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’s America

The political price of Obamacare

More Americans are insured than ever before. But the political consequences for both sides may not have been worth it.

In the moments before Barack Obama prepared to sign the health-care reform law that would forever define his domestic legacy, Joe Biden famously whispered into his ear: “This is a big [expletive] deal.”

On that day, just 14 months into Obama’s presidency, Biden could not know just how profoundly correct he was in that assessment.

One word — “Obamacare” — would come to represent the promise and the pitfalls of Obama’s presidency. The March 2010 signing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act stands as a pivot on which Obama’s legislative agenda turned, where the audacity of hope gave way to the reality and frustrations of divided government.

Obama would sign only one more blockbuster policy bill — the Dodd-Frank financial reform law — which, together with Obamacare and the fiscal stimulus package he signed shortly after taking office, will share top billing in the legislative history of the Obama administration.

FILE - In this March 23, 2010. file photo, President Barack Obama signs the health care bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington. When President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act five years ago, he visualized a time when the political hyperbole would be silenced and ordinary people would see that the health care law improved their lives. The White House signing ceremony on Mar. 23, 2010 was an applause-filled celebration.  “When I sign this bill,” Obama said, “all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform.”  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House on March 23, 2010. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Instead, Democrats lost the House and later the Senate, and Obama spent the final six years of his presidency mired in a series of high-stakes negotiations focused soley on keeping the federal government open for business and preventing the country from defaulting on its debts.

Other major pieces of his legislative agenda — on climate change, on immigration, on civil rights — stalled or died at different stages, and the administration turned to the exercise of executive power to achieve its goals.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said in 2014, describing his levers of power as his dealings with Congress continued to deteriorate.

Thus, Obama’s legislative legacy comes down to this question: What if?

Could health-care reform have been done in a different way? Could Democrats have kept control of Congress for another two years or more? Was Obamacare worth it?

The debate roiled Democrats, including some inside the administration, from the earliest days of the presidency. At the time, the nation remained beset by the economic turmoil sparked by the 2008 global financial meltdown, and many wondered whether health-care reform should be the top priority.

“I begged him not to do this,” former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told a reporter in 2010, airing his preference for a hard focus on jobs and the economy even after the passage of the stimulus bill.


On Capitol Hill, many Democratic lawmakers, aides and consultants wondered — openly and not — about the political costs of the dogged pursuit of health-care reform. The costs were to be measured not only in congressional seats but in policy priorities.

What would this mean for other major items on the Democratic agenda, ones requiring major outlays of presidential political capital? What about cap-and-trade, union “card check,” the Dream Act or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — each one a major priority for key parts of the Democratic base?

None of those bills would pass the 111th Congress, even though for the first time in more than 40 years one party held the presidency and dominant majorities in both houses of Congress.

‘Together in opposition’

The passage of the health-care law meant that, for the first time, Americans would be legally obligated to purchase insurance under the threat of tax penalties. In return, the law created new mechanisms to allow access to affordable insurance to millions who had been priced out of the market. New restrictions would keep employers and insurers from excluding the sick; a system of subsidized state exchanges would serve individuals without access to insurance through their jobs; and an expansion of Medicaid would cover a swath of Americans teetering above the poverty line.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21:  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi surrounded by leadership, and arm and arm with Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), as they  walked to the Capitol building, on Capitol Hill March 21 in Washington, DC.  The vote is scheduled for this evening. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) walks to the Capitol with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), second from left, and others on March 21, 2010, ahead of a vote on the health-care law. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Many of the ideas embedded in the law, including the individual mandate to buy insurance, had rattled around conservative think tank circles for decades as potential GOP alternatives to previous, more government-centric Democratic health-care plans.

But that history didn’t forestall a furious partisan backlash — one that gave Republicans a crucial rallying point just months after the 2008 electoral rout. In his recent memoir, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell recalled his advice to his GOP colleagues: “Don’t muddy this up.”

