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Obama’s Legacy Obama and the World

Obama’s foreign policy: Not every global problem has an American solution

Obama made clear that when it comes to foreign policy, restraint is his primary choice.

Barack Obama came to office believing his predecessor had overreached in the world, notably in his conduct of the global war on terrorism. Convinced that the United States had become overextended and stood more alone on the world stage than ever before, Obama had run on a platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and regaining the trust of the world. Facing the most significant financial crisis in generations, he stressed the importance of sharing more of the burdens and responsibilities of global leadership with others.

The result was a foreign policy that minimized reliance on large-scale military action and maximized cooperation with others. Obama steadily reduced the U.S. military commitment to Iraq and, following a brief surge in military activity, transformed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan into a small training mission. He sharply increased the use of small, targeted military operations, but he steadfastly refused to get drawn into another major engagement of the kind launched by his predecessors — whether in Syria, Libya, Ukraine or elsewhere.

Instead, Obama reached out to other nations, convinced that meeting new threats, as he said in his first inaugural address, demanded “greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.” Even to America’s enemies, Obama offered to extend a hand to those willing to receive it.

This more restrained policy was broadly welcomed by U.S. allies and friends abroad. Favorable views of America’s role in the world rose sharply, and generally remained there for the duration of his presidency.

The positive reviews were hardly universal. Critics at home and abroad blame his minimalist approach to military engagement for many of the ills in the world today. To them, Obama’s restraint led to a world in which Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare, a source of destabilizing refugee flows into the Middle East and Europe and an incubator of the Islamic State. They blame him for allowing a world in which Vladimir Putin has returned as a Russian strongman, invading neighbors and flexing his military muscle in the Middle East and beyond; and where China has risen as a geostrategic adversary in the Asia-Pacific region. As Donald Trump put it, the Obama legacy abroad is “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”

The critics have a point. While saying he would never take options off the table, Obama made clear that restraint was his primary choice. The result has been that those who wish America ill may have had little incentive not to defy it. Exhibit number one for these critics was the President’s failure to enforce his own red line in Syria--a failure that contributed to a perception of weakness.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands after delivering remarks to troops and military families at Fort Bragg, NC, December 14, 2011.   Obama on Wednesday marked the US exit from Iraq by eulogizing fallen troops and seek to move Americans on from a divisive near nine-year war which he opposed. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama shakes hands with troops after delivering remarks at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 14, 2011. (Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Obama is right to note that working with Moscow to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons was an outcome no amount of bombing could have accomplished on its own. But he is wrong to dismiss the idea that a president’s words matter, especially in foreign affairs. When other nations come to doubt those words, they may hedge their bets in working with Washington, and our ability to get them to align with us against common foes or in pursuit of common purposes will be lessened.

Yet it is simplistic to assign blame for all the world’s ills to Obama’s more restrained policies abroad. It is far from clear — nor have his critics demonstrated — that a more aggressive policy would have resulted in better outcomes. And as the decade preceding his presidency showed, the opposite may well have been true. At the same time, the assumption that everything in the world — for good or ill — happens because of American action or inaction greatly overstates our power and influence.

The situations in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and the rise of the Islamic State and terror networks, have far more to do with the long-standing crisis of governance in the Arab world than with how much force America is willing to use. Similarly, Putin had his own reasons for invading Ukraine and intervening in Syria — above all, to bolster his standing at home and defend Moscow’s interests in both countries. And whether we like it or not, China is a rising great power and will increasingly act like great powers do, seeking to extend their sphere of influence regionally and globally.

The challenge for U.S. foreign policy is not to deny these realities, but to forge policies that protect and enhance America’s interests in ways that take them into account. Indeed, this world of diffused power and increased global threats requires a different kind of American leadership — a 21st-century form of leadership.

That is the kind in which Obama believes, and which he largely exercised. To Obama, not every global problem has an American solution. Although few such problems can be solved without America’s direct involvement, in most instances it requires the active participation of others to succeed. Effective leadership in today’s world isn’t just about who is in the driver’s seat, but about who comes along for the ride. More often than not, it requires sharing — of responsibilities, of burdens and of credit. It also requires a willingness to compromise to gain consensus. And while military force has a role to play, it is not the only or even the most decisive instrument available to the United States in today’s complex world.

“The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people,” Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in his first annual address there. “Together, we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides.” America seeks “a future of peace and prosperity,” but this can be achieved only “if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of international cooperation.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks during the 64th annual United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. The General Debate portion of the General Assembly runs until Sept. 28. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Barack Obama
President Obama speaks during the 64th annual United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 23, 2009. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Perhaps nowhere was Obama’s view of U.S. leadership more evident than with respect to the Iranian nuclear threat. From the outset, he made clear that he sought to engage Tehran to end its nuclear weapons program. Although he did keep the option of force on the table, Obama preferred a negotiated deal, which he believed would be more lasting and less costly. To achieve it, he forged a global coalition--backed by the U.N. Security Council and all its permanent members--that imposed punishing sanctions on Iran. Once negotiations were underway, the involvement of all the key players effectively limited Tehran’s options.

