President Barack Obama: The First Draft of HistoryNews at Home
tags: Barack Obama, presidents, book excerpts, biography, presidential history, The American President, Kathryn Moore
The following is excerpted from The American President by Kathryn Moore, published by Barnes & Noble Books in 2013 (678 pages, $19.95). It covers the life of Barack H. Obama and his presidency through his election to a second term in 2012. For more information, go to: TheAmericanPresident.US.
President Barack Obama on December 6, 2012. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Table of Contents
The United States economy was in precarious shape and the American people had grown weary of war. So when the Democratic candidate campaigned repeatedly for “Hope and change,” the people listened. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American elected to the presidency, and the nation anxiously waited to see how this relatively young man would handle the serious issues before him.
Barack Obama Sr. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Barack Obama’s background was decidedly unique for a president. His mother Ann Dunham had grown up in a middle-class home, the daughter of Stanley and Madelyn Dunham of Kansas. The couple had eloped just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and after Stanley’s war service, they returned to Kansas but later moved to Texas, California, and Seattle where Stanley worked in the furniture business. Following Ann’s graduation in Seattle, Stanley learned of a new furniture store opening in Hawaii, and the thought of going there on the eve of its statehood greatly appealed to him. So the three made the move.
Once in Hawaii, Ann began attending the University of Hawaii where the shy eighteen-year-old soon made a friend in the school’s first African student, Barack Obama. The Dunhams had long considered themselves liberal in their attitude towards race. In fact, their grandson later speculated that was their prime reason for leaving Texas, where Ann had been harassed by children for playing with a black girl. Now her parents encouraged Ann to bring home this young man so that they could meet him.
Barack Obama, Sr. was a native of Kenya. Madelyn Dunham later said that one of his attributes had been a “voice like black velvet ... with a British accent.” (1) Obama was a member of the Luo tribe and had grown up on his family’s farm. His academic prowess brought him recognition and opportunity. After attending a school in Nairobi and studying in London, he traveled to the University of Hawaii in 1959 to study econometrics. By this time, he was married and had a wife and child who remained in Kenya. He told Ann of his other family but assured her they were divorced. She later found this to be untrue.
Late in 1960, the couple was married. Then on August 4, 1961, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. was born. Soon afterward, Barack Sr. received news of a Harvard scholarship. Even though the financial arrangement did not include taking his new family, that didn’t stop Barack Sr. from leaving Hawaii, Ann, and his son behind. Once it became clear that this situation was not temporary, Ann divorced Barack Sr., who ultimately moved to his native Kenya with another American wife who bore him two children.
Ann’s next husband was another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro of Indonesia. In 1967, Lolo, Ann, and her six-year-old son began their life together in his homeland. Barack embraced his new free life of running and playing with other children, but at school there were rules, and misbehavior meant feeling the sting of the teacher’s bamboo stick. He later wrote of his new diet that included dog, snake, and grasshoppers. He also recalled the poverty of the people and the sight of his mother attempting to give money to beggars, only to see that there were always more than she had money. Lolo taught the boy some boxing, but mainly Barack remembered his stepfather’s life lessons: “Men take advantage of weakness in other men. ... Better to be strong. If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.” (2)
A sister, Maya, was born to the family, but by this time, tension began to grow between Ann and Lolo. Obama attended an Islamic school in Indonesia while having daily English lessons with his mother. She also reminded the boy of his African American heritage and shared inspirational stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. Ann grew increasingly worried, however that her son’s future would be seriously impaired the longer he remained away from the United States. By 1971, preparations were made for Barack to return to Hawaii and live with his grandparents. It was time he went home.
Barack Obama with his grandfather, mother, and half-sister in Hawaii. Credit: Wiki Commons.
In Hawaii, Barack’s grandparents, whom he called “Gramps” and “Toots,” became his surrogate parents. He moved into their apartment and soon found himself enrolled in the prestigious Punahou Academy. Barry, his nickname used by friends and family, at first stood out among the other fifth graders who wore stylish clothes and lived in nice homes. Obama could boast neither. His grandfather struggled to earn a living as an insurance agent while his grandmother had steadily worked her way up the ladder at a local bank from secretary to vice president, the first woman to do so in Honolulu.