“I didn’t want a single Republican to vote for it,” McConnell (Ky.) wrote. “It had to be very obvious to the voters which party was responsible for this terrible policy, and I wanted a clear line of demarcation — they were for this, and we were against it. . . . So the strategy, simply stated, was to keep everybody together in opposition.”

The president craved the idea of a bipartisan bill, and Obama and congressional Democrats labored for months to get at least a few Republicans to buy in, soliciting input and suggestions from a few Republican senators, in particular. Ultimately, those talks went nowhere; every GOP senator agreed not to “muddy this up.”

Meanwhile, the shoots of a grass-roots uprising began to show. What would become the tea party movement had started to coalesce in opposition to the financial recovery bills passed in the earliest months of Obama’s presidency, and the health-care push gave it potent new fuel.

Michelle Peele of College Park joins chants of "kill the bill."
Michelle Peele of College Park, Md., joins chants of “kill the bill” during a protest March 20, 2010. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When the congressional summer recess came, protests erupted with chants of “kill the bill” in town hall meetings across the country.

“People are signaling that we ought to slow up and find out where we are and don’t spend so much money and don’t get us so far into debt,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), one of three key Senate GOP negotiators, said that August after a pummeling series of home-state meetings. Lawmakers never came any closer to compromise.

The surprise victory the following January of a Republican, Scott Brown, in the Massachusetts special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy cemented the peril for Democrats — and for the president’s agenda.


In a Washington Post op-ed days later, Obama political adviser David Plouffe acknowledged a “white-knuckled ride” ahead for his party’s candidates but warned against “bed-wetting.”

“I know that the short-term politics are bad,” he said. “But politically speaking, if we do not pass it, the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside.”

After a series of unusual legislative maneuvers and a flurry of intraparty deal-making, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed Congress without the support of a single Republican lawmaker, and Obama signed it into law March 23, 2010. But the political consequences extended well beyond any definition of the short term.

Vows to repeal

The Republican vows to “repeal and replace” Obamacare began that very day — one that then-House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called “a somber day for the American people.” Nine months later, he became the 53rd speaker of the House.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18:  House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after the meeting... A bicameral gathering of the Republican Party met in a closed-door morning session in the House chamber to discuss health care reform on Capitol Hill March 18 in Washington, DC. And later the leadership emerged to speak to media... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke as the CBO report on the health care overhaul was announced at $940 billion. The vote on the bill is expected Sunday. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)   StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on  Thu Mar 18 11:21:03 2010
Then-House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) after a meeting March 18, 2010, on the health-care bill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The GOP leveraged Obamacare into massive political gains, and they didn’t end with the profound Democratic losses in the 2010 midterms. By the last year of the Obama administration, his party had lost 14 Senate seats, 68 House seats, 12 governorships and hundreds of state legislative seats.

One academic paper suggested that the Obamacare vote alone cost the Democrats roughly 25 House seats — the difference between a historic landslide and two more years in the majority.

The Senate remained under Democratic control until 2015, but a Republican House majority, with an ascendant cadre of hard-line tea party conservatives unwilling to compromise, meant that Obama’s progressive agenda was a dead letter two years into his presidency.

Card check and cap-and-trade were out. A series of high-stakes fiscal cliffhangers were in, starting with a showdown over a potential U.S. credit default that ended in a deal forcing years of spending cuts that reined in Obama’s domestic ambitions.

Fifteen years earlier, President Bill Clinton took his own midterm lumps and proceeded to make a centrist peace with new GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), cutting deals on welfare reform, crime and other bills. With the exception of a brief and unsuccessful attempt at a fiscal “grand bargain” in 2011, Obama did not seek compromise at a Clintonian scale — the gulf between his progressive agenda and a hard-right House majority was too wide, and seemingly unbridgeable.


When he did seek to push a controversial priority though Congress — notably, seeking to expand firearm background checks — he lost. Instead, he shifted his efforts away from a branch of government he did not control to the one he did. His domestic legacy would be written in policy memos and the obscure pages of federal agency rulemakings.

