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American President Essays: Barack Obama

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Barack Obama: Life in Brief

Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States—becoming the first African American to serve in that office—on January 20, 2009.

The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, Obama grew up in Hawaii. Leaving the state to attend college, he earned degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago, where he met and married Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in 1992. Their two daughters, Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha) were born in 1998 and 2001, respectively. Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996 and served there for eight years. In 2004, he was elected by a record majority to the U.S. Senate from Illinois and, in February 2007, announced his candidacy for President. After winning a closely fought contest against New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama handily defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee for President, in the general election.

When President Obama took office, he faced very significant challenges. The economy was officially in a recession, and the outgoing administration of George W. Bush had begun to implement a controversial "bail-out" package to try to help struggling financial institutions. In foreign affairs, the United States still had troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 During the first half of two years of his first term, President Obama was able to work with the Democratic-controlled Congress to improve the U.S. economy, pass health-care reform, and withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq. After the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the President spent significant time and political effort negotiating, for the most part unsuccessfully, with Congressional Republicans about taxes, budgets, and the deficit. After winning reelection in 2012, Obama began his second term focused on securing legislation on immigration reform and gun control. When the Republicans won the Senate in 2014, however, he refocused on actions that he could take unilaterally, invoking his executive authority as President. In foreign policy, Obama concentrated during the second term on the Middle East and climate change.

Barack Obama: Life Before the Presidency

Barack Hussein Obama II was born on August 4, 1961, in Hawaii. His parents, who met as students at the University of Hawaii, were Ann Dunham, a white American from Kansas, and Barack Obama, Sr., a black Kenyan studying in the United States. Obama's father left the family when Obama was two and, after further studies at Harvard University, returned to Kenya, where he died in an automobile accident nineteen years later. After his parents divorced, Obama's mother married another foreign student at the University of Hawaii, Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia. From age six through ten, Obama lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia, where he attended Catholic and Muslim schools. "I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a black child and as a white child," Obama later recalled. "And so what I benefited from is a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me."

Concerned for his education, Obama's mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, and to attend Hawaii's prestigious Punahou School from fifth grade through graduation from high school. While Obama was in school, she divorced Soetoro, returned to Hawaii to study cultural anthropology at the university, and then went back to Indonesia to do field research. Living with his grandparents, Obama was a good but not outstanding student at Punahou, played varsity basketball and, as he later admitted, "dabbled in drugs and alcohol," including marijuana and cocaine. As for religion, Obama later wrote, because his parents and grandparents were nonbelievers, "I was not raised in a religious household."

Obama's mother, who "to the end of her life [in 1995] would proudly proclaim herself an unreconstructed liberal," deeply admired the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and taught her son, he later wrote, that "To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear." But, as culturally diverse as Hawaii was, its African American population was miniscule. With no father or other family members to serve as role models (his relationship with his white grandfather was difficult), Obama later reflected, "I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant."

Obama left Hawaii for college, enrolling first at Occidental College in Los Angeles for his freshman and sophomore years, and then at Columbia University in New York City. He read deeply and widely about political and international affairs, graduating from Columbia with a political science major in 1983. After spending an additional year in New York as a researcher with Business International Group, a global business consulting firm, Obama accepted an offer to work as a community organizer in Chicago's largely poor and black South Side. As biographer David Mendell notes in his 2007 book Obama: From Promise to Power, the job gave Obama "his first deep immersion into the African American community he had longed to both understand and belong to."

Obama's main assignment as an organizer was to launch the church-funded Developing Communities Project and, in particular, to organize residents of Altgeld Gardens to pressure Chicago's city hall to improve conditions in the poorly maintained public housing project. His efforts met with some success, but he concluded that, faced with a complex city bureaucracy, "I just can't get things done here without a law degree." In 1988, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he excelled as a student, graduating magna cum laude and winning election as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review for the academic year 1990-1991. Although Obama was a liberal, he won the election by persuading the journal's outnumbered conservative staffers that he would treat their views fairly, which he is widely acknowledged to have done. As the first African American president in the long history of the law review, Obama drew widespread media attention and a contract from Random House to write a book about race relations. The book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), turned out to be mostly a personal memoir, focusing in particular on his struggle to come to terms with his identity as a black man raised by whites in the absence of his African father.

During a summer internship at Chicago's Sidley and Austin law firm after his first year at Harvard, Obama met Michelle Robinson, a South Side native and Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate who supervised his work at the firm. He wooed her ardently and, after a four-year courtship, they married in 1992. The Obamas settled in Chicago's racially integrated, middle-class Hyde Park neighborhood, where their first daughter, Malia Ann, was born in 1998 and their second daughter, Natasha (called Sasha), was born in 2001.

After directing Illinois Project Vote, a voter registration drive aimed at increasing black turnout in the 1992 election, Obama accepted positions as an attorney with the civil rights law firm of Miner, Barnhill and Galland and as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He launched his first campaign for political office in 1996 after his district's state senator, Alice Palmer, decided to run for Congress. With Palmer's support, Obama announced his candidacy to replace her in the Illinois legislature. When Palmer's congressional campaign faltered, she decided to run for reelection instead. But Obama refused to withdraw from the race, successfully challenged the validity of Palmer's voter petitions, and was easily elected after her name was kept off the ballot.

Obama's time in the legislature initially was frustrating. Republicans controlled the state senate, and many of his black Democratic colleagues resented the hardball tactics he had employed against Palmer. But he adapted, developing cordial personal relations with legislators of both parties and cultivating Senate Democratic leader Emil Jones, Jr., another African American senator from Chicago, as a mentor. Obama was able to get campaign finance reform and crime legislation enacted even when his party was in the minority, and after 2002, when the Democrats won control of the Senate, he became a leading legislator on a wide range of issues, passing nearly 300 bills aimed at helping children, old people, labor unions, and the poor.

