Every time I think about those kids — it gets me mad," he said. That same year, Obama toured the damage in New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy, a move that even drew the praise of frequent critic Governor Chris Christie, a New Jersey Republican. Throughout these appearances, a persistent theme emerges: Obama, as the living embodiment of the American dream, calls on his fellow citizens to use these tragedies, and the inherent goodness of the country, as motivation to move forward.
President Obama's Long Form Birth Certificate (Hawaii State Department of Health/obamawhitehouse.archives.gov)
In November 2012 Barack Obama was re-elected with a comfortable victory over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He lost only Indiana, North Carolina, and Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District for 332 electoral votes and 51.1 percent of the popular vote, making Obama the first President since Ronald Reagan in 1988 to win back to back popular vote majorities, and the first Democrat to do so since FDR. On the eve of the inauguration, a poll found that 52 percent of Americans viewed the President positively, down from the giddy heights of 64 percent four years earlier. A more marked change from 2009, however, was the growing strength and intensity of the opposition to Obama and his policies. Whereas only 14 percent of Americans had "somewhat" (8%) or "very" (6%) negative feelings toward the new President in January 2009, four years later 37 percent viewed him negatively (11 % "somewhat" and 26 % "very"), according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey. Obama's higher negatives were driven by the intense partisanship of his Republican opponents, notably those associated with the right-wing Tea Party faction of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Personal animus towards the President was strongest among "Birthers," who continued to insist that he was born outside the United States, despite the April 2011 release of his Hawaii birth certificate.
President Obama takes the oath of office for his second term (Sonya N. Hebert/Official White House Photo)
Obama's second inaugural address in January 2013 attracted an estimated one million spectators on the National Mall, 800,000 fewer than in 2009, but still comfortably the second largest figure for any President before or since (as of 2017). That sustained enthusiasm reflected his general popularity, but the tone of the President's speech also marked the nation's growing ideological and partisan divide. This address was more unabashedly liberal than his first. Obama gave a full-hearted endorsement to continuing New Deal-Great Society programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which, like his Affordable Care Act, reflected the nation's commitment to the common good. He also declared that America would lead on climate change and rebuked those denying the scientific consensus on global warning. Memorably, Obama used his address to connect the long trajectory of civil rights from the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, through the decisive battle for black voting rights in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, to the ongoing struggles for LGBT rights that began with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," he said, "for if we are created equal then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
President Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women (Chuck Kennedy/Official White House Photo)
During his first two years, President Obama worked with a Democratic majority in both Houses to enact three major pieces of legislation: his $800 billion economic stimulus package in 2009, Obamacare, and the Dodd-Frank Act Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Once the Republican Party won back the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, however, the president relied increasingly on executive orders to pursue his economic agenda, notably on equal pay for women; minimum wage increases for federal employees; and environmental protections. Even before the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in support of gay marriage, the Obama administration had issued a series of executive orders ending the ban on people with H.I.V. entering the U.S; preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against gays and lesbians; opening up family and medical leave to gay couples; and ensuring that federal housing rules protected transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual couples. The refusal by the House to take up the cause of comprehensive immigration reform—passed by a bipartisan majority in the Senate in 2013—compelled Obama to take action. In 2014, he signed an order meant to protect as many as five million undocumented immigrants—most of whom had arrived as children—from deportation and allow them to work legally in the US.
President Obama meets with young civil-rights activists: Rasheen Aldridge, Ashley Yates, T Dubb-O, James Hayes, Jose Lopez, Brittany Packnett, and Umi Selah (formerly Phillip Agnew), December 2014 (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
The Black Lives Matters social movement emerged in the summer of 2013, following the acquittal of security guard George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American, in Sanford, Florida. The phrase was coined in a Facebook post about Zimmerman's acquittal by Alicia Garza, and later amended as a Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, by her friend and fellow Oakland-based, black queer activist, Patrisse Cullors. Along with Opal Tometi from Brooklyn, Garza and Cullors began to turn the phrase into a social movement. Following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri the following summer, #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry of a national protest movement against police brutality and structural racism in America. Though Obama expressed support for the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledged the impact of structural racism, he was careful to balance his statements and policy proposals with support for law enforcement, and urged activists to take a gradual approach. This tactic drew criticism from some activists—including Cullors—who called for more meaningful executive actions, as well as from opponents who felt his defense of the movement facilitated anti-police sentiment. As of 2017, there were 38 chapters of Black Lives Matters in the United States and Canada. While BLM activists and the Obama administration had an at times uneasy relationship, there was much less ambiguity about his successor. Immediately upon taking office Donald Trump signaled his opposition to a "dangerous anti-police atmosphere," which he blamed on groups such as BLM.
President Obama and Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick B. Garland, meet in thr Oval Office (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
In his first term, President Obama successfully nominated two Supreme Court Justices: federal judge Sonia Sotomayor and Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Prior to Kagan's nomination, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah had recommended Merrick Garland, a white, moderate and experienced federal judge, as a nominee who would be acceptable to Republicans. When conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February 2016, Obama duly nominated Garland as a consensus candidate who might win support in the GOP-controlled Senate. Garland, at 63, was much older than other likely candidates, such as federal judges Paul Watford (who was African American) or Indian American Sri Srinivasan. Both were 48 years old and could have been expected to serve two or three decades on the Court. Republicans, however, refused to even contemplate hearings on Garland. That decision left the Senate without a ninth member for more than a year, the longest a seat had been vacant for half a century. On January 31, 2017, newly elected Republican President Donald Trump nominated federal judge Neil Gorusch, who was the same age as Watford and Srinivasan, but was a conservative in the mold of Scalia. As of early 2017, it remained to be seen if Democrats in the Senate would seek to thwart Trump's nomination as Republicans had stymied Obama's.