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: Obama rescued the economy, but it’s not that simple.

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Obama’s Legacy Obama’s America

Obama rescued the economy, but it’s not that simple

A Harvard economics professor weighs in on whether Obama could have done more to save the economy.

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier professor of political economy and former chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard.

On March 4, 1933, at the bottom of the worst financial and economic crisis to afflict the United States since the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president. Two days later, Roosevelt acted to stanch the collapse by suspending gold payments, imposing a four-day “bank holiday” and arranging emergency assistance for banks when they reopened.

Over the next three months — FDR’s legendary “100 days” — the new administration initiated further measures, including federal job creation, welfare relief, aid to homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, and securities and banking reform. By the end of Roosevelt’s first term, the list of fundamental and lasting innovations, all responses to the crisis, included unemployment insurance, Social Security and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

President Obama signs the Economic Stimulus package into law inside the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday, February 17, 2009. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg News
President Obama signs the economic stimulus package into law at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver on Feb. 17, 2009. (Matthew Staver/Bloomberg News)

Barack Obama took office Jan. 20, 2009, during the worst financial and economic crisis since World War II. By then, the Federal Reserve System had already acted to prevent the collapse of the banking system, and so the new president moved forward promptly to spur the depressed economy. The fiscal package he signed Feb. 17, 2009, allocated $787 billion — more than 5 percent of a year’s total U.S. income — to infrastructure investment, job training, aid to low-income workers, tax relief in various forms and other measures aimed at stimulating economic activity. The money could have been better directed, so as to achieve greater impact, and in retrospect the amount was too small. But in the face of opposition from Republicans in Congress, Obama’s fiscal stimulus was about as much as any president could have done.

After pushing through the stimulus, however, the Obama administration entered a period of quietude on the economic front. Despite large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, there was no other significant economic legislation during the new president’s first 100 days. Nor in the 100 days following that, nor in the 100 days after that.

Financial reforms to prevent a repeat of the disaster that had just happened were on hold. The administration took no advantage of the potential leverage the government had gained through its infusion of taxpayer money to recapitalize banks that would otherwise have failed. (By spring 2009, the U.S. Treasury owned 38 percent of the equity in Citibank.) Other potential economic policy initiatives, such as tax reform, remained out of sight.

Instead, once the economic stimulus became law, the Obama domestic agenda shifted to health care. When the president took office, roughly one in six Americans — 50 million in a population of 307 million — had no health insurance. The Affordable Care Act, passed in March 2010, has now provided coverage to 20 million of those 50 million. If more states expanded Medicare, as was permitted under the new law and clearly expected by Obama, the number would be significantly greater. Moreover, some of the 30 million remaining uncovered are in the United States illegally and are therefore ineligible.

Raising the insured total to more than 90 percent of all Americans will likely stand as a historic achievement, but the cost was a diversion of the administration’s energy and attention from other economic problems badly in need of remedy.

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The most pressing among them was, and remains, financial reform. Rather than advance its own set of proposals — especially during the president’s first year in office, when the Democrats held a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate — the administration largely left the matter to Congress.

The result, the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in July 2010, represented a reasonable first pass at fixing a dangerously defective financial system. Among other useful contributions, the new legislation called for higher bank capital requirements; strengthened procedures for resolving the failure of banks and other financial companies; restricted banks’ latitude to invest in risky securities; and established a new, centralized mechanism for trading some of the financial derivative instruments that had been at the center of the crisis.

By contrast, some of the act’s provisions, most importantly the weakened ability of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC to rescue banks in any future crisis, may well prove counterproductive.

People walk along California Street as they take part in a demonstration in front of the Wells Fargo Bank main branch on California street as Wells Fargo holds their shareholders meeting in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 27, 2010. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Demonstrators march in front of Wells Fargo Bank on San Francisco’s California Street in 2010. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

Overall, if Dodd-Frank were merely one in a series of financial reform packages aimed at addressing what had happened from 2007 to 2009, it would have been a laudable first step. But as the nation’s principal response to the worst financial crisis in two generations, it paled. Further, the specifics of many of the intended reforms were left to agency-level rulemaking exercises — at one point more than 300 of them were in process — that, predictably, enabled industry lobbyists to blunt their force, if not thwart them altogether.