Obama's one serious misstep during his early political career (he later called it "an ill-considered race" in which he got "spanked" by the voters) was a 2000 Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Representative Bobby Rush. Rush is a former Illinois Black Panther leader who subsequently entered mainstream politics as a Chicago alderman and was elected to Congress from the South Side's first congressional district in 1992. Obama was not nearly as well known as the popular Rush, and the combination of his unusual upbringing and his association with predominantly white elite universities such as Columbia, Harvard, and Chicago aroused doubts about his authenticity as a black man among the district's overwhelmingly African American voters. Obama suffered what he labeled "a drubbing," losing to Rush by a 30 percentage point margin.

Returning to the state senate, Obama began eyeing a 2004 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Peter Fitzgerald, an unpopular first-term Republican who decided not to run for reelection. In October 2002, as Congress was considering a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to launch a war to depose the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Obama spoke at an antiwar rally in Chicago. "I don't oppose all wars," he declared. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war." By speaking out against Bush's war policies, Obama set himself apart from the other leading candidates for the Democratic Senate nomination, as well as from most Senate Democrats with presidential ambitions, including Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and John Edwards of North Carolina. Obama's initially unpopular antiwar stance eventually worked to his political advantage as the war became increasingly unpopular with the passage of time.

Advised by political consultant David Axelrod, who had a strong record of helping black candidates win in majority-white constituencies, Obama assembled a coalition of African Americans and white liberals to win the Democratic Senate primary with 53 percent of the vote, more than all five of his opponents combined. He then moved toward the political center to wage his general election campaign against Republican nominee Jack Ryan, an attractive candidate who, after making hundreds of millions of dollars as an investor, had left the business world to teach in an inner-city Chicago school. But Ryan was forced to drop out of the race when scandalous details about his divorce were made public, and Obama coasted to an easy victory against Ryan's replacement on the ballot, black conservative Republican Alan Keyes. Obama won by the largest margin in the history of Senate elections in Illinois, 70 percent to 27 percent.

In addition to his election, the other highlight of 2004 for Obama was his wildly successful keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America," he declared. "There's a United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's a United States of America." Obama encapsulated his speech's themes of optimism and unity with the phrase, "the audacity of hope," which he borrowed from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright was the pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, a large and influential black congregation where Obama was baptized when he became a Christian in 1988. Obama also used the phrase as the title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), which became a national bestseller in the wake of his newfound national popularity. Describing his religious conversion, Obama wrote, "I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

Barack Obama: Campaigns and Elections

Obama's election to the Senate instantly made him the highest-ranking African American officeholder in the country and, along with the excitement generated by his convention speech and his books (Dreams from my Father, brought back into print, joined The Audacity of Hope on the bestseller list), placed him high on the roster of prospective Democratic presidential candidates in 2008. After spending a low-profile first year in office focusing on solidifying his base in Illinois and traveling abroad to buttress his foreign policy credentials as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama spent much of 2006 speaking to audiences around the country and mulling whether to run for President. According to annual National Journal evaluations of senators' legislative voting records, Obama ranked as the first, tenth, or sixteenth most liberal member of the Senate, depending on the year.

Obama announced his presidential candidacy on February 10, 2007, at a rally in front of the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln had given his famous "house divided" speech in 1858. Relying heavily on the Internet, the Obama campaign mobilized a massive grassroots organization of volunteers and donors. With Axelrod again at the helm, the campaign developed a strategy for winning the Democratic nomination that relied on assembling the same coalition of blacks and white liberals that had enabled him to succeed in Illinois, with an additional focus on young voters. Initially, however, Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton opened a strong lead in the polls, even among African American voters and leaders who admired her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and did not think Obama had much of a chance to win. Former Senator John Edwards, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004, was also widely regarded at the start of the campaign as a stronger candidate than the inexperienced Obama.

Drawing on his base of Internet supporters, Obama initially surprised political pundits by matching Clinton and besting Edwards in campaign fundraising throughout 2007. He became the co-frontrunner in the race by winning the crucial Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, defeating both Edwards and Clinton by an 8 percentage point margin. Clinton rebounded to win the New Hampshire primary five days later, edging out Obama by 3 points and crushing Edwards by 22 points. In the next important test, Obama opened up a narrow lead in the nomination contest by defeating Clinton handily in the South Carolina primary, 55 percent to 27 percent, on January 26. Black voters, convinced by the Iowa results that whites would vote for an African American candidate for President, gave him overwhelming support in South Carolina and in subsequent primaries. Edwards finished a distant third in the state where he was born, and dropped out of the race on January 30. Other contenders for the nomination, including Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, had already dropped out based on their poor showings in the early primaries and caucuses.

From February through early June, Obama and Clinton battled fiercely through the remaining primaries and caucuses. Overall, Clinton won twenty primaries to Obama's nineteen, including victories for the New York senator in most of the large states, notably California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Both candidates were bidding to become historic "firsts"—the first African American President or the first woman President.

But Obama had three crucial advantages that enabled him to eke out a narrow victory for the Democratic nomination. First, he was able to contrast his consistent opposition to the war in Iraq with Clinton's vote in 2002 to authorize the war before later turning against it. Second, although there was little difference between Clinton and Obama on the issues, Obama ran on a theme of change and Clinton on a theme of experience. In a year when the economy was steadily deteriorating, change was the more appealing theme, especially among Democratic voters. Third, while fighting Clinton in the thirty-nine primaries, Obama did not overlook the seventeen states and territories that, like Iowa, choose their national convention delegates through caucuses. He strongly out-organized Clinton in those contests, winning fourteen of seventeen caucuses. The delegates Obama won in the caucuses put him over the top. Clinton withdrew from the nominating contest on June 7.