Although the ten-year-old Barack was not familiar with American sports like football, he soon learned and made friends. That Christmas, two visitors stayed for a month -- his mother from Indonesia and his father from Africa. Years later, Barack admitted that he did not vividly recall what they said during their time together, just a collection of images remained in his memory. Barack Sr., however, did criticize the grandparents and Ann for not pushing Barry harder and making him study more. It was only near the end of the visit when the two generations of Obama men took time to bridge their gap. Barack Sr. turned on African music and taught his son some tribal dances. It was the only time during Barry’s life that he felt any real connection to his father and it was over all too soon. In an interview decades later, Obama admitted that his personal drive originated from his father, a man who he barely knew but spent years trying to measure up to: “Every man is trying to live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his mistakes. In my case, both things might be true.” (3)
By the time Barack was in high school, his mother had separated from his stepfather Lolo and returned to Hawaii with her daughter Maya. Ann re-enrolled at the University of Hawaii to pursue postgraduate studies in anthropology, and her now teenage son joined them. Barry made satisfactory grades and also enjoyed just lounging on the beach or surfing. He also found himself drawn to basketball, and spent hours at the courts near his grandparents’ apartment or at school. He later admitted that his passion exceeded his skill, yet he spent hours playing. When Ann decided to return to Indonesia to do her fieldwork, she wanted both of her children to accompany her. Obama, however, balked at leaving his free and fun lifestyle behind, so she relented and agreed that he could resume living with his grandparents.
Obama later wrote of his angst in his adolescence growing up biracial and without a father. He began making attempts to come to terms with his racial heritage. He immersed himself in black literature: W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin became his nightly companions, rather than the homework that sat unfinished. The work that Barack found the most comfort in was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Obama later wrote that “[Malcolm’s] repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.” (4)
Barack Obama at Occidental College in 1980.
By his senior year, Ann had returned and found her son floundering. His grades had dropped, he was experimenting with drugs, drinking, and smoking, and showed no interest in college or a future. Ann pushed her son to apply to colleges, and ultimately he received a full scholarship to Occidental College in Pasadena, California.
Obama’s freewheeling lifestyle continued in California, and there he met more people with the same interests. He later wrote that he carefully chose his friends and joined leftist political groups in order to avoid being mistaken as a “sellout.” Obama became known for his activism. He pushed to have representatives of the African National Congress visit Occidental and was the first speaker at a rally to protest Occidental’s refusal to oppose South African apartheid. Here, Obama experienced his first thrill giving a political speech.
In 1981, Barack decided to transfer to Columbia University to study political science and international relations. Switching colleges was a transition but the change to the milieu of New York City was amazing to the twenty-year-old. Still, the young man chose to resist much of the allure of the city that never sleeps and instead attended classes and read ravenously. He referred to this period as leading a monk-like existence and initiated a daily fitness routine, which included running several miles. This new emphasis continued, and friends could see a difference in his temperament if he missed a workout.
Obama graduated in 1983 and promptly landed a job with Business International Corporation as a research assistant. His job writing articles for this firm with global connections to American businesses paid the bills and provided him with an opportunity to see his future as an international businessman. The image troubled him, and he continued to tell others of his dream to be a community organizer. He later admitted he was not sure what one did when he left to become one.
The jobs he had as a community organizer in Brooklyn and Harlem were part-time positions and did not pay enough to meet his expenses. Obama’s life changed when he heard from Jerry Kellman, a Chicago community organizer who needed workers to help the city’s extremely poor black population on the South Side. Kellman headed the Developing Communities Project and convinced the young man that he could make a difference. Within a week of his meeting with Kellman, Obama packed and moved to Chicago.
For three years Barack Obama worked tirelessly with the people of Chicago’s South Side, with community leaders, and interdenominational church groups, trying to find ways to bring jobs, stability, money, and power to those who felt most disenfranchised. Little victories happened along the way but were soon wiped out by bigger disappointments. The Altgeld Gardens housing project became Obama’s first assignment. Located near a landfill, factory, and sewage plant, this decrepit housing complex was home to nearly two thousand residents. Obama succeeded in having the Chicago Housing Authority make improvements to the project’s appalling conditions.
Kellman pushed Obama to connect with the people he was there to help. Conducting daily interviews, sitting around a kitchen table and hearing someone’s life story aided the young man understand people in a way he had never known before. Still, major blocks remained to his efforts to help people of the South Side. Schools were deteriorating, and although no one argued otherwise, few were willing to fight it. Obama and others wanted to start a mentoring network for youth. A common theme of fatherless black youth hit a responsive chord with Obama. He tried to help some of the young men he met along the way.
One of Obama’s major disillusions came when he realized that the ministers were unwilling to cooperate because they competed against each other. One of them, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ, cautioned him, “You are not going to organize us. That’s not going to happen.” (5) Although his hopes of winning support of the various churches did not materialize, Obama found that he and the Rev. Wright had much in common. After bouncing around church to church without finding one he particularly liked, Obama found a spiritual home at Trinity.
With the death of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in November 1987, Obama’s enthusiasm for community organization waned. He now looked to do something else and believed further work required a law degree. Before heading to law school, though, he decided to take a trip to Kenya and attempt to connect with his African roots.
Barack Obama in Africa.
