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 Commander in Chief

He’s commander in chief, so how does he understand war?

Barack Obama’s wartime policies and actions are among the things he may be criticized most soundly for during his presidency.
Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, and Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon adviser under President Obama, discuss whether Obama’s use of force has been successful. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Obama’s weak words of war

Eliot A. Cohen, a former member of the George W. Bush administration, is the author of “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.” He teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

Barack Obama may not have envisioned himself as a wartime commander in chief in 2008, but that is what he inevitably became — as was his predecessor, as will be his successor. He will be faulted for many things in this role, no doubt, but one of the weightiest criticisms is, on its surface, the least probable for this rhetorically gifted man: his failures of speech.

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking to military personnel at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, April 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Obama speaks to military personnel at Camp Victory in Baghdad in April 2007. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

A wartime political leader has to do many things — order operations, approve plans, appoint and dismiss generals. Obama has done all of these things, some difficult (deciding to relieve Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in Afghanistan), others perhaps less so (ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden). But he or she must also speak — clearly and persuasively — to foreign populations and domestic legislators, to the troops, to allied leaders, even to implacable enemies.

Obama has not explained to the American people, and certainly not at any length, the reasons he has continued the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than bringing them to an end as he had promised. He has declared wars won (against al-Qaeda) when they were anything but. He has dismissed those who disagree with him on questions about the use of force as either warmongers or hopelessly naive. He has painted the picture of a future without nuclear weapons while the arsenals of hostile nuclear powers have grown.

The president has dismissed as folly the notion of arming Syrian rebels — before arming them — and diagnosed a quagmire for Russia in the Middle East when, in fact, it is extending its power and reach. He has conducted the most extensive campaign of assassination (targeted killing, if one prefers) in the history of war, without adequately making the difficult case for it, even as he has suggested that Americans’ fears of terrorism are vastly overblown.

Absence of speech, vain speech, erroneous speech — what explains it? Obama is, after all, no pacifist, and he is not squeamish. Someone who has ordered the third Iraq war in a quarter-century, a profusion of drone strikes and commando raids, intervention in Libya, an upgraded presence in Europe and provocative (but necessary) naval patrols in the South China Sea is hardly squeamish.

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He has been crippled in part by his repugnance for the role. The dark secret of many successful wartime leaders is that, in some ways, they enjoy it: They like the company of soldiers; they are braced by the challenges of exercising power; they even seek some measure of martial glory. To many of us, that zest for the conduct of war is repulsive, but it is part of what lured Abraham Lincoln to the front lines and Franklin Roosevelt to his map room; it is what kept Winston Churchill growling from the rooftop of the prime minister’s residence during the bombing of London.

For Obama, on the other hand, the orchestration of armed force is utterly inglorious. The men and women who wage war on behalf of the United States merit respect and, indeed, admiration, but perhaps more so solicitude and even pity. In the game of international politics, he seems to disdain the challenges of a cold-eyed realpolitiker like Vladimir Putin, thinking of the Russian leader’s version of “Game of Thrones” as a distasteful and absurd activity, ultimately as unimportant as it is unpleasant.

In this photo provided by the United Nations on Monday, Sept. 27, 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin toast during a luncheon hosted during the 70th annual United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. (Amanda Voisard/United Nations via AP)
Obama and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin toast at a luncheon during the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015. (Amanda Voisard/United Nations via Associated Press)

For Obama, it’s more about the G-20 than NATO, more about domestic societal reforms than the contest for international power or the struggle against an implacable foe. Libya, Ukraine and Syria are ugly distractions from the business of building a more perfect republic at home.

Arrogance is the other, and deeper, reason for Obama’s failed speech as commander in chief. In the now notorious interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, he makes clear his contempt for opinions, with regard to national security, other than his own and those of a few subordinates. He is right, self-evidently and obviously, and if others are too obtuse or malicious to understand, so much the worse for them. No need to persuade or explain.