As hard-fought as his victory was, Obama faced only one serious crisis during the entire nomination campaign. In early March, news organizations and websites showed video recordings of some controversial sermons by Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, including one in which Wright blamed the United States for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington and another in which he accused the federal government of "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." Obama largely defused the crisis by giving a speech in Philadelphia on March 18 repudiating Wright's statements and thoughtfully outlining his own views on race relations. But he faced continuing difficulties winning white working class votes against Clinton in the primaries, and some doubted that he could win their votes in the general election against the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Partly to expand his support among working-class whites, and partly to offset his own modest foreign policy credentials, Obama named Senator Biden as his vice presidential running mate on August 22, two days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Biden had grown up in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania, and during his thirty-six years as a senator from Delaware, had risen up the seniority ladder to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

In his acceptance speech on the last night of the convention, Obama outlined the issues of his general election campaign. Among other things, Obama promised to "cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families," "end our dependence on oil from the Middle East," "invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy," provide "affordable, accessible health care for every single American," close "corporate loopholes and tax havens that don't help American grow," "end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan," and allow "our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to visit the person they love in a hospital and live lives free of discrimination."

Obama left Denver on August 29 enjoying a small lead over McCain in the polls. But on that same day McCain stole Obama's thunder by selecting Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate. Palin balanced the Republican ticket in some obvious ways: young rather than old (Palin was forty-four, McCain was seventy-two), a woman rather than a man, a governor rather than a senator, and a social conservative rather than a national security conservative. At the same time, Palin's reform record in Alaska reinforced McCain's longstanding image as a political "maverick" who bucked the Washington establishment. Her rousing acceptance speech at the convention helped to propel the Republican ticket into a small lead over Obama and Biden in early September.

McCain maintained his narrow advantage in the polls until mid-September, when the nation's financial sector, heavily invested in risky mortgage-backed securities, went into a sudden tailspin. In the three nationally televised debates between the presidential candidates that took place from September 26 to October 15, Obama's demeanor of calm, confident, competence impressed voters who were looking for both reassurance that all would be well and a change in the nation's direction. By eschewing federal campaign funds, Obama was also able to outspend McCain substantially on media advertising and grassroots organizing. In addition, Biden impressed most voters as a much more qualified choice for vice president than Palin, whose unfamiliarity with national and international issues was revealed in a series of television interviews. And, much to his credit, McCain refused to revive concerns about Obama's long association with Reverend Wright for fear of inflaming racial tensions.

Obama was elected handily on November 4. He defeated McCain by 53 percent to 46 percent in the national popular vote. Exit polls revealed that the two candidates broke even among voters who had participated in the 2004 election. But Obama built his majority among first-time voters who surged to the polls in 2008, many of them young or African American. In the Electoral College, Obama prevailed by a margin of 365 to 173. While carrying all of the traditionally "blue" states in the Northeast, Pacific Coast, and Great Lakes region, Obama built his majority by winning previously "red" states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Colorado.

Election night inspired gracious oratory by both candidates. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," Obama told a cheering crowd of supporters, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." Conceding defeat, McCain said, "This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African Americans and the special pride that must be theirs tonight. We both realize that we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation's reputation."

Midterm Election of 2010

The Republicans pursued a strategy of consistent, strenuous opposition to most of President Obama's legislative initiatives. Politically, the strategy bore fruit in the 2010 midterm elections. As Democratic senator Al Franken of Minnesota said, "Their bumper sticker has one word: 'No.' Our bumper sticker has way too many words. And it says: 'Continued on the next bumper sticker.'" Looking at the stubbornly high unemployment rate, many voters refused to accept the President's argument that the Recovery Act had kept joblessness from rising even higher. Voters who were satisfied with their health insurance continued to worry that health care reform would increase the cost and reduce the quality of medical care. The Tea Party movement fueled a surge in turnout among Republican voters even as participation among Obama's core constituencies in 2008—young and African American voters—declined. On election day, the Republicans gained 6 seats in the Senate, reducing the Democrats' majority in that chamber from 18 (59 to 41) to 6 (53 to 47). The GOP added 63 seats in the House of Representatives, enough to gain control of the House by a 242 to 193 majority in the 112th Congress.

The certainty that divided government—a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and President—would prevail for the remainder of Obama's term persuaded the President and the leaders of both parties to act on a variety of important issues during the post-election "lame duck" session of Congress. With George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts set to expire on December 31, 2010, Obama put aside his opposition to continuing them for families with more than $250,000 in annual income and agreed to allow congressional Republicans to keep the cuts in place. In return, the GOP accepted President Obama's proposal to extend unemployment benefits for jobless workers, and both parties embraced a one-year reduction in social security taxes for everyone who pays them.

In addition, Congress and the President agreed to abolish President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy preventing openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military. Republicans, fearful that federal courts were about to order immediate integration of homosexuals into the armed services, were persuaded by General Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the military was prepared to accept the change if allowed to implement it gradually. The lame duck session also saw the Senate ratify the New START treaty to reduce nuclear arms between the United States and Russia by a 71 to 26 vote.

The 2012 Election

President Obama entered the 2012 election year with job approval ratings that were dangerously low (roughly 40 percent) and an unemployment rate that was dangerously high (more than 8 percent) for a President seeking reelection. But, like Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004, Obama benefited enormously from not having to fight for his party's nomination. Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George Bush in 1992 had to wage such battles, and each of them was defeated by his general election opponent in November. In contrast, Obama was able to use the first eight months of 2012 to raise money, rebuild his campaign organization, develop lines of attack on his likely Republican opponents, and launch his general election campaign from a united, enthusiastic Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Caroline, in September 2012. Following the pattern of reelection-seeking Presidents since the 1950s, Obama chose Vice President Biden to run with him for a second term.

While Obama was uniting his party for the fall, the Republicans were waging a fierce intraparty battle to choose their nominee. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the nomination, but was subjected to severe attacks by his Republican rivals. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney of having "looted" companies during his career as a business consultant and branded him a "vulture capitalist." Governor Rick Perry of Texas said that Romney had gotten rich by "sticking it to someone else." Former senator Rock Santorum of Pennsylvania, Representative Michelle Bachman of Minnesota, and businessman Herman Cain were among the other Republican contenders who battered Romney relentlessly for being insufficiently conservative. Romney won the nomination and placated conservatives by choosing the chair of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, as his vice presidential running mate in advance of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. But only then was he able to focus on raising money for the general election, move toward the more popular political center, and direct his campaign toward defeating Obama.