The Keystone XL pipeline would not be built; power plants would emit less carbon dioxide; investment advisers would adhere to higher standards; and environmental regulators would have new authority over U.S. waterways. The Obama administration did those things by itself over the loud objections of the Republican Congress.

Meanwhile, what Obama could accomplish by legislation lay in a few scant areas where he had significant agreement with Republican congressional leaders. And those have, by and large, failed to come to pass.

An attempt at the most ambitious immigration reform effort in decades had some early momentum in Obama’s second term. Then an unknown college professor with an anti-immigration platform and tea-party support deposed the sitting House majority leader, Eric Cantor (Va.), in a little-noticed 2014 primary. Republicans were spooked, unwilling to move ahead. Obama responded with a new set of executive actions, further alienating Congress.

And his bid to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the centerpiece of a foreign-policy “pivot to Asia,” now appears dead on arrival thanks to grass-roots revolts in both parties. If the TPP moves forward, it will probably not be during Obama’s presidency.

Mixed reviews

Any reasonable analysis must conclude that the political opportunity costs of Obamacare have been considerable. The other side of the legacy ledger — the human benefits — are only beginning to be measured.

More Americans are insured than ever before, with federal data showing the uninsured rate dropping from 15 percent to 9 percent in the first three years of the law’s implementation. Upwards of 20 million more Americans now have insurance, and the rise in health-care prices has slowed — although it is not clear how much can be directly attributed to the reform law.

Meanwhile, the long-term political benefits that Plouffe predicted have not materialized — far from it. Polls show a country sharply and continually divided on the law, largely along partisan lines.

A June 2016 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 29 percent of Americans say that Obamacare has hurt their family, compared to 18 percent who say it has helped. Most cited increased costs; others pointed to new difficulties in accessing care.

But Republicans faced political difficulties of their own. The party was consumed with attempts to repeal the law, even though another Kaiser poll found that only about a third of Americans favor a full repeal and about a third want to expand it. Polls also show voters still trust Democrats over Republicans to handle health care, although the margin has narrowed somewhat since Obamacare became law.

What congressional leaders never did, until way late in the game, was put forth a coherent alternative that attempts to address at least some of the gaps in the pre-Obamacare health system. And the sketch of an alternative released by House Republicans in summer 2015 presented no estimates of the plan’s costs, nor did it lay out how many fewer Americans might be insured if their changes were implemented.

But the political calculus has been clear: Hard-line opposition has been awfully good for GOP candidates, even if the arguments don’t always add up. McConnell, after describing how he forestalled any attempts at compromise, wrote in his memoir that the “chaos this law has visited on our country isn’t just deeply tragic, it was entirely predictable.”

He added: “That will always be the case if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight.”

Even as Donald Trump’s candidacy scrambled the GOP policy agenda, opposition to Obamacare remained near the top. “We are going to replace Obamacare with something so much better,” said Trump, who has offered the barest outline of such a plan, in a February primary debate.

For Obama, the law has entered a mythic adolescence. The exhilaration of its passage and the frustration at its botched rollout have given way to a heroic narrative.

In a video aired before Obama’s address to the Democratic National Convention this year, the passage of Obamacare took its place alongside his handling of the financial crisis and the killing of Osama bin Laden in a story about an embattled president’s resolve to serve the American people. And Emanuel, the doubter, is the foil.

“He’s thinking to himself, if I decide not to push forward, what do I say to all those people who came up to me with tears in their eyes telling me they need this to save themselves,” former speechwriter Jon Favreau intones in a voice-over. “And if that means that I’m a one-term president, then I’m a one-term president.”

He was not, in the end, a one-term president. But his decision carries a more complicated accounting. Given all the chaos, Obamacare may or may not have been the smart play at the time, but it was most certainly a “big [expletive] deal.”

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
A hopeful moment on race
Read story
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.


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.


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.

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Room Two
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Room Three
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Room Four
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Room Five
The First Family
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Obama’s Legacy
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