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: Watch unreleased footage of Obama’s phone call to James Obergefell on the night of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

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Obama’s Legacy Obama’s America

Watch unreleased footage of Obama’s phone call to James Obergefell on the night of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision

The president congratulates the plaintiff on the night of the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision.
After the Supreme Court released its decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, President Obama called plaintiff Jim Obergefell to congratulate him on the court’s decision. (The White House)

On a cool, damp Wednesday in Washington in May 2012, President Obama sat in the Cabinet Room at the White House and declared himself unequivocally in favor of gay marriage.

It had been less than 10 years since the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, setting off an incredible legal tale that would culminate in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2015, establishing that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry.

The relatively quick legal evolution of the issue was matched by a relatively slow personal and political evolution by the president, who in November 2008, as he was about to be elected, told an MTV audience: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

Phyllis Siegel, left, displays her marriage license after she and and Connie Kopelov, right, became the first couple to marry at the Manhattan City Clerk's office in New York, U.S., on Sunday, July 24, 2011. Gay marriages became legal in New York today, the sixth and most populous U.S. state to grant same-sex couples the right to wed, a move championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and approved by the Legislature in Albany on June 24. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Phyllis Siegel; Connie Kopelov
Phyllis Siegel, left, displays her marriage license after she and and Connie Kopelov became the first couple to marry at the Manhattan City Clerk’s office in New York, on July 24, 2011. (Jin Lee/Bloomberg News)

But even that position was a switch from 1996, when as a candidate for the Illinois State Senate, he completed a questionnaire from a gay newspaper in Chicago, saying: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Obama had never been ambiguous about his support for gay rights: He strongly supported gay unions; he led the rollback of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and he appointed the first openly gay secretary of the Army. His administration eventually refused to defend or enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited federal government agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal laws or programs, such as Social Security or disability benefits and veteran family benefits.

In this photo released by The White House, President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC's Good Morning America, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 9, 2012, in Washington. Obama declared his unequivocal support for gay marriage on Wednesday, a historic announcement that gave the polarizing social issue a more prominent role in the 2012 race for the White House. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza)
In a 2012 interview with Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America,” President Obama declared his support for gay marriage. (Pete Souza/Associated Press)

Obama’s open support was not so much a catalyst for change as much as a reflection of change already well underway. Given the huge shifts in public support for gay marriage, it was now politically safer for him to support gay marriage and increasingly difficult for him not to.

Indeed, in his preamble to his declaration, Obama told Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “As I’ve said, I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.”

ROCKVILLE, MD - JUNE 1:
After exchanging wedding vows, Maribel Garate, L, and Sherrette Estes look for a place to be alone before being introduced to their guests as a married couple at Glenview Mansion on Saturday, June 1, 2013, in Rockville, MD.  Same-sex marriage has been legal in Maryland since January 1, 2013.  The state's voters narrowly upheld the state’s same-sex marriage law, a historic victory for the national gay-rights movement that highlights the country’s evolving definition of marriage.  Before Maryland's vote, gays and lesbians had been granted the right to marry by courts and state legislatures, but proponents of marriage had been defeated at the ballot box in more than 30 states.  Maryland was joined by Maine in approving gay marriage, making the two states’ voters the first in the country to approve the measures by a popular vote. Voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-same sex marriage.
(Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Maribel Garate, left, and Sherrette Estes were married in Rockville, Md., on June 1, 2013. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Corbin Aoyagi, a supporters of gay marriage, waves his flag during a rally at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Opponents and supporters of gay marriage held twin rallies at the Capitol on Tuesday. More than 1,000 gay couples rushed to get married when a federal judge overturned Utah's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in late December 2013. In early January the U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah's request for an emergency halt to the weddings. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Corbin Aoyagi waves a flag in support of gay marriage during a rally at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 28, 2014. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The “evolution” seems to have been prodded along by some external pressures. The president said his daughters helped change his mind.

“You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples,” he said in the interview with Roberts. “There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table. And we’ve been talking and — about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would — it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated differently when it comes to the eyes of the law.”

SLAT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 28: Demonstrators hold an anti-gay marriage rally inside the Utah State Capitol on January 28, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Several weeks ago a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in the state of Utah. The ruling has since been stayed and is working it's way through the legal system. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Demonstrators hold a rally to oppose gay marriage at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 28, 2014. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Three days before the Roberts interview, Vice President Biden told David Gregory on NBC News’s “Meet the Press:” “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”

But Biden prefaced those remarks with this caveat: “Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy.”

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 26: Gay marriage supporters carried balloons that spelled the words "Love Wins" in front of the White House tonight.The White House was lit in multi-colored lights tonight to honor the Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriage. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Supporters of gay marriage hold balloons that spell out “love wins” in front of the White House on June 26, 2015, after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The same week, 61 percent of voters in North Carolina voted for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, making it the 30th state to establish such restrictions. But over the next three years, state and federal courts completely scrambled the issue landscape with rulings striking down, and occasionally upholding, those restrictions.

The Supreme Court consolidated cases from four states — Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky — and its 5-4 decision affirmed not just the right of gays to marry, but the deeply contentious nature of the issue.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said: “Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2015, file photo, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, right, talks with David Moore following her office's refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky. Months after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage, some lawmakers across the U.S. are proposing laws that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse service for gay couples based on their religious beliefs. The bills, proposed mostly by Republicans, aren’t universally backed in the party and top employers, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Porsche and UPS warn the proposals are unwelcoming and bad for business. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
Kim Davis, right, county clerk for Rowan County, Ky., speaks with David Moore. Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court’s ruling. (Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

In an epic dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. chastised the majority for overreach. “This Court is not a legislature,” he wrote. “Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be.”

President Obama led the celebration of the narrow decision with an appearance in the Rose Garden: “This ruling is a victory for America. . . . When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”

A few months later, in the spring of 2016, speaking in London, Obama said he was struck by the “rapidity with which the marriage equality movement changed the political landscape and hearts and minds, and resulted in actual changes in law. It’s probably been the fastest set of changes in terms of a social movement that I’ve seen.”

On June 26, 2015, President Obama gave a speech in the Rose Garden, welcoming the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He said the ruling should give Americans hope that “real change is possible” on tough issues. (Video: Sarah Parnass/Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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
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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
Share your story
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
See photo essay
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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
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
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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
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?
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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