The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates to corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to spend massive amounts of money in an effort to elect either Obama or Romney, as well as in the congressional elections. By year's end about $1 billion each was spent by or on behalf of the two nominees for President, both of whom eschewed federal financing and the spending limits that accompanied that financing.

In a closely divided country, both Romney and Obama counted on winning about twenty states and fought the campaign in about ten "battleground" states. Some of them were large such as Florida and Ohio, and some of them were small such as New Hampshire and Iowa, but all of them were neither consistently "red" nor consistently "blue." Romney's best moment came in the first presidential debate, in which he came across as politically moderate and personally engaging. Obama, like many incumbents, turned in a rusty and therefore ineffective performance. But, chastened by his weak showing, Obama came back strongly in the second and the final debate and regained his lead over Romney. Toward the end of the campaign, the unemployment rate finally dipped below 8 percent, reinforcing Obama's claim that his economic policies had placed the nation on the road to prosperity. He also benefited from his response to Hurricane Sandy, a "super storm" that struck the Northeast in late October. Obama toured the devastated New Jersey shore with the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who praised the President for "springing into action immediately." In the election day exit poll, 15 percent of voters said that Obama's reaction to the hurricane was the most important factor in their decision, and 73 percent of them voted for the President.

Obama defeated Romney by 51 percent to 47 percent in the national popular vote and by 332 to 206 in the electoral vote. His margin of victory was down slightly from 2008, making him the first President since Woodrow Wilson to be reelected by a smaller majority than in his first election. Also disappointing to Obama was that the House of Representatives remained in Republican control, by a margin to 234 to 201. Obama—and Democrats generally—took heart from the party's success in the Senate elections. Even though twenty-three of their seats were on the ballot in 2012 compared with only ten for the Republicans, the Democrats actually gained two seats in the election, bringing their majority in the upper chamber to 55 to 45. Still more important for the long term, Obama ran best among those groups in the electorate that are growing most rapidly: young people, single people, nonreligious people, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Despite his victories, Obama began his second term with a very limited mandate. His campaign's one-word theme was content-free —Forward! —and most of his speeches and commercials during the election were devoted to tearing down Romney rather than offering a policy agenda for the second term. The one specific issue Obama did stress on the campaign trail —his continuing desire to raise taxes on wealthy Americans —bore fruit one month after the election, when Congress voted to raise taxes on households with annual incomes above $450,000. But he deemphasized other issues that were important to him but politically risky in an election campaign, including immigration reform, climate change, and gun control.

Midterm Election of 2014

The 2014 midterm election repeated the pattern of Obama’s first term: success in the presidential election followed by defeat two years later in the midterm election. As in 2010, voter turnout was considerably less in 2014 than it had been two years previously: 34 percent in 2014 (the lowest in a national election since 1942) compared with 58 percent in 2012. Because midterm electorates tend to have a higher concentration of the older and more conservative white voters who tend to favor Republican candidates, the Democrats were likely to suffer. Adding to their disadvantage in the Senate elections was that 21 of 36 seats on the ballot in 2014 were held by Democrats, seven of them in states that Obama had lost to Romney.

Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate elections, the largest gain for any party since 1980, and took away control of the chamber from the Democrats with a 54-46 majority. In elections to the House of Representatives, the GOP added 13 seats to their majority, increasing it to 247-188, the party’s largest House majority since 1928. The Republicans’ success extended to elections for state office. They added two to their ranks of governors, leaving them in control of the executive in 31 states. They also won majorities in ten additional state legislative chambers, leaving them with control of 67 of 99. These showings, too, were the GOP’s best since 1928.

The 2014 midterm election guaranteed that Obama spent the last two years of his presidency with a Republican Congress. According to Politico, on the morning after the election “he told his staff to take an hour to mope, then get back to work.” Signaling his intention going forward to rely strongly on his executive authority rather than seek legislation from Congress, he added: “We still run the largest organization on the planet, with the largest capacity to do good.”

Barack Obama: Domestic Affairs

Presidential Transition and Appointments

Since 1933, when the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved up the date of the President’s inauguration from March 4 to January 20, new Presidents-elect have had about eleven weeks to make the transition from candidate to President. Several important tasks must be accomplished in this period if the transition is to be successful. None is politically more important than appointing the White House staff and the cabinet. None is personally more important than preparing the new President's family for life in the White House.

During the summer of 2008, Obama appointed John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and former chief of staff in the Clinton White House to begin preparing for the transition that would occur if Obama won the election. In October, President George W. Bush appointed a transition team to work cooperatively with whichever candidate was elected. As a result, Obama was able to hit the deck running as soon as the results were in on November 4. Just two days later, Obama announced that Representative Rahm Emanuel of Chicago would be his chief of staff.

The Obama transition team announced further high-ranking White House staff appointments in short order, with most of them going to friends and personal loyalists of the new President. As senior advisers to the President, Obama appointed David Axelrod, his chief campaign adviser, Pete Rouse, his Senate chief of staff, and Valerie Jarrett, his longtime Chicago friend and supporter. Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary during his Senate and presidential campaigns, was chosen as White House press secretary, and Chris Liu, Obama's legislative assistant in the Senate, became cabinet secretary. Other important staff appointments went to: Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen (deputy chiefs of staff), Greg Craig (White House counsel), Ellen Moran (communications director), and Phil Schiliro (legislative liaison). Obama also named former Marine general James L. Jones as his national security adviser, former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council, and veteran congressional staffer Melody Barnes as his domestic policy adviser. Former Congressional Budget Office director Peter Orszag was appointed head of the Office of Management and Budget and Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress who had served in several administrations, was chosen as director of the Central Intelligence Agency director and retired Admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence.

