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: ‘Tell me how this ends’: Obama’s struggle with the hard questions of war.

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Obama’s Legacy Commander in Chief

‘Tell me how this ends’: Obama’s struggle with the hard questions of war

Barack Obama intended to pull troops out of Iraq and ending the war, but after troops left, the country spiraled out of control, requiring an increase in troops to that region.

In February 2009, less than two months after he took office, President Obama had flew to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and laid out his plan for ending the war in Iraq. He stood surrounded by camouflage-clad Marines, many of whom were just days away from being shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Next month will mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq,” Obama told the troops. “By any measure, this has already been a long war.”

Obama rose to national prominence in 2002 on the eve of the Iraq invasion by calling it a “dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on reason, but on passion; not on principle, but on politics.” His candidacy hinged on his promise to end it as quickly as possible.

He was far from the first person to wrestle with the question of how to bring the messy, grinding fight to a close. In March 2003, with American troops bogged down by guerilla attacks on the way to Baghdad, then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus turned to a reporter and uttered one of the most prescient sentences of the Iraq war: “Tell me how this ends.”

President Bush thought he had his answer — the “Mission Accomplished” moment — on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln two months later, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “Because of you, our nation is more secure,” he told the sailors on the Lincoln. “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.” But the war would consume Bush for the remainder of his presidency.

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Obama followed Bush into the White House determined not to let his presidency be defined by war — especially not the one in Iraq, which had already cost more than 4,000 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, when he took office.

His plans to end the conflict, though, have been undone by Iraq’s poisonous sectarian politics, Iranian meddling, his own mistakes and the devastating civil war across the border in Syria. Like Petraeus, he struggled to answer that most fundamental of questions: “Tell me how this ends.”

At Camp Lejeune, Obama sketched out one answer, telling the Marines that they had “fought against tyranny and disorder.” They had bled for their “best friends and for unknown Iraqis.” They had “served with honor.”

On Aug. 31, 2010, President Obama told the American people he wanted to talk about “the end of our combat mission in Iraq.” More than a year later, the last U.S. convoys left that country. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

But they could not do the job of diplomats and civilian advisers who would stay behind after the troops came home to help the Iraqis forge a lasting peace. “We’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable,” Obama promised. “We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people.”

But the final hours of the American occupation suggested a very different end.

We expect our wars to end in iconic moments. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865; the 1945 Life magazine photo of a sailor planting a kiss on an unsuspecting woman in Times Square; a helicopter frantically evacuating U.S. personnel from a CIA annex in Saigon in 1975.

“It’s harder to end a war than begin one,” Obama told troops at Fort Bragg on Dec. 14, 2011. He was right in a way he never anticipated.

The next day the American military’s top brass gathered at Baghdad International Airport to mark what was supposed to be the end of the war. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta offered up the usual praise for the troops. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who had pressed to keep a force of as many as 15,000 American troops in the country, gave a half-hearted endorsement to the proceedings, pronouncing Iraq a “relatively peaceful environment.”

The Iraqis offered up the ceremony’s most powerful statement by refusing at the last minute to attend. Just before the ceremony was to start, an American soldier was dispatched to snatch the placards reserving seats in the front row for then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the top members of his cabinet.

Vehicles of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division line up for the departure of the final convoy of U.S. military forces out of Iraq at Camp Adder near Nasiriyah, Iraq on December 17, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Pool (IRAQ - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT POLITICS) - RTR2VDWN
Vehicles line up for the departure of the final convoy of U.S. military forces out of Iraq in December 2011. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Two days later, the last American troops gathered at Contingency Operating Base Adder for the final convoy out of Iraq. At its peak, the base held more than 12,000 American troops and contractors, a Taco Bell, a movie theater and six bus routes.

The Americans were leaving behind 500 pickup trucks, buses and cars in the base motor pool, with the keys on the dashboards. “This place is going to be like Black Friday at Wal-Mart when we leave,” joked an Iraqi American interpreter.

Iraq’s problems were evident, even to a casual observer. A six-man Iraqi band, dressed in dirty blue uniforms, played a ragged marching song on dented trumpets and trombones as the Americans and Iraqis signed the final paperwork handing over the facility, which the Iraqis had renamed Imam Ali Air Base. Its only plane was a rusty, white passenger aircraft with no landing gear and a broken propeller.

The U.S. military flew in a gaggle of television reporters a few hours before the final convoy left for Kuwait. Geraldo Rivera, the Fox News personality and future “Dancing With the Stars” contestant, posed for pictures with the American soldiers. Some troops cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill fashioned out of a steel barrel.

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The Americans finally left the base about 3 a.m., rolling out under the cover of darkness as drones and attack helicopters circled protectively overhead.

The day after the Americans had cleared the border, Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant for Iraq’s Sunni vice president, beginning a sectarian cleansing that would tear the country apart. In 2014, when the Iraqi army collapsed and the Islamic State swept through Iraq’s majority Sunni provinces, the Obama administration blamed Maliki for gutting the government and the military. Republicans blamed Obama for not pressing harder to keep an American force in the country. Senior military officials — many of whom believed that they had salvaged something close to victory by 2011 — blamed the political leadership in Washington for letting things spiral out of control in Iraq after the last troops left.

US soldiers monitor as they train Iraq's 72nd Brigade in a live-fire exercise in Basmaya base, southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on January 27, 2016. 


The US-led coalition's efforts to train the Iraqi military began in December 2014. Since then, more than 18,000 Iraqi troops have completed courses like the one held at the base in Basmaya. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers train Iraqi forces in a live-fire exercise in Basmaya, southeast of Baghdad, in January 2016. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Obama responded to the Islamic State advance by sending in fighter jets, bombers and 475 military advisers. Today, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is 5,000, and it is almost certain to grow. As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, he still struggles to define victory in a place like Iraq. In December 2015, after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Obama took another cut at it in a prime-time Oval Office address.

Victory was not getting sucked back into a “long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “That’s what groups like ISIL want,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. It had less to do with what actually happened on the ground in Iraq and Syria than how Americans reacted at home.

Instead of answering Petraeus’s question, Obama sought to flip it.

“Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional,” Obama said from the White House as he prepared to enter the final year of his presidency. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

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.

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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A soliloquy in Philadelphia
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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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First black governor since Reconstruction
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The other trailblazers
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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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In his own words
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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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Kids on Obama
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Crime, justice and race
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Obama in Africa
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A record 69
of African Americans turned out to vote in 2008, surpassing white turnout rates for the first time.
Source: U.S. Elections Project analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data
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The Obama electorate
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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?

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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.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff
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.

Barack Obama
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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,
69
of Americans approved of Obama’s efforts to stem terrorism.
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?

Zach Galifianakis
Host of “Between Two Ferns”
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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
6 in 10
Americans said the country was on the wrong track.
Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls
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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
60
of people throughout the world had a favorable opinion of the United States.
Pew Research Center
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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.
58 countries.
217 days
outside
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Air Force One miles
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Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
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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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White House, black women
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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.

Robin Givhan
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It’s an Obama thing
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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