Barack Obama, Sr. had passed away while his son was at Columbia University. Afterwards, Barack was visited by his half-sister, Auma, and encouraged by friends in Chicago to make the pilgrimage to meet his father’s family. For several weeks, Barack met relatives and attempted to learn bits of the Luo (his father’s tribal language). Spending time in Nairobi and traveling to a small village in Kenya where he met more relatives, he encountered a variety of experiences and gained a keener understanding of both his father and himself. On his first day in Africa, his Auntie Zeituni told his half-sister Auma to make sure he did not get lost again. Unsure what this meant, Barack asked Auma, and she explained that it was an expression used for either a person who had not been around for a while or one who left and eventually forgot his family and roots. Its meaning for him remained ambiguous.
Barack Obama at Harvard Law School.
Now with some questions answered, Obama returned to the United States to begin his studies at Harvard Law School. For the next three years, Barack dedicated himself to the study of law. He stood out among the incoming first-year students since he was twenty-seven years old and had already toiled as a community organizer for the past three years. His life experiences provided him with a grounding and maturity which aided him. One classmate, Cassandra Butts, later remarked about how “he came to discussions with much more life experience than most of the students.” (6)
Although he did indeed spend many an hour studying in the library, Obama also found time to make friends and liaisons. He joined the Black Law Students Association and served on its board of directors as well as spoke at various functions. Obama often wove in the theme of using their exceptional education to give back to their communities. This belief came to the forefront when he participated in a debate among the African American population of Harvard’s professional schools. What should they call themselves: black or African American? After hearing the different opinions, Obama cut through the rhetoric: “You know, whether we’re called black or African Americans doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of difference to the lives of people who are working hard, you know, living day to day, in Chicago, in New York. That’s not what’s going to make a difference in their lives. It’s how we use our education in these next three years to make their lives better. You know, that’s what’s going to have an impact on making the U.S. a more just place to live, and that’s what’s going to have an impact on their lives.” (7)
Obama’s grades, writing, and popularity among staff and students won him a place on the staff of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Serving on this staff adds quite a cachet to any resume but to become its president is akin to being handed the keys to the kingdom. The president is elected from the Review’s staff of students, and at first Obama expressed that he would not run. While most staffers planned to acquire a clerkship with a federal judge or become a member of a law school faculty, he knew that his future did not rest on winning this post. Helping Chicago’s South Side population did not require this, but after friends urged him to reconsider, Obama ran. Voting all day, the staff gradually weeded out the field to two. One was Obama. After assurances that no position would be kept from the Review’s pages, conservative students threw in their support, and Barack Obama became the first black editor in the Review’s 103-year history.
Obama’s election immediately made headlines. Obama explained his feelings to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in March 1990: “For every one of me, there are thousands of young black kids with the same energies, enthusiasm and talent that I have who have not gotten the opportunity because of crime, drugs and poverty. I think my election does symbolize progress but I don’t want people to forget that there is still a lot of work to be done.” (8)
Not all were pleased. Some black students complained that Obama did not fill as many staff slots as he could have with minorities. Race relations were particularly strained at Harvard during this time, because its only tenured African American professor, Derek Bell, took a leave-without-pay to protest the unwillingness of administration to hire other black professors. Some more left-leaning staff members also expressed concerns about the number of students from the conservative Federalist Society whom Obama gave positions to.
Treading through this minefield, Obama showed a willingness to work with everyone. People later noted that because he could so easily converse with both sides, one often had no idea what his true feelings were. One of his professors, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., said, “He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts.” (9) Obama’s editorship might not have been as rigorous as some would have preferred, so the next year, the staff chose “a tougher editor” and “someone who would be a more rigorous blue-penciler.” (10)
Obama’s time spent coordinating quarreling factions at the Review provided him with an experience that proved beneficial in his later political career. But for now, he looked to returning to his community involvement in Chicago as well as resuming his courtship of attorney Michelle Robinson.
Barack and Michelle Obama at their wedding.
Obama had met Michelle in the summer of 1989 after his first year at Harvard. He was an intern at the corporate law firm of Sidley Austin, where Michelle was an attorney assigned to be his mentor. Many tried to talk him up to her, but she later stated that she had misgivings about “this good-looking, smooth-talking guy,” since he was her trainee and she worried that it would “look pretty tacky” (11) to date the only other black on the staff. Barack, however, refused to be deterred.