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Elections have consequences, after all, and he won two decisively, and would win a third against any conceivable challenger, or so he believes. Worse yet, arrogance leads to misjudgment of others. The world of war yields constant surprises — we now learn that bin Laden, for example, was not, as was claimed shortly after his death, out of touch with his subordinates and dejected about Arab politics. Iran is not particularly interested in cooperation with the United States in the Middle East. Iraq was not in adequate shape to be left to its own devices. But if you are convinced that you know better than foreign leaders, domestic rivals and experts of every type, always have and always will, what is the point of talk?

Now more than ever, we need a president who can speak to the American people about national security — someone who can explain the generational conflict with jihadis; the dangers a revanchist Russia poses in Europe; the no-less-fraught rise of Chinese military power and claims in Asia; why we should care about a Middle East whose violence never stays contained there; why we have to continue to fight the Taliban; why our alliances matter, to include the commitment to wage war. The old consensus on the use of military force is crumbling; we need someone to rebuild it and that can only be done by someone eloquently talking us through the complexity. It’s a pity that for the last eight years a more-than-usually-fluent president has failed to do so.

In this image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to diffuse the paper in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, Sunday, May 1, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza)
Obama, along with Vice President Biden, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team, receives an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. (Pete Souza/White House via Associated Press)

The long game vs. the long war

Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, is counselor and senior adviser for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. His book, “The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World,” will be published this month.

Although he never saw battle or served in uniform, Barack Obama entered the White House with bold ambitions for what he wanted to achieve as commander in chief.

Instead of thinking about the U.S. role in the world in terms of military might alone — what in the post-9/11 years became known as fighting the “long war” — Obama sought to forge a grand strategy that reflects the totality of American interests and to project global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources. This is playing the “long game.”

Obama sees war for what it is: often necessary, but always tragic. In his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, which remains Obama’s most important statement on the use of force, he made clear that the “instruments of war” are indispensable to the preservation of peace. He is willing to pull the trigger — think the Afghanistan surge in 2009, the bin Laden raid, hundreds of counterterrorism operations with drones or special operations forces, or the nearly 10,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since 2014. But at the same time, Obama often said privately that he did not want “killing people” to be his only lasting legacy.

At the core of moving from the long war to the long game is how one defines strength. Obama is frustrated that in the minds of many, military might is seen as the only meaningful metric of strength and leadership. He believes that too often the Washington debate defines strength simply as bold action with military might, and acting in the name of being “tough.” As Obama explained in a news conference late last year: “American strength and American exceptionalism is not just a matter of us bombing somebody.”

Obama’s effort to recalibrate the instruments of American power has led to tensions with some military leaders; the intense debates over the surge in Afghanistan and the pace of the withdrawal in Iraq (and later, what to do about Libya and Syria) strained these relationships even further. But while they could be volatile, they were hardly broken. In fact, as I saw first-hand, Obama’s relationships with his military leaders were for the most part strong and, with many of them, personally warm. He and his closest advisers took great care to tend to civil-military relations. And during the course of his presidency, Obama forged close bonds with his top military commanders, especially those such as Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 through 2015, who was perceived by the White House as an astute straight shooter.

Yet there is a natural tension between what the military demands in resources and what political leaders are ready to provide. There is also a fine line between civilians asking questions for greater specificity about military planning or fine-tuning options (to ensure they do not extend beyond the stated goals), and meddling in military decision-making. Obama appreciated the fundamental difference of perspectives, often saying that he understood why military commanders asked for the resources they did, but that his job was to consider such requests in the overall context of other interests, competing priorities and the trade-offs between them.