The result was a deal that capped Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a decade or more and put in place the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated.

Addressing the growing threat of climate change offered another opportunity to display this more inclusive type of leadership. For years, the biggest obstacle to an international agreement cutting greenhouse gas emissions had been the unwillingness of developing countries to commit to such reductions. Obama realized that in this, China was key, and so he worked to gain Beijing’s agreement to cut its emissions. That bilateral agreement, announced in November 2014, provided the foundation for the successful conclusion of the 2015 Paris negotiations, in which all nations pledged to cut emissions to slow the rise in global temperatures.

Cooperative leadership also was Obama’s goal in more traditional settings, including Europe and Asia. Even before Russian actions in Ukraine necessitated collective action, strengthening NATO was an important concern of the administration. All U.S. troops in Afghanistan were placed under NATO command, missile defense deployments were transitioned from a system focused on defending the United States from Europe to a NATO system defending NATO in Europe, and a new strategic concept was put in place to guide the alliance in this new world. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington worked with its partners in the European Union to put significant sanctions on Moscow, and with its NATO allies to bolster the defense of Eastern Europe.

Obama indicated early on that the weight of U.S. foreign policy effort and attention would shift to Asia, the most dynamic and economically most important region of the world. One immediate effect of the “Asia pivot” was to provide allies and friends a counterbalance to a rising China, many of whom in previous years had begun to slide into Beijing’s orbit. Stronger alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia were matched by improved relations with Indonesia, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. And through the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Obama was able to bring together the most critical U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific region, including key partners in North and South America, in a major pact that, once approved, will set the rules for trade for years to come.

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2010 file photo, members of 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., sit in the belly of a C-17 aircraft at Sather Air Base in Baghdad as they begin their journey home after a year in Iraq. President Barack Obama on Friday Oct. 21, 2011 declared an end to the Iraq war, one of the longest and most divisive conflicts in U.S. history, announcing that all American troops would be withdrawn from the country by year's end. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)
Soldiers based at Fort Stewart, Ga., sit in the belly of a C-17 aircraft at Sather Air Base in Baghdad on Nov. 30, 2010, as they begin their journey home after a year in Iraq. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press)

A foreign policy of restraint was inevitable, given the strong disinclination of the American public to pursue more military adventures, and the severe financial crisis undermining the economy. One can argue the extent of such moderation, but not the need for it.

Obama surely made his share of mistakes, including misreading the Arab Spring. He believed that support for the ouster of authoritarian regimes put America and his administration on the right side of history. But calling for the overthrow of dictators while doing little--in some cases, nothing--to help those who sought their downfall was a contradiction that has already had significant, long-term costs.

The need to balance power remains a central factor in global politics. Obama played down, and perhaps even underestimated, the geopolitical challenge posed by Russia and China, and the importance of signaling resolve in the face of clear provocations. And he never really invested in the personal relationships abroad or at home that might have helped forge more agreement on the direction and requirements of America’s relations with the world.

But with all its flaws, the course Obama chose abroad was arguably a realistic one for turbulent times and a new century. More than his predecessors--and his critics--he understood the complexities of our world and of power and leadership. A new American president, crafting an approach to a world in turmoil, could do worse than to take a page out of the Obama playbook.

Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013.

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
A hopeful moment on race
Read story
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.


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.


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.

Next story from Obama’s Legacy
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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The beer summit
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Being number one means nothing until there’s a number two.

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On a bridge in Selma
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If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Barack Obama
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The backlash
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A new aesthetic
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Some young Americans have known only one president in their lifetime.

So we asked their thoughts on President Obama as he leaves office.
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Crime, justice and race
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Obama in Africa
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A record 69
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Source: U.S. Elections Project analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data
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Your Obama presidency
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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?

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.

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

Barack Obama
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,
of Americans approved of Obama’s efforts to stem terrorism.
Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls, 2011
Fear at home
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Your fight, your stories
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Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
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?

Zach Galifianakis
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A mark in the wilderness
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While the nation’s economy recovered steadily, over
6 in 10
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Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls
American reactions
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Your America
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Room Four
Obama and the World
Illustrations by Jasu Hu
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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Friends, adversaries
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A pivot to Asia
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52 trips.
58 countries.
217 days
the country.
Air Force One miles
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Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
The new modern family
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The Obama family has really uplifted the image of the black family from the moment we saw them.

Stacie Lee Banks, 53
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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 O’Bidens
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The first dogs
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Obama’s Legacy
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