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

America vs. China: A competitive face-off between two Pacific powers

Despite hopes of a strong partnership between the U.S. and China, a rocky relationship persists.

In April 2009, a few months after he took office, President Obama scheduled a summit in Beijing with then-Chinese president Hu Jintao. The Obama administration was faced with a decision. The Dalai Lama was planning to visit Washington and wanted to meet the president. From George H.W. Bush on, no president had denied the exiled Tibetan leader an audience. Hoping to make a good impression on his soon-to-be Chinese hosts, however, Obama decided to postpone the meeting until after he had seen Hu.

Obama was the first president in decades to enter the White House without having criticized the China policy of its previous occupant. Focused on the global war on terror, President George W. Bush had shelved his earlier idea that China was a “strategic competitor” and had maintained good ties with Beijing.

Obama’s team was eager to build on Bush’s successes. What better way to show America’s sincerity, the White House figured, than starting off with a concession? But what began as a relationship infused with the hope that the United States and China would partner to confront global problems ended up as an even more competitive face-off between the two Pacific powers.

BEIJING - NOVEMBER 16:  In this handout provided by the White House, President Barack Obama (L) walks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Diaoyutai State Guest House November 16, 2009 in Beijing, China. Obama made an official nine-day, four-nation, Asia tour during which he visited Japan and attended the APEC Summit in Singapore before heading to China and South Korea.  (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)
President Obama walks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Nov. 16, 2009. (Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

Obama administration officials had given China other indications that the president wanted to be China’s partner, even its friend. Traveling to Beijing in February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the administration would not let its traditional support of human rights “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” And in the first China-related speech from the administration, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg made an unprecedented public call for “a core, if tacit, bargain” between the two powers.

Washington needed to show China that it welcomed China’s rise, he said on Oct. 5, 2009. In exchange, China should assure America that its rise “will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others.” Steinberg called for “strategic reassurance” on both sides of the Pacific.

The Chinese saw the olive branches as a sign of weakness. “Strategic Reassurance? Yes, Please!” went the headline in the People’s Daily. The United States should reassure China, it said, by ending all arms sales to Taiwan and all military surveillance activities off China’s coast.

Then, just weeks later, Obama was subject to the shabbiest treatment of any American president visiting China ever; his remarks were censored during a question-and-answer session with students in Shanghai. Whereas a previous Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, had engaged in a wide-ranging joint news conference with a visiting President Bill Clinton in 1998, Hu did not answer a single question with Obama when the two met the press. The public encounter was so frosty that it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” At home, some in the media portrayed Obama as a deadbeat debtor kowtowing to America’s banker, the Chinese Communist Party.

US President Barack Obama talks greets his audience following a town hall meeting at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, on November 16, 2009. The US leader, on the third leg of his debut tour of Asia, is to make brief remarks to an audience described by the White House as "future Chinese leaders." Obama enjoys great popularity in China, especially among the youth in the world's most populous nation of 1.3 billion people. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama greets the audience after a town hall meeting at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum on Nov. 16, 2009. (Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Obama’s bumpy summit in China coupled with China’s increasingly aggressive claims to all of the South China Sea and to islands administered by Japan laid the foundation for a change in the president’s attitude toward China and a transformation of U.S. policy toward Asia. Ever since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, American presidents had viewed China as the sun around which U.S. relations with all of Asia revolved. When he went to China in 1998, President Bill Clinton famously bypassed Japan, a sign that from Washington’s perspective Tokyo played second fiddle to Beijing.

But China’s failure to evolve disappointed many who had been hopeful about the partnership. They were distressed that there was still no free market economy and about the continued crackdowns on dissent and the moves to limit the reach of Western business in China. In addition, China’s unrelenting cyberespionage and pilfering of American industrial secrets outraged many in the U.S. government, including the president. Obama was the first American president to go public with his exasperation, dubbing China a “free rider” in a global system built by the United States. In an August 2014 interview with the New York Times, the president noted that China’s unwillingness to shoulder responsibility had allowed it “to secure the benefits of the global trading system with none of the responsibilities.” Obama coined an expression “to do a Hu Jintao,” poking fun at the Chinese president’s habit of monotonously reciting his talking points.