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WEST POINT, NY - DECEMBER 01:  Cadets stand for the national anthem before a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point December 1, 2009 in West Point, New York.  President Obama is set to deliver a crucial speech at the renowned military academy today, during which he will outline his plan to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan over the next six months, before transitioning forces out of the country beginning in 2012.  (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Cadets at West Point gather in December 2009 for a speech by Obama, in which he outlined his plan to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Sometimes the heat of debate would cause these differences to boil over. The second Afghanistan policy review in 2009 is an example. Numerous press leaks about the troop numbers Pentagon leaders were requesting caused frustrations in the White House that the military was “jamming” the president by raising the costs for him of “rejecting” their advice and, in effect, reducing his options (Obama certainly believed this to be the case). Intentional or not, such leaks accentuated these inherent tensions, leading to the impression that civil-military relations were more troubled than they actually were. Yet this was hardly the same kind of bitter struggle that plagued the George W. Bush administration, when the epic “generals’ revolt” over the direction of the Iraq war exploded in public in 2006, a factor that ultimately led to the dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The key premise behind Obama’s shift from the long war to the long game was simple common sense: Even when America is most powerful, there are constraints on what it can do. And that’s why it cannot overextend itself, especially militarily.

This sense of restraint is difficult to communicate without being criticized for being defeatist or for denying America’s inherent greatness. Obama often rejected the criticism that acknowledging limits was somehow new.

One of Obama’s fundamental challenges as commander in chief was being forced to conduct a long-game strategy in a political and policy ecosystem that increasingly has come to resemble a reality television show with all the characteristics of professional wrestling: This new dynamic rewards over-the-top rhetoric and concocted drama instead of results that can be truly appreciated only with time.

When describing America’s role in the world, Obama has often pledged that the “tide of war is receding.” He has also frequently declared the war in Iraq as over and committed to bring the U.S. military role in Afghanistan to an end. So as American military forces returned to Iraq in 2014 and intensive U.S. airstrikes continued, many argued that Obama had finally been mugged by reality.

Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 20, 2014. The United States told Turkey that a U.S. military air-drop of arms to Syrian Kurds battling Islamic State near the Syrian town of Kobani was a response to a crisis situation and did not represent a change in U.S. policy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.     REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (TURKEY  - Tags: MILITARY CONFLICT POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)   - RTR4AUYL
Smoke and flames rise over Kobani, Syria, after an airstrike in October 2014. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Considering the scope and scale of America’s current military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, it is true the tide of war is still with us. In retrospect, some of Obama’s declarative rhetoric suggested starker conclusions than actually existed. Each day, thousands of U.S. military personnel take the fight to the Islamic State, whether by conducting direct military action or by supporting partners and allies on the ground, often at great risk. Given that Obama’s strategy is premised on sustainability and patience, this battle will be conducted far into the future. He has always been clear about that fact.

This is where Obama as commander in chief is misunderstood — and, by some, purposely misportrayed. He has never believed in complete U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East or renounced the importance of military power. In words and actions, Obama has made clear his commitment to America’s interests and partners in the region, and to defeating the Islamic State. But he is equally determined not to ruin the country in the process or let the problems of the Middle East become the singular obsession of American foreign policy. In this sense, while Obama remains a president at war, he is not a “war president,” in which all other aspects of his foreign policy are subsumed by his use of military force.

When explaining his decisions to use force, Obama explicitly stresses the attributes of balance, precision and sustainability, explaining his choices in the context of addressing other priorities at home and abroad. Obama is fond of quoting Eisenhower’s adage about national security decisions, saying that “each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

This weighing of ends and means, calibrating an approach within the context of the totality of American interests, is the essence of grand strategy. The military aspects could not be open-ended or considered in isolation. For Obama, the key is not to allow the long war to return as the organizing principle for America in the world, causing everything else — our other interests, our values, our resource decisions — to be swallowed up. This fight must always be waged in the context of the long game.

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.

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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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Room Two
Commander in Chief
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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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We won some good fights and we lost the war.

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Room Three
Obama’s America
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Eight turbulent years
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Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction.

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Room Four
Obama and the World
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Determined restraint
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For Muslims, unanswered prayers
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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
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Design and development
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Illustrations
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  • 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
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Research and graphics
  • Darla Cameron
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