Michelle was born in 1964 to a middle-class family from Chicago’s South Side. She had excelled in sports and academics, later attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Once the couple was engaged, Michelle decided to alter her career path and joined Mayor Richard Daley’s staff. After finishing at Harvard, Obama put his legal career on hold while he directed Illinois Project Vote, an effort to register Chicago’s black population for the 1992 presidential election. His efforts helped ensure victory in Illinois for President Bill Clinton, as well as the historic election of Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman senator. Obama also had the task of writing his memoir. In between everything else, Barack and Michelle married on October 18, 1992 at Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
The following year, Michelle joined with AmeriCorps to start Chicago’s office of Public Allies. Here she worked tirelessly for three years to establish a firm foundation for this agency devoted to putting unemployed young people to work. Her tenure was hailed as a tremendous success. She followed this with a stint at the University of Chicago as associate dean of student services and later as director of community affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals.
After getting married, the Obamas settled into the Hyde Park neighborhood. In 1998, they welcomed their first daughter, Malia; three years later, their second daughter Sasha was born. By this time, Obama’s political career was starting, and Michelle had a new role -- political wife.
Barack Obama teaching at the University of Chicago. Credit: Obama for America.
Following the 1992 election, Obama began a two-pronged legal career -- teaching constitutional law part-time at the University of Chicago and taking a job with the Chicago civil rights firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Although he never tried a case himself, he assisted other attorneys who represented a variety of clients with discrimination suits. One of these suits was against the state of Illinois, charging it with failure to follow federal laws in allowing voter registration of the poor. Obama also represented black voters of Chicago who successfully sued that they had been discriminated against when new ward boundaries for the city had been drawn after the 1990 census. Through his work at the firm and close association with Judson Miner, who had been counsel in Mayor Washington’s administration, Obama gained key political contacts that would assist him when he decided to make the dive into that arena. After a few years of practicing law, Obama decided that working for change through the courts was entirely too slow of a process; instead, he determined the best way to seek reform was through running for office.
Obama saw his first opportunity to enter politics when State Senator Alice Palmer announced she was running for Congress and made clear that he had her blessing to campaign for her seat. Obama filed for candidacy in August 1995, just one month after his memoir, Dreams from My Father, was published. Palmer, in fact, had selected him as her successor and revealed this at a meeting of another Hyde Park resident, William Ayers, professor and well-known radical of the 1960s. The two candidates’ friendship grew cold, however, when Palmer’s congressional campaign slumped, and she told Obama that she wanted to resume running for her state senate seat.
By now, Obama had a strong organization helping him and believed he had a good chance to win, so he refused to relinquish his candidacy. In a move that showed the idealistic candidate’s grasp of hardball politics, Obama challenged Palmer’s candidacy on technical grounds, saying that she hadn’t garnered enough signatures in the right amount of time. Palmer was blocked from running and the other Democratic challengers also quit, so Barack Obama ran as the sole candidate for his party in the primary. In such an overwhelmingly Democratic district, this equated to an easy victory in November 1996. The thirty-four-year old had successfully begun his political career.
Illinois State Senate official photograph.
After arriving in Springfield, Obama found himself an outsider looking in. First, the Republican Party had the majority in the state senate. Second, other black senators did not provide a warm welcome for the freshman senator. Bad feelings remained about his unwillingness to drop from the race and allow fellow African American Alice Palmer to be re-elected; nor did the press find him particularly ingratiating. Knowing he would need some help to understand the world of state politics, Obama began working with aide Dan Shomon, a Springfield veteran who proved a useful sounding board. Shomon took Obama on an illustrative road trip through southern Illinois to show him how to connect with conservative rural voters who were traditionally suspicious of Chicago politicians. It was the kind of bridge-building exercise that would be essential if Obama ever hoped to run for higher office.
At first, Obama failed to make much headway. Realizing that he had to would have to switch gears in order to be successful as a lawmaker, the mild-mannered, intellectual Obama changed, learning golf and joining in a weekly poker game with fellow legislators.
Emil Jones, Jr., the senate’s Democratic leader, also from the South Side, chose the freshman Obama to push through campaign reform legislation. This was Obama’s first major task, and he scored a major win with a 52-4 vote. Other bills that Obama co-sponsored during his first years included compensation of crime victims for property losses, working to help hospitals deal with sexual assault cases, investigation into nursing home abuses, and increasing funding for after-school programs. He became known for working with Republicans to pass legislation. Obama described his willingness to “bring all sides of an issue to the table and you make them feel they are being listened to.” (12)
Aching to make a difference on the national level, in 1999, Obama decided to run against the popular incumbent and former Black Panther Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary for U.S. Congress. Again, Obama was criticized for trying to unseat another black politician. Then some began questioning his “blackness,” pointing to his biracial heritage, Hawaii upbringing, and attending predominantly white colleges. It was an easy victory for Rush. Obama later wrote of his difficulty continuing with the campaign after realizing halfway through that he was going to lose. He explained, “The politician’s loss is on public display. ... it’s impossible not to feel ... as if you have been repudiated by the entire community, that you don’t have what it takes, and that everywhere you