In appointing the cabinet—that is, the heads of the fifteen executive departments—Obama relied in part on the "team-of-rivals" approach that presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin attributed to Abraham Lincoln in her 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Obama first appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, as secretary of state. Obama's nomination of another election rival, Bill Richardson, as secretary of commerce, foundered when Richardson subsequently withdrew because of a potentially embarrassing grand jury investigation into a state contract in New Mexico. Obama also included two Republicans in the cabinet, inviting Bush's secretary of defense, Robert Gates, to remain in that position, and appointing Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois as secretary of transportation. Other cabinet appointments went to: Timothy Geithner (treasury), Eric Holder (attorney general), Janet Napolitano (homeland security), Hilda Solis (labor), Shaun Donovan (housing and urban development), Steven Chu (energy), Arne Duncan (education), Ken Salazar (interior), Tom Vilsack (agriculture), Eric Shinseki (veterans affairs) and Kathleen Sebelius (health and human services).

After the midterm elections in 2010, as President Obama recovered from what he labeled the "shellacking" the Democrats received, he instituted personnel changes in his administration. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, resigned in October 2010 to return to Chicago to run for mayor. In January 2011, President Obama appointed William Daley to replace Emanuel. Daley, whose father and brother had both been mayor of Chicago, had worked on various Democratic campaigns, served in the Clinton administration, and been a banker on Wall Street. Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, resigned in February 2011 and was replaced by Jay Carney, a journalist who had served as Vice President Biden's director of communications. Similarly, Obama's senior adviser, David Axlerod, was replaced by David Plouffe, who managed the Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Financial Troubles

Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and Ronald Reagan in 1981, Obama had to address a major economic crisis as soon as he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. The nation's leading banks and other financial institutions were in serious danger of collapse. The economy had stopped growing and was hemorrhaging jobs, with the unemployment rate nearing 10 percent. Housing prices were in freefall, leading to numerous foreclosures.

Even before taking the oath of office, Obama had endorsed President George W. Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a $700-billion initiative to rescue the nation's major banks by lending enough money to keep them solvent. As President, Obama also directed some TARP funds to General Motors and Chrysler in an effort to keep the automobile industry from going bankrupt. TARP worked—all the banks and auto companies survived and by the end of 2009 they already had repaid the government more than $600 billion—but many voters perceived the program as a bailout for wealthy bankers and corporate executives.

Obama's first major recommendation to Congress was for an $800-billion economic stimulus package: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. About one-third of the money involved grants to state governments to keep them from laying off public employees or reducing unemployment compensation; about one-third went for bridges, highways, sewage treatment facilities, and other infrastructure projects; and the remaining third was for middle-class tax cuts. Although Obama hoped to pass the Recovery Act with bipartisan support, not a single Republican House member and only three Republican senators voted for it. Democratic control of Congress was strong enough to secure its passage, however, and President Obama signed the act into law on February 17, 2009.

Health Care Reform

Obama wanted to do more as President than put out fires. He also sought to enact a major reform of the nation's health care system. Health care reform had been a leading Democratic Party goal since the presidency of Harry S. Truman. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson had secured the enactment of Medicare for older Americans and Medicaid for the poor. The next two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, each failed to persuade Congress to pass legislation to guarantee health care coverage for everyone else. Although Obama had only promised during the election campaign to address this issue "by the end of my four-year term," he decided that his best chance of success was during his first year in office, when his popularity was likely to be at its highest.

Obama faced major hurdles in achieving health care legislation. Although Democrats in Congress were united in support of reform, they were divided about what form it should take, with some insisting that the federal government offer a "public-option" (that is, government-run) coverage plan and others urging that private coverage be extended to those who lacked it. More than three-fourths of Americans had private health insurance in some form, and despite the steeply rising costs of health care, many of them worried that changing the system might make their own situation worse, as well as adding to the federal budget deficit that the Recovery Act had already sent soaring to more than $1 trillion per year.

In the face of these obstacles, Obama resolved that any reform proposal would have to be budget-neutral—that is, save as much money as it spent. He accommodated the interests of the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, both of which had helped to sink President Clinton's health care bill through massive advertising and extensive lobbying. He invited Congress to share in developing the bill, in contrast to the secret process of legislative formulation that Clinton had employed.

These efforts alone were not enough to secure passage, especially when members of Congress encountered angry opposition to "Obamacare" from the newly formed, grassroots conservative Tea Party movement in a series of August 2009 town-hall meetings in their home states and districts. The President, frustrated that he was not getting through to the American people, decided to speak to the nation in a prime-time address to Congress on September 9, 2009.

"The plan I'm announcing tonight would meet three basic goals," Obama declared. "It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance to those who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government." Specifically, "individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance—just as most states require you to carry auto insurance. Likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the costs of their workers."Obama's argument was overshadowed to some degree when, in response to his declaration that the "claim . . . that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants . . . is false," Republican representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, "You lie!" from his seat in the House chamber. But the speech succeeded in arresting the months-long decline in public and congressional support for reform. In this altered political environment, the President launched a successful campaign to persuade members of Congress in face-to-face meetings. By year's end, both houses of Congress had passed different versions of health care reform legislation. On March 23, 2010, after some elaborate legislative wrangling to get the House to pass the Senate bill, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. One week later he signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which restored some of the House's preferred features.

Controversy over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) did not end when Congress enacted it. When Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, they began voting regularly to repeal it. When the party gained a majority of the Senate in 2014, that chamber joined their effort. In January 2016 Obama vetoed the first repeal bill that Congress sent him, only his eighth veto as President and arguably the most consequential. The ACA also mostly survived two serious legal challenges. In the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, the Supreme Court ruled by a narrow 5-4 majority that the law’s requirement that everyone obtain health insurance was constitutional, but a seven-justice majority overturned the additional requirement that states expand their Medicaid coverage. Three years later, the Court ruled 6-3 in King v. Burwell that the federal government’s new power under the law to provide tax subsidies for poor and middle-class people to buy health insurance whether the state they lived in created its own purchasing exchange or not was constitutional.

The ACA’s greatest problem was neither political nor legal. The launch of the program in 2013 was seriously botched when the website through which people were to buy insurance proved inadequate to the task. For months, nearly every news story about Obamacare concerned problems with its website. The problems eventually were fixed but the damage to the program’s public reputation lingered. Even as the number of the nation’s uninsured dropped steadily through the end of Obama’s second term, the American people remained deeply divided about the ACA.

