Obama

A virtual museum of his presidency

Through a collection of deeply reported stories, videos, photographs, documents and graphics, experience Barack Obama’s historic time in office: as the first black president, as commander in chief, as a domestic and foreign policymaker, and as a husband and father.

Continue to the gallery of stories or keep reading: How Obama brought a new sensibility to the office of the president.

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Obama’s Legacy The First Black President

How Obama brought a new sensibility to the office of the president

When Barack Obama was elected, he brought a different sensibility and aesthetic to the office, one guided by his blackness.

Barack Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency changed forever the way we see the American presidency. Obviously, he looked different from the men who preceded him, but he also brought a different sensibility and aesthetic to the office. Some of the change was traceable to the time he rose to power, which explains the selfies and tweets, and the hip-hop references. Others felt singular to his role as the first black president. The result, in both cases, was a series of striking and novel presidential images and moments.

** ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, NOV. 3 AND THEREAFTER -- FILE ** In this April 17, 2008 file photo, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., jokingly dust off his shoulder as he speaks at a town hall-style meeting in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Young, cool and black: Barack Obama at a town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., during his campaign. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

With Obama’s ascent, the presidency began to look completely different from anything in memory. In this April 2008 photo taken at a town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., during his campaign, a confident Obama brushes some imaginary dirt off his shoulder, miming a popular hip-hop anthem and using it as a metaphor for how he deals with detractors and critics. Some of those critics would later see this kind of confidence as arrogance.


In the Oval Office in 2009, President Obama bends down to allow Jacob Philadelphia to feel his hair. (Pete Souza/The White House)
President Barack Obama allows first grader Edwin Caleb to touch his hair during a classroom visit at Clarence Tinker Elementary School at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 17, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
State of the head: First-grader Edwin Caleb touches the president’s hair during Obama’s visit to Clarence Tinker Elementary School in September 2014. (Lawrence Jackson/The White House)

Among the many novel fascinations about the nation’s first black president was his hair: its change in color over time, its length. In September 2014, the president visited Clarence Tinker Elementary School at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, where he and first-grader Edwin Caleb traded hair pats. After Edwin said he had short hair, Obama touched the boy’s head and said: “Mine, too. Here, want to touch it?”

ST. PAUL, MN - JUNE 03: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and his wife Michelle fist bump before an election night rally at the Xcel Energy Center June 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following today?s primaries in South Dakota, and Montana, Obama is expected to have enough delegates to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
First fist bumps: The first recorded instance of a celebratory “dap” in American political history. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the night in June 2008 when he secured enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination for president, Obama addressed a crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Before the speech, he and his wife celebrated with what The Washington Post described as “the fist bump heard ’round the world.” The gesture felt so overwhelmingly black and so new in national politics that it spawned a huge debate about cultural significance. “He wears his cultural blackness all over the place,” observed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Obama explained it differently: “It captured what I love about my wife. There’s an irreverence about her and sense that for all the hoopla, that I’m her husband and sometimes we’ll do silly things, and yet she’s proud of me and she gives me some credit once in a while that I actually pull some things off.”

SLUG: obama ball DATE: January. 20, 2009 CREDIT: Richard A. Lipski/ TWP. LOCATION: Washington, D.C. CAPTION: INAUGURATION 2009 President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama enter the Neighborhood Ball for their first official dance. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Tue Jan 20 22:10:08 2009OBAMA-BOOK ***** OBAMA-BOOK ***** StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Wed Feb 18 15:39:39 2009
The first night: The first couple takes the floor for the first dance at the Neighborhood Ball on Inauguration Day in 2009. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)

It is hard to overstate the level of excitement that gripped Washington during Obama’s first inauguration. More than 2 million people crammed onto the Mall for his swearing-in and to hear the new president say: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

President Obama joins in singing �Sweet Home Chicago� during the �In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues� concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy �Trombone Shorty� Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks,  B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
POTUS sings the blues: Obama and B.B. King at a blues all-stars gathering in the White House East Room. (Pete Souza/The White House)

President Obama has occasionally deployed his singing voice in public with soulful or spiritual music. First, it was a snippet of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theatre in New York in January 2012. A month later, when a group of blues all-stars gathered in the East Room of the White House for a “Red, White and Blues” concert, legendary guitarist Buddy Guy goaded Obama into joining in the closing number, “Sweet Home Chicago.” Mick Jagger handed the president the microphone, and the commander in chief crooned: “Come on, baby, don’t you wanna go.” B.B. King joined in — “Same old place” — and the president closed out the number: “Sweet home Chicago.” Among some of the participants that evening were, onstage from left: Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr. and B.B. King.