As the crisis and its immediate aftermath receded, the Obama administration’s economic policy agenda shifted to mostly defensive actions domestically, combined with negotiating what have proved to be highly controversial trade agreements abroad. The main achievement of the intensely political 2011 budget deal with the by-now-Republican House of Representatives was simply to avoid the U.S. government’s defaulting on its debt. In 2013, the president succeeded in increasing the tax rate for top-bracket earners from 35 percent back to 39.6 percent, where it had been in the Clinton years; in exchange, he agreed to extend, indefinitely, the rest of the Bush administration’s 2003 cuts for taxpayers with annual earnings of up to $450,000 per couple. (Later in 2013, in the course of a further dispute over budgets and debt, House Republicans shut down the government for 17 days.)

The president also pressed forward with two large-scale trade agreements: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), between the United States and the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with most of the major Pacific nations other than China. If implemented, these agreements would lower tariffs, remove various other trade barriers, and make cross-border investment easier and safer. Whether they will ever take effect, however, remains uncertain. As often happens when the economy stagnates, to many citizens free trade seems more a threat than an opportunity. Donald Trump made opposition to TPP a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and Hillary Clinton, who supported TPP as secretary of state, now opposes it, as well.

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The TTIP negotiations with the E.U. remain to be completed, so there is nothing for either candidate to oppose.

What remains for the next president to accomplish? During Obama’s presidency, the country made little or no progress on long-standing issues such as tax reform and assuring the long-term viability of Medicare in the face of spiraling costs. The U.S. financial system remains too large, too expensive and too risky. Although Obama took some limited steps toward arresting the relentless widening of economic inequality — raising top-bracket tax rates, extending the earned-income tax credit and expanding the child tax credit, for example — the election campaign to replace him, in both parties, shows that the American public remains deeply unsatisfied.

Most important, the pace of improvement in America’s productivity — how much the nation produces per person, or per worker, or per hour worked — has been slowing for the past four decades. With more rapid growth, many of today’s economic challenges, especially widening inequality, would seem less worrisome. But with stagnating productivity, the resulting frustrations are rising toward boiling points. We know fairly little about how to boost an economy’s productivity growth, although some identifiable measures would clearly help. Rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure; restructuring education, especially in the early grades; providing prekindergarten to more “at risk” students; and restoring the government’s shrunken funding for research are all good choices. All cost money.

Obama made progress in some areas of economic policy, perhaps as much as the country’s increasingly divided politics would allow, and on each of those fronts — economic and political — his successor will not lack for challenges.

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.

L. Douglas Wilder
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
See photos

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
See graphics
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Your Obama presidency
Share your story
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
Read essays
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The parade of generals
Watch video

We won some good fights and we lost the war.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Former Marine infantryman
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A tour of duty
See photos
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One enemy after another
See graphics

No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

Barack Obama
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Words of war and peace
Watch video
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The last convoy
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The rise of ISIS
See photos
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Weighing intervention
Watch video
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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
See graphics
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Your fight, your stories
Share your story
Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
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Eight turbulent years
Watch video

Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
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Economic brinksmanship
Read essay
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The price of Obamacare
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A new state of unions
See photo essay
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Shots fired
Watch video
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A cultural shift
Watch video
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‘Healing the planet’
Read essay

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
See graphics
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
See graphic
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Your America
Share your story
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
Read Q&A
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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
See graphic
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Friends, adversaries
See photos
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A pivot to Asia
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52 trips.
58 countries.
217 days
outside
the country.
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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
Longtime Washingtonian
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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
Fashion critic, The Washington Post
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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,
66
of Americans said they liked the way the Obama family leads their life in the White House.
Pew Research Center/National Public Radio poll
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The most popular of them all?
See graphics
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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