Other Domestic Policy Initiatives

President Obama's other first-term domestic policy initiatives included the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program, which created a competition among states for $4.5 billion in extra funding tied to public school reforms authorizing more charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student learning. In 2010, Obama persuaded Congress to enact financial reform legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, designed to prevent economic meltdowns like the one he inherited when he took office.

The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election brought an end to Obama’s period of dramatic legislative accomplishment. He lacked the majority needed to pass bills through the House, and the Democratic majority in the Senate was not large enough to overcome Republican filibusters, which require a three-fifths vote to be brought to a close.

Budget Negotiations

Facing the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and an enlarged Republican minority in the Senate, President Obama spent much of 2011 and 2012 on the defensive. Most of 2011 was dominated by congressional Republicans' efforts to legislate massive cuts in domestic spending in order to bring down the annual trillion-dollar federal budget deficits. Democrats in Congress fiercely resisted these efforts, leaving the President caught in the middle. Obama shared the Republicans' goal of long-term deficit reduction, but worried that immediate reductions in federal spending would stifle the still struggling economic recovery. He also thought that any deficit reduction plan should include tax increases on high-income individuals and households, a policy he had pursued since announcing his candidacy for president in 2007.

During the summer of 2011, Obama secretly negotiated with the new Speaker of the House, Republican representative John Boehner of Ohio, to see if they could agree on a deficit reduction plan. In early August, the two leaders came close to an agreement that would impose $800 billion in tax increases and $3.2 trillion in spending reductions over a ten-year period. But when a small group of Republican and Democratic senators offered a deficit-reduction plan of their own that included $1.2 trillion of tax increases, Obama realized that he would lose the support of his party if he stuck with his and Boehner's agreement on the smaller amount. President Obama told Boehner he needed $400 billion more in taxes before he could agree to their deal, and the Republican leader, aware that most members of his party's caucus opposed any tax increases at all, broke off negotiations.

In lieu of the aborted $4 trillion deficit reduction agreement, Congress and the president settled on a more modest plan in which Congress would create a "super committee" of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, whose purpose was to identify $1.2 trillion in tax increases, spending cuts, or some combination of both by the end of 2012. If the committee failed to reach an agreement, then the plan stipulated that $1.2 trillion in spending cuts would automatically take effect, half in defense and half in domestic programs. The rationale was that the threat of "sequestration" would motivate Republicans who did not want to see the defense budget cut and Democrats who did not want certain domestic programs cut to pressure the super committee to reach an agreement. This did not happen. As political scientists David Lewis and Terry Moe have written, "the super committee failed miserably, and most of 2012 was then wasted as legislators looked toward the November elections and refused to bite the bullet on the deficit issue. "

Supreme Court and Other Judicial Appointments

Two vacancies occurred on the U.S. Supreme Court during Obama's first two years in office. David Souter retired in 2009, and John Paul Stevens retired in 2010. Both were liberal justices, and Obama nominated two liberals to replace them: federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee in history, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Senate Republicans did not strenuously resist either nomination because replacing liberals with liberals did not affect the Court's ideological balance. The Senate confirmed Sotomayor on August 6, 2009, by a vote of 68 to 31, and then it confirmed Kagan on August 5, 2010, by a vote of 63 to 37.

Because Obama’s two White House predecessors as President, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, each had only two vacancies to fill during their two terms, it seemed likely that Obama would have no further opportunities. But on February 13, 2016, Justice Antonin J. Scalia, a leader among the Court’s conservatives, unexpectedly died. About an hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that because Scalia’s seat had become vacant during an election year, the Senate would not even consider a nomination from Obama. “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” McConnell declared, arguing that “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice.” Historically, the Senate had often denied confirmation to nominees appointed in a President’s final year in office, but it had never refused even to review a nomination.

McConnell’s declaration did not deter Obama from nominating Merrick Garland, the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on March 16. Garland’s judicial record revealed him to be more conservative than many Democrats would prefer but more liberal than many conservatives found acceptable, especially since his addition to the Court would mean that a majority of justices had been chosen by Democratic Presidents. 

That majority already had been obtained at the federal appellate court level. Republican domination of the presidency for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 to 2009 had left the U.S. Courts of Appeals with a majority of Republican-appointed judges for nearly all of the two decades before Obama became president. In 2008, the final year of George W. Bush’s second term, 100 of 178 federal appellate judges were Republican appointees, compared with 66 Democratic appointees and 12 vacancies. As the end of Obama’s White House tenure approached in 2016, Democratic appointees outnumbered Republican appointees on the appellate courts by 94 to 76, with 10 vacancies. Obama had chosen 54 of them. Further, Democratic appointees outnumbered Republican appointees on nine of the thirteen federal courts of appeals.

The Start of the Second Term

As with most two-term administrations, the period between the election and the second inauguration saw numerous changes in the cabinet and White House staff. Of the four "inner cabinet" posts, the heads of all but the Justice Department (Attorney General Eric Holder) decided it was time to move on. Obama chose Massachusetts senator John F. Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, and White House chief of staff Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury. Deputy national security adviser Dennis McDonough took Lew's place as chief of staff, and White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan was named as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan and Hagel faced sharp questioning in their Senate committee hearings, but the other nominees—for these posts and others, including secretary of labor and secretary of energy—sailed through the confirmation process largely unscathed.

Obama's second Inaugural Address, delivered on January 20, 2013, was traditional in some ways and innovative in others. Like most such addresses, he struck unifying themes grounded in the American experience. He opened the speech, for example, by quoting the Declaration of Independence's statement that "all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." But as the address unfolded, Obama became more specific than has been customary on such occasions. Among the issues he raised were climate change, same-sex marriage, and health care reform. The unifying theme of the address was that policies such as these would help to fulfill the ideals stated in the Declaration.

