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: ‘I know firsthand what happens when you have a lousy policy and it results in a war’.

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Obama’s Legacy Obama and the World

‘I know firsthand what happens when you have a lousy policy and it results in a war’

Secretary of State John F. Kerry discusses the Iran nuclear deal -- the most controversial negotiation of his tenure.

Iran was the country most on President Obama’s agenda when he offered in his 2009 inauguration speech to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Since Iran’s theocratic revolution in 1979, relations with the United States had been practically nonexistent. By the beginning of the 21st century, concern was growing that the ayatollahs in charge were bent on building a nuclear weapon.

Over the years, sporadic attempts at establishing a line of communication had made little progress, and Obama’s early efforts met the same fate. As intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities grew more alarming, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spearheaded a successful effort to crack down on Tehran with ever-increasing economic sanctions and international isolation.

The window of possibility began to open with the May 2013 election of a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who indicated that he was prepared — within the narrow parameters allowed by change-averse religious and military leaders — to open international dialogues. In September of that year, new U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat down at the United Nations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Obama quickly followed up with a telephone call to Rouhani. Although Tehran continued to insist that its nuclear efforts were only energy-related and it had no weapons program, it agreed to a resumption of long-moribund talks with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France) plus Germany. By late November, they had reached an interim agreement that provided Iran with limited sanctions relief in exchange for a rollback on some elements of its nuclear program and increased international monitoring of sites inside the country. The deal also established a framework for negotiating a permanent deal.

Those negotiations turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Deadlines were repeatedly extended until the summer of 2015, when all agreed they were close to a deal. Kerry, Zarif and the other partners were closeted in a Vienna hotel and began what turned out to be weeks of marathon sessions to reach the finish line.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

As Obama, Kerry and the rest of the administration worked to move elements of an agreement into place, however, opposition had been building outside the European conference rooms where the talks were being held. In March, Republican congressional leaders invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ardent foe of the deal, to address a joint session of Congress, an unprecedented venue for voicing criticism of a sitting president and his administration. The proposed agreement, Netanyahu said, “would all but guarantee that Iran gets [nuclear] weapons, lots of them.”

U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf, who saw Iran as a regional rival with expansionist ambitions, were also dead set against it, and found common cause with many in Congress who wanted to block it and impose more sanctions on Tehran.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

On July 14, the final agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and the P5+1 was announced. Its signers said that it increased the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb — should it violate its terms — from two to three months to one year. Its lengthy terms sharply reduced the quantity and quality of centrifuges (used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade) that Iran was allowed to have; limited its stockpiles of low-enriched material; ended its efforts to produce plutonium, and imposed strict transparency requirements on all nuclear activities and verification inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Obama had promised Congress a vote on the agreement. In September, a measure of disapproval narrowly failed, 58 to 42, to reach the required 60 votes in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, an approval resolution failed 269 to 162.

Critics of the Iran agreement said that Obama and Kerry had carried diplomacy too far. The extended negotiations Kerry led on this and other issues — including failed efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace and end Syria’s civil war — they said, showed U.S. weakness. Kerry sharply disagreed.

(Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Criticism has continued since the agreement went into effect, with some saying that release from sanctions has given Iran a financial boost to return to weapons development once elements of the deal expire. Many have vowed to work to change its terms or destroy it entirely. Obama and Kerry have sharply disputed the critics, saying that it is now more likely that Iran will quickly see the benefits of membership in the international community, and that one of the greatest threats to world peace has, in effect, been eliminated.

(Jorge Ribas/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
Watch video
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The beer summit
Watch video

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
See photos

If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Barack Obama
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In his own words
Watch video
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The backlash
Read story
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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
Watch video
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Crime, justice and race
Read story
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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
Read story
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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
Read story
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Struggle after service
Watch video
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
Read story
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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
Watch video
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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
Read story
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For Muslims, unanswered prayers
Read story
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Open hand, clenched fist
Read Q&A
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Talking to Tehran
Watch video
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Closer now – and cigars!
Read story
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
Read story
52 trips.
58 countries.
217 days
outside
the country.
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Air Force One miles
Read story
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Your worldview
Share your story
Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
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The new modern family
Read essay

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
Watch video
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The first lady’s last stand
Read essay

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
See photos
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In the cultural mix
Watch video
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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
Read story
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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