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.

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Obama’s Legacy Obama and the World

Most of the world doesn’t actually see America the way Trump said it did

In 2015 and 2016, an average 60 percent of people throughout the world had a favorable opinion of the United States.

President Obama spent much of his last year in office rejecting a dystopian view of America painted by Republicans. Embedded in Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again was a dark portrayal of how the rest of the world now sees the United States: vulnerable, weak and disrespected.

But surveys of global opinion show no major fall-off in perceptions of American power over the past seven years. Indeed, the data points to a dramatic upward shift in America’s reputation during the Obama years.

America’s global popularity rises under Obama presidency

Favorable views of the United States rose from a median of 51 percent in George W. Bush's final year in office to 66 percent during President Obama's final two years, according to Pew Research Center surveys of 30 countries at both time periods.

Percent of adults in each country who have a favorable view of the United States

2015 to 2016

2007 to 2008

Obama

Bush

89 Ghana

Kenya 87

84 Kenya

84 S. Korea

81 Israel

Ghana 80

Israel 78

72 Japan

S. Korea 70

68 Chile

66 Median

57 Germany

Chile 55

54 Malaysia

Median 51

Lebanon 51

50 China

Japan 50

Russia 46

 

China 41

 

39 Lebanon

Germany 31

 

29 Turkey

Malaysia 27

 

22 Pakistan

Pakistan 19

 

Jordan 19

15 Russia

14 Jordan

Turkey 12

Note: Results displayed are for the final survey available during each president's administration

(2007 to 2008 and 2015 to 2016).

Source: Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project

CHRIS ALCANTARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

America’s global popularity rises under Obama presidency

Favorable views of the United States rose from a median of 51 percent in George W. Bush's final year in office to 66 percent during President Obama's final two years, according to Pew Research Center surveys of 30 countries at both time periods.

Percent of adults in each country who have a favorable view of the United States

2007 to 2008

2015 to 2016

Bush

Obama

89 Ghana

Kenya 87

84 Kenya

84 South Korea

81 Israel

Ghana 80

Israel 78

72 Japan

South Korea 70

68 Chile

66 Country median

57 Germany

Chile 55

54 Malaysia

Country median 51

Lebanon 51

50 China

Japan 50

Russia 46

 

China 41

 

39 Lebanon

Germany 31

 

29 Turkey

Malaysia 27

 

22 Pakistan

Pakistan 19

 

Jordan 19

15 Russia

14 Jordan

Turkey 12

Note: Results displayed are for the final survey available during each president's administration (2007 to 2008 and 2015 to 2016).

Source: Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project

CHRIS ALCANTARA/THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s hard now to remember just how much antagonism the United States faced across the globe in 2008: People in other countries blamed America for the Iraq war, which undermined support for the war on terrorism. They focused on prisoner treatment at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and talked about America’s negative impact on their own countries.

In the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency, his abysmal approval ratings at home were matched by the opinions of those abroad.

As a candidate, Obama’s promise was to change all that. Almost eight years on, global opinion surveys suggest that, to some degree, he has.

A change in opinion

When the Pew Research Center conducted surveys across 30 countries during Bush’s final two years in office, an average of less than 3 in 10 people expressed confidence in Bush. Months later, during Obama’s first year in office, more than 6 in 10 expressed such confidence.

That initial surge of approval has barely dipped in the years since — with an average of 61 percent rating Obama positively during the last two years of his presidency in the same countries polled by Pew toward the end of Bush’s term. But Obama’s popularity and shifts in rhetoric and policy appear to have pulled up global opinion of the United States as a whole.

In 2015 and 2016, an average 60 percent of people throughout the world surveyed by Pew had a favorable opinion of the United States, compared with 49 percent in Bush’s final two years in office.

The change in opinion has been sharpest in Western Europe. And Germany in particular shows how dramatic that shift has been.

From 2000 to 2008, the share of Germans who viewed the United States favorably fell by more than half, from 78 to 31 percent. Roughly 7 in 10 Germans wanted the United States to remove troops from Iraq in 2007, and in Bush’s final year only 14 percent said they had confidence in his leadership.

Asked to describe this period, Germany’s current ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, was tactful. “There are many positive things people in Germany associate with Americans,” he said. “But in the era of W. Bush, it was mostly, how can I say, overshadowed by the Iraq war.”

In the lead-up to the war, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest in Berlin and other cities.

“Blood for Oil,” screamed the cover of Germany’s influential Der Spiegel magazine.

Twice, lawyers filed suits in German courts, trying to prosecute then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on war crimes.

Even the new American embassy opening in Berlin in 2008 became an opportunity for anti-American bashing, with one German paper calling the upper floors of the embassy the “wellness and waterboarding Area.”

Opinions plummeted in other Western countries. In Britain, favorable ratings of the United States fell from 83 to 53 percent from 2000 to 2008. Similar drops were seen in Spain, France, Poland, Turkey, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico and Argentina. By the end of Bush’s presidency, the only places left where a majority said they had confidence in how U.S. leaders handled global affairs were Israel and seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

It was against that backdrop that Obama arrived in Berlin in 2008, in the middle of the presidential campaign; he was a rock star.

An estimated 200,000 people packed into the Tiergarten park in July 2008 for his speech near the base of Berlin’s iconic Victory Column. He promised that if elected president he would put an end to the American unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy that had so incensed Europe. “In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world . . . has become all too common,” Obama said. “No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.”

Trying to explain the emotional reaction of his countrymen back then, Wittig said Obama tapped into something deep in the German psyche.

“You might call it naïve or idealistic,” he said. “But it appealed to their hidden love of America . . . the idea that America could be a force for good.”

“The fact that America could elect an Afro-American. It made America seem avant-garde again. It showed the tremendous strength Americans have,” he said.

In Obama’s first year, Pew found 93 percent of Germans saying they had confidence in his leadership, according to Pew, a number that has slipped slightly, to 86 percent this year.

Views in the Muslim world

That success has not been universal.

Obama has barely made a dent, for example, in how the Muslim world views the United States, and opinions in some of those countries have even worsened.

In Pakistan, for example, 62 percent held an unfavorable view of the United States last year, almost identical to the 63 percent in 2008. And 56 percent said they have little or no confidence in Obama’s leadership in world affairs, slightly below how they rated Bush in his final year. Obama’s use of drone strikes as an anti-terrorism weapon has been widely unpopular.

The last Pew poll available from Egypt in 2014 showed the United States had become even more despised there than during the Bush years. Only 10 percent had a favorable view of the United States in 2013, lower than the 27 percent in 2009 right after Obama took office, and lower than the 22 percent in 2008, Bush’s final year.

Much of the debate in the 2016 presidential campaign focused on America’s standing in the world, with some candidates and voters expressing worry that the nation’s global power had declined. Most of the rest of the world perceived no such fall-off.

When a 2016 Pew survey of 15 countries asked whether America’s importance and power has changed in the past decade, a median 41 percent said the United States is similarly powerful as before, while 33 percent said it is less powerful and 20 percent saw it as more powerful.

When it comes to China, global opinion reflects China’s rising influence. A median of 43 percent said the United States is still now the world’s leading economic power, while 35 percent said China is. With the United States economy’s gradual recovery and China’s growth rates slowing, the percentage naming the United States as the world’s top economy has risen.

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
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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,
66
of Americans said they liked the way the Obama family leads their life in the White House.
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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