Starting in 2010, the Obama administration began to put more emphasis on its alliances in Asia than on its hopes for a breakthrough with Beijing. To be sure, Obama continued to push China to maintain sanctions on Iran, which ultimately led to a deal to delay Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. He also reached an understanding with President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s successor, to control greenhouse gases, setting the stage for the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But in most of Asia, the Obama administration focused on shoring up relations with the Asian nations around China. It drew closer to Japan and South Korea. It gave vocal support to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, worried about China’s claims to the South China Sea.

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.  REUTERS/Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool    - RTX1CPNZ
A May 11, 2015, aerial photo purportedly shows Chinese vessels at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. (Pool photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/Reuters)

It was Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, who led the policy change, calling it, in an October 2011 essay in Foreign Policy magazine, a “pivot” toward Asia. Although much of the media attention on the pivot focused on America’s enhanced security commitments to the region, trade played an equally important role.

Americans first came to the Pacific in the 18th century as merchants, and in the 21st century the Asia Pacific was poised to lead global growth. In November 2015, Obama administration officials pulled together the largest free-trade deal in U.S. history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, linking 12 countries on the Pacific. China was not on the list.

But, significantly, the TPP has not gotten the congressional approval it needs, and Clinton, an architect of the trade deal while she was secretary of state, turned her back on it as a candidate for president.

A failure to enact TPP would represent a significant weakening of the pivot. Kurt M. Campbell, who pushed the policy while he served at Clinton’s State Department, called the trade deal the “true sine qua non” — or irreplaceable element — of America’s policy in Asia.

Other developments in Asia also raise questions about the success of Obama’s pivot. Although Obama had sought to use the policy to reassure Asian leaders that the United States was in Asia to stay, China appeared to have some success at prying some of America’s closest allies from Washington’s embrace. In early September 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, signaled a departure from his nation’s long-standing military reliance on the United States, directing his defense secretary to consider buying weapons from China and Russia and announcing that his navy would end joint patrols of the South China Sea with the U.S. Navy. Duterte’s shift came despite a ruling by a U.N. arbitration tribunal in The Hague that dismissed China’s claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - MAY 10: A large portrait of Kim Il Sung, the Eternal President is surrounded by thousands in a torch parade in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 10, 2016. The day was full of two patriotic parades marking the culmination of the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party which ended yesterday. The Party cemented Kim Jong Un's leadership and yesterday named him as Party Chairman. He attended today's dayside parade waving from a balcony to a roaring crowd of worshipers. This evening, a dance and torch parade complete with fireworks and 40,000 people dancing in uniform movement. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
A large portrait of former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung is surrounded by thousands in a torch parade in Pyongyang on May 10, 2016. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Then there’s North Korea, the one country in Asia where Obama did not pivot away from reliance on China. Throughout his two terms, Obama adopted a policy known as “strategic patience” in dealing with the isolated regime, which amounted to hoping that the North would either collapse or be forced into nuclear disarmament by China. Neither occurred. In fact, the pace of North Korean nuclear testing accelerated under the rule of Kim Jong Un.

After North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, Washington and Beijing exchanged accusations over who was to blame for North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. The reality, though, is that China has been far more committed to the stability of the North Korean regime than to its nuclear containment. Obama’s successor will inherit a looming crisis there and one that could very well challenge America’s position in Asia.

John Pomfret, a former correspondent for The Washington Post, is the author of the upcoming book “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” a history of U.S. relations with China.

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.

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.
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.

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First black governor since Reconstruction
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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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.
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
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Source: U.S. Elections Project analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data
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?

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
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
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,
of Americans approved of Obama’s efforts to stem terrorism.
Source: Washington Post-ABC News polls, 2011
Fear at home
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Your fight, your stories
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Room Three
Obama’s America
Illustrations by Thandiwe Tshabalala
Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

President Obama
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”
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
American reactions
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Your America
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Room Four
Obama and the World
Illustrations by Jasu Hu
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
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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
the country.
Air Force One miles
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Your worldview
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Room Five
The First Family
Illustrations by Erin K. Robinson
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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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,
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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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