WASHINGTON, DC: JANUARY 21 -- President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend the Inaugural Parade at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Monday, January 21, 2013. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
The second term: The first couple dances in 2013 after Obama’s second inauguration. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
US President Barack Obama speaks next comedian Keegan-Michael Key playing "Luther, Obama's anger translator" at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington, DC on April 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Calm and collected: Obama speaks at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington in April 2015 as comedian Keegan-Michael Key plays the role of Luther, Obama’s “anger translator.” (Yuri Gripas/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Among the most enduring critiques of the Obama presidency was an assertion that Obama was too cerebral, too emotionally distant, too aloof. For all the praise for his putative cool, there was an equal measure of criticism that he was sometimes too laid back and not angry enough. That debate produced a lot of commentary on whether Obama’s slowness to anger was related to his blackness, lessons learned in the limits of black rage and whether he was avoiding being cast as the stereotypical angry black man. In a 2012 essay in the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates framed the problem this way: “Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed.” Obama addressed the problem most explicitly in a comedy sketch at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, in which comedian Keegan-Michael Key appeared as Luther, his “anger translator.” Obama stuck to his usual “dulcet tones” while Key decoded the hidden anger.

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, personal aide Reggie Love, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, and Director of Political Affairs Patrick Gaspard, aboard Marine One during the flight from White House to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Aug. 9, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
A “Soul Plane” moment: Obama talks with aides aboard Marine One on Aug. 9, 2010. (Pete Souza/The White House)

This moment captured by White House photographer Pete Souza is a simple shot of the president and his top aides on Marine One, traveling from the White House to Joint Base Andrews and then on to Texas for the day. The group includes Valerie Jarrett in the far corner, with the president, Bill Burton and Patrick Gaspard all looking at Reggie Love — a small group of five, every one of them black. “We joked that it was ‘Soul Plane,’ ” Burton told New York Magazine. “And we’ve often joked about it since — that it was the first time in history only black people were on that helicopter.”

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 26: U.S. President Barack Obama sings "Amazing Grace" while delivering the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney's funeral service June 26, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21 years old, is accused of killing nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A familiar refrain: Obama sings “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator, on June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Obama’s June 2015 eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., will be remembered for Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace.” He was at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Mother Emanuel, to honor the nine people killed there by a young white man. But the eulogy also served as a meditation on race during his presidency. Before he broke into song, he said: “None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk.” The eulogy sounded so much like a sermon that the minister who closed the service offered his thanks to “the Reverend President.”

From staff reports

This story is part of a virtual museum of President Barack Obama’s presidency. In five parts — The First Black President, Commander in Chief, Obama’s America, Obama and the World and The First Family — we explore the triumphs and travails of his historic tenure.

Room One
The First Black President
Illustrations by James Steinberg
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A hopeful moment on race
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Obama’s effort to heal racial divisions and uplift black America
Barack Obama's presidency signaled a "post-racial" America at first, but the racial conflict followed disproved that.

Barack Obama’s watershed 2008 election and the presidency that followed profoundly altered the aesthetics of American democracy, transforming the Founding Fathers’ narrow vision of politics and citizenship into something more expansive and more elegant. The American presidency suddenly looked very different, and for a moment America felt different, too.

The Obama victory helped fulfill one of the great ambitions of the civil rights struggle by showcasing the ability of extraordinarily talented black Americans to lead and excel in all facets of American life. First lady Michelle Obama, and daughters Sasha and Malia, extended this reimagining of black American life by providing a conspicuous vision of a healthy, loving and thriving African American family that defies still-prevalent racist stereotypes.

But some interpreted Obama’s triumph as much more.

SLUG: NA/OBAMA DATE: 10/31/08 CREDIT: Linda Davidson / staff/ The Washington Post LOCATION: Wicker Memorial Park, Gary, IN SUMMARY: Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama holds a rally in Gary, IN. PICTURED: Members of the crowd respond to Obama as he makes his way down the ropeline. Some seek to shake his hand, others want to touch his head, some just want a hug. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Fri Oct 31 23:06:03 2008
Members of the crowd in Gary, Ind., seek to shake the candidate's hand or touch his head as he thanks them for their support in October 2008. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The victory was heralded as the arrival of a “post-racial” America, one in which the nation’s original sin of racial slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow discrimination had finally been absolved by the election of a black man as commander in chief. For a while, the nation basked in a racially harmonious afterglow.

A black president would influence generations of young children to embrace a new vision of American citizenship. The “Obama Coalition” of African American, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American voters had helped usher in an era in which institutional racism and pervasive inequality would fade as Americans embraced the nation’s multicultural promise.

Seven years later, such profound optimism seems misplaced. Almost immediately, the Obama presidency unleashed racial furies that have only multiplied over time. From the tea party’s racially tinged attacks on the president’s policy agenda to the “birther” movement’s more overtly racist fantasies asserting that Obama was not even an American citizen, the national racial climate grew more, and not less, fraught.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: NOVEMBER 6 -- President Barack Obama is re-elected to office in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama is feted in Chicago on Nov. 6, 2012, the night he is elected to his second term as commander in chief. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

If racial conflict, in the form of birthers, tea partyers and gnawing resentments, implicitly shadowed Obama’s first term, it erupted into open warfare during much of his second. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case gutted Voting Rights Act enforcement, throwing into question the signal achievement of the civil rights movement’s heroic period.

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Beginning with the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the nation reopened an intense debate on the continued horror of institutional racism evidenced by a string of high-profile deaths of black men, women, boys and girls at the hands of law enforcement.

The organized demonstrations, protests and outrage of a new generation of civil rights activists turned the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into the clarion call for a new social justice movement. Black Lives Matter activists have forcefully argued that the U.S. criminal justice system represents a gateway to racial oppression, one marked by a drug war that disproportionately targets, punishes and warehouses young men and women of color. In her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued that mass incarceration represents a racial caste system that echoes the pervasive, structural inequality of a system of racial apartheid that persists.

DENVER, COLORADO: OCTOBER 24 -- A fan hugs President Barack Obama as he works the rope line following a rally at City Park in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
A supporter hugs President Obama as he works the rope line following a rally in Denver in October 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s first-term caution on race matters was punctured by his controversial remarks that police “acted stupidly” in the mistaken identity arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University’s prominent African American studies professor, in 2009. Four years later he entered the breach once more by proclaiming that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

In the aftermath of racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and a racially motivated massacre in Charleston, S.C., Obama went further. In 2015, Obama found his voice in a series of stirring speeches in Selma, Ala., and Charleston, where he acknowledged America’s long and continuous history of racial injustice.

Policy-wise Obama has launched a private philanthropic effort, My Brother’s Keeper, designed to assist low-income black boys, and became the first president to visit a federal prison in a call for prison reform that foreshadowed the administration’s efforts to release federal inmates facing long sentences on relatively minor drug charges.

Despite these efforts, many of Obama’s African American supporters have expressed profound disappointment over the president’s refusal to forcefully pursue racial and economic justice policies for his most loyal political constituency.

From this perspective, the Obama presidency has played out as a cruel joke on members of the African American community who, despite providing indispensable votes, critical support and unstinting loyalty, find themselves largely shut out from the nation’s post-Great Recession economic recovery. Blacks have, critics suggested, traded away substantive policy demands for the largely symbolic psychological and emotional victory of having a black president and first family in the White House for eight years.

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Others find that assessment harsh, noting that Obama’s most impressive policy achievements have received scant promotion from the White House or acknowledgment in the mainstream media.

History will decide the full measure of the importance, success, failures and shortcomings of the Obama presidency. With regard to race, Obama’s historical significance is ensured; only his impact and legacy are up for debate. In retrospect, the burden of transforming America’s tortured racial history in two four-year presidential terms proved impossible, even as its promise helped to catapult Obama to the nation’s highest office.

DES MOINES, IOWA: NOVEMBER 5 -- President Barack Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, November 5, 2012. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
President Obama wraps up his campaign with a final stop in downtown Des Moines on Nov. 5, 2012. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Obama’s presidency elides important aspects of the civil rights struggle, especially the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King, for a time, served as the racial justice consciousness for two presidents — John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Many who hoped Obama might be able to serve both roles — as president and racial justice advocate — have been disappointed. Yet there is a revelatory clarity in that disappointment, proving that Obama is not King or Frederick Douglass, but Abraham Lincoln, Kennedy and Johnson. Even a black president, perhaps especially a black president, could not untangle racism’s Gordian knot on the body politic. Yet in acknowledging the limitations of Obama’s presidency on healing racial divisions and the shortcomings of his policies in uplifting black America, we may reach a newfound political maturity that recognizes that no one person — no matter how powerful — can single-handedly rectify structures of inequality constructed over centuries.

Peniel Joseph is professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

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The speech on race that saved Obama’s candidacy
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was almost derailed after racially charged sermons by his former minister, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ were released. After initiall downplaying the controversy, Obama faced it head on during his "A more perfect union" speech given in Philadelphia at the National Consitution Center.
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A record 69
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Room Two
Commander in Chief
Illustrations by Brian Stauffer
Perspectives on the president of a nation at war:

Has he failed to understand the nature of war or shown the virtues of patience to win the long game?

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On war and leadership
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The parade of generals
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We won some good fights and we lost the war.

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Former Marine infantryman
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A tour of duty
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One enemy after another
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No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

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Words of war and peace
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The last convoy
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The rise of ISIS
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Weighing intervention
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An army of drones
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Struggle after service
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After the killing of Osama bin Laden,
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Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls, 2011
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Fear at home
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Your fight, your stories
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Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
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Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
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Economic brinksmanship
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The price of Obamacare
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A new state of unions
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Shots fired
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A cultural shift
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‘Healing the planet’
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What is it like to be the last black president?

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Making presidential comedy
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A mark in the wilderness
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While the nation’s economy recovered steadily, over
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American reactions
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Your America
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Room Four
Obama and the World
Illustrations by Jasu Hu
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Determined restraint
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For Muslims, unanswered prayers
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Open hand, clenched fist
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Talking to Tehran
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Closer now – and cigars!
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In 2015 and 2016, an average
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Standing in the world
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Friends, adversaries
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A pivot to Asia
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52 trips.
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217 days
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Air Force One miles
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Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
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The Obama family has really uplifted the image of the black family from the moment we saw them.

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The first lady’s last stand
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He does not walk. He strolls with a black man’s head-up posture.

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In the cultural mix
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White House parents
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In fall 2009,
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The most popular of them all?
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The O’Bidens
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The first dogs
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Obama’s Legacy
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Credits
Credits
Editing
  • Terence Samuel, project editor
  • Allison Michaels, project manager, digital editor
  • Shannon Croom, multiplatform editor
  • Courtney Rukan, multiplatform editor
  • Emily Chow, graphics assignment editor
Design and development
  • Seth Blanchard
  • Emily Yount
Illustrations
  • Suzette Moyer, art director
  • James Steinberg, illustrator (The First Black President)
  • Brian Stauffer, illustrator (Commander in Chief)
  • Thandiwe Tshabalala, illustrator (Obama’s America)
  • Jasu Hu, illustrator (Obama and the World)
  • Erin K. Robinson, illustrator (The First Family)
Video
  • Dalton Bennett
  • Gillian Brockell
  • Bastein Inzaurralde
  • Claritza Jimenez
  • Ashleigh Joplin
  • Whitney Leaming
  • Osman Malik
  • Zoeann Murphy
  • Erin O’Conner
  • Sarah Parnass
  • Mahnaz Rezaie
  • Jorge Ribas
  • Whitney Shefte
  • Peter Stevenson
Photo editing
  • Stephen Cook
  • Robert Miller
  • Kenneth Dickerman
  • Wendy Galietta
  • Bronwen Latimer
  • Dee Swann
Writing and reporting
  • Derek Chollet
  • Elliot Cohen
  • Christian Davenport
  • Ivo H. Daalder
  • Mike DeBonis
  • Karen DeYoung
  • Juliet Eilperin
  • Michael Fletcher
  • Thomas Gibbons-Neff
  • Robin Givhan
  • Will Haygood
  • Sari Horwitz
  • Greg Jaffe
  • Peniel Joseph
  • Paul Kane
  • Wesley Lowery
  • David Maraniss
  • Greg Miller
  • Steven Mufson
  • David Nakamura
  • John Pomfret
  • Missy Ryan
  • Peter Slevin
  • Kevin Sullivan
  • Krissah Thompson
  • Neely Tucker
  • William Wan
  • Vanessa Williams
Research and graphics
  • Darla Cameron
  • Scott Clement
  • Emily Guskin
  • Tim Meko
  • Stephanie Stamm
  • Aaron Steckelberg
  • Elise Viebeck