In his February 12, 2013, State of the Union address, Obama elaborated on the agenda that he offered at the inauguration, while adding to the list calls for greater federal support for early childhood education, immigration reform to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an increase in the minimum wage, and new gun control legislation. The last of these issues had taken on special urgency after December 14, 2012, when a young gunman shot and killed twenty school children and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As in the past Congressional Republicans, along with Democrats from pro-gun states, thwarted passage of any gun control legislation.

Obama also called on Congress to avoid the $85 billion of across-the-board cuts in the federal budget—half in defense and half in domestic programs—that were scheduled to take place automatically on March 1, 2013, if legislators could not agree on another plan for achieving deficit reduction. The scheduled automatic cuts were a consequence of the decision Congress made in August 2011 to achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten-year period through “sequestration” if no other method could be agreed on. Obama wanted Congress to forestall the scheduled sequester by raising taxes and making targeted cuts in spending. Sequestration took effect on March 1 as scheduled. In October 2013, the government shut down for two weeks when Congress and the President were unable to agree on a budget. Later that year, a compromise agreement was reached that suspended sequestration for the next foreseeable future. The combination of revived economic growth and budgetary austerity brought the annual federal budget deficit down from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $0.4 trillion in 2015.

Congressional Republicans were loath to do nearly all of what the President wanted. An important partial exception was immigration reform, which many Republicans were open to—not because of Obama, but because their dismal performance in the election among Latino voters made them want to repair their image as an anti-immigrant party. In 2013, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act—an immigration reform bill creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—by a vote of 68 to 32. The bill died when Republican conservatives in the House, responding to grassroots anti-immigration pressure from the Tea Party movement, refused to bring it to the floor.

Executive Action

Congressional Republican resistance to Obama’s legislative agenda led him to rely increasingly on executive orders, regulations, vetoes, and other unilateral actions during his second term. In the area of domestic policy, these included:

  • Issuing the Climate Action Plan, which resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency ordering such severe reductions in carbon emissions from power plants as to reduce the nation’s coal plant capacity by nearly one-third.
  • Vetoing a bill passed by Congress to authorize construction of the 1000 mile long Keystone XL Pipeline that would have connected Canada’s oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $10.10 per hour.
  • Requiring background checks for purchasers of guns at gun shows.
  • Issuing an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014, Obama publicly celebrated the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision granting marriage rights to same sex couples. He called to congratulate the plaintiffs and had the exterior of the White House lit with rainbow colors.
  • Creating MyRa’s to help Americans without pensions to save for retirement.
  • Cracking down on for-profit colleges whose former students have high levels of student loan debt and low incomes.
  • Commuting the sentences of 248 (as of April 1, 2016) drug and firearms offenders in federal prison, more than his six predecessors combined after declaring his interest in doing so in 2014 for prisoners serving “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes.

Later Appointments

Obama’s second term drew near its close, he had additional vacancies to fill in the cabinet.  Most important, in 2015 Ash Carter replaced Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and Loretta Lynch replaced Eric Holder as attorney general. Sylvia Burwell moved from Office of Management and Budget director to secretary of health and human services in 2014, and Shaun Donovan moved from housing and urban development secretary to replace Burwell at OMB. Of Obama’s original cabinet, only Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack remained in place in 2016, and among the president’s senior advisers on the White House staff only Valerie Jarrett remained.

Barack Obama: Foreign Affairs

In addition to inheriting an economy in severe recession when he took office, President Obama inherited two wars, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. A long time opponent of President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Obama promised during the 2008 election campaign to withdraw American troops as soon as possible. In February 2009, he announced a plan to bring troop levels down from 160,000 to 50,000 by August 2010, including the removal of all combat forces. The remaining troops, he added, would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. For several years, the withdrawal proceeded smoothly, in part because Obama was able to build on the gains achieved by Bush's “surge” of 20,000 additional troops in 2007, which had helped the government of Iraq to restore a measure of stability to the country. By 2012, only 150 American troops were in Iraq, a number that remained level for about three years.

Obama's other war-related campaign promise was to step up the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan in order to keep the extremist Taliban from regaining power and allowing al Qaeda once again to use the country as a base of terrorist operations against the United States and its allies. Soon after taking office, Obama granted the military's request, initially made at the end of the Bush presidency, to send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, raising the American military presence there to about 60,000.

As the year unfolded, however, Obama became convinced that a change in military strategy was needed so that the government of Afghanistan eventually would be able to defeat the Taliban on its own. In June, he appointed a new military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, and asked him to recommend a new course of action. McChrystal requested 40,000 more troops and promised to deploy them to train Afghani forces to fight the Taliban instead of relying on American might. After an extended series of meetings beginning in September, Obama announced in a speech on December 1, 2009, at West Point that he had approved a short-term surge of 33,000 troops with a proviso that American forces must begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011. Although the President soon fired McChrystal for making disparaging remarks about members of the administration, he replaced him with General David Petraeus, who had developed and implemented the successful surge in Iraq that inspired McChrystal's new strategy for Afghanistan.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Congressional Republicans were much more interested in domestic policy than foreign policy, which allowed President Obama to proceed on course to a complete disengagement of U.S. forces, at least in terms of active combat, from Afghanistan by 2014. The number of American troops in Afghanistan, which peaked at 97,000 in 2011, declined steadily to about 12,000 in 2015 before leveling off at that figure as the President reluctantly acknowledged that the campaign to defeat the Taliban was not yet won. Buttressing Obama's credentials on military matters was the May 2, 2011, killing of al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, by a team of Navy SEALS. Intelligence agencies had concluded that bin Laden was probably hiding in a residential compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Lacking certainty on the matter, and realizing the risks attending a military strike, Obama nonetheless ordered the attack. In celebrating bin Laden's death, Americans applauded the President's decisiveness and judgment.

Even after United States soldiers killed bin Laden in May 2011 and began disengaging from Iraq and Afghanistan, the President expanded the strategic deployment of special forces and drones in a “secret war” against suspected terrorists. Moreover, the White House joined with NATO to end the reign of Libyan dictator, Colonel Muamar el-Qaddafi, arguing that the War Powers Resolution, which requires the President to report to Congress when he deploys American forces, did not apply because a state of “hostilities” did not exist. Obama and his national security team claimed that the weakening of al Qaeda, including the killing of bin Laden and the overthrow of Qaddafi, were accomplished with a new approach to war that relies on multinational rather than unilateral action and surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments.

Executive action continued after Obama’s reelection in 2012. During the first year of his second term, the President seemed determined to take the United States off a “perpetual war footing.” Sensing the country’s war fatigue and noting resistance from both Democrats and Republicans to additional commitments in the Middle East, the President decided not to launch missile strikes in Syria in support of rebels fighting the autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad, even though the brutal dictator had crossed Obama’s stated “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians. Calling off a planned air attack on Syria at virtually the last minute, Obama decided to refer the matter to Congress, which had little interest in endorsing his proposed course. A few days later, Obama accepted Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s offer to persuade Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons. 

With the dramatic rise of a radical group that declared itself the Islamic State during the fall of 2014, however, forbearance gave way to a muscular new course in the Middle East. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was a former al Qaeda affiliate that took advantage of the civil war in Syria and the lassitude of the Iraq government to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq–Syria border.

As the President acknowledged, his administration underestimated the danger of ISIS’s incursions into Syria and Iraq; indeed, Obama initially dismissed these fighters as a “Jayvee team.” But the steady advance of the self-proclaimed Caliphate and the powerful public reaction to ISIS’s release of videos that graphically showed the beheading of two American journalists spurred the President to action. In a September 10, 2014, speech to the nation, Obama announced a plan to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” Two weeks later, soon after ordering air strikes on dozens of ISIS targets in Syria, the President issued an even more militant call to arms against the self-described Islamic State in an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The number of American troops in Iraq with a mission to help fight ISIS rose to more than 3,500 by June 2015.

Although the air strikes on Syria had strong bipartisan support, constitutional and partisan issues lurked just beneath the surface. In his speech to the nation, Obama said he “welcomed congressional support for this effort,” yet insisted he had “the authority to address the threat from ISIL.” That authority, he claimed, resided in the resolution Congress passed in 2001 authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force against those “who planned, authorized, committed or aided” in the September 11 attacks. The White House argued that the resolution covered a war on ISIL because the terrorist organization is “the true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy—notwithstanding the recent public split between al Qaeda’s senior leadership and ISIL.” 

The President took pains to ensure that the battle against ISIS would be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because it “would not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” Yet the military action involved not just “a systematic campaign of airstrikes” but the deployment of an additional 475 troops, in addition to the 1,200 already there, “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” Notwithstanding the strong public sentiment to strike back against ISIL’s atrocities, the failure of Congress to place limits on a new Middle East mission renewed concerns about executive power.

Obama’s foreign policy goals extended beyond the wars he inherited or that broke out while he was in office. At the start of his second term in 2013, he and the leaders of five other nations began negotiations with Iran that resulted in a 2015 agreement designed to prevent that country from developing nuclear weapons for at least a decade in return for removing economic sanctions. He restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014 for the first time in more than a half century and visited the country in 2016. In 2014, Obama reached a bilateral climate agreement in which China and the United States agreed to substantially reduce carbon emissions. That agreement laid the foundation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015, at which nearly every country in the world agreed to monitor its emissions and develop a plan to reduce them.

Barack Obama: Family Life

When Barack Obama celebrates America's racial and cultural diversity, he speaks from a lifetime of personal experience. In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote: "As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half-Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I've never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe."

Obama's wife, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, was born on January 17, 1964. Their first daughter, Malia Ann, was born on July 4, 1998, and their second daughter, Natasha, known as Sasha, was born on June 10, 2001. All three were born in Chicago and, until moving to Washington on January 5, 2009, two months after Barack Obama was elected President, they had spent almost their entire lives there. The Obamas chose to send their daughters to Sidwell Friends School, Sasha as a second-grader at the school's Bethesda, Maryland, elementary school campus and Malia as a fifth-grader at its middle school campus in Washington. The Obamas were accompanied to Washington by Michelle's mother, Marian Shields Robinson, whom they invited to live with them in the White House. Robinson is the only surviving parent of either Barack or Michelle Obama. Other close family members include Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, and Barack Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro Ng. Ng was born in 1970 in Indonesia, the daughter of Obama's mother and her second husband, Lolo Soetoro. Growing up, Barack Obama's family influenced his values in ways that later shaped his political philosophy. "Empathy is at the heart of my moral code ... ," he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes. Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother." As a result, Obama is "angry about policies that consistently favor the wealthy and powerful over average Americans, and insist[s] that government has an important role in opening up opportunity to all."

Proud Democrat that he is, however, Obama is critical of his party's reflexive liberalism. "In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived," he wrote, "we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who claim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to attack pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism." Interestingly, in The Audacity of Hope, the figures he praised most, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, were Republican icons: Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan, not Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Bill Clinton.

During his final year as President, Obama consulted with a wide range of formal and informal advisers about life after the presidency, which will begin on January 20, 2017, when he is still just 55 years old. In March 2016, Obama said that he and his family would remain in Washington at least until Sasha finishes high school in 2019. In May 2016, the White House announced Malia’s decision to attend Harvard University starting in the fall of 2017 after she takes a gap year between graduating from high school and starting college.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Michael Nelson

Professor Nelson is the Fulmer Professor Political Science at Rhodes College, a senior fellow of the Miller Center, and the senior contributing editor and book editor of the Cook Political Report. He is the author of multiple books on American politics and government, including:

Resilient America: Electing Nixon in 1968, Channeling Dissent, and Dividing Government (University Press of Kansas), which won the American Political Science Association’s Richard E. Neustadt Award for Best Book on the Presidency published in 2014

How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation (LSU Press), which won the Southern Political Science Association’s V.O. Key Award for Outstanding Book on Southern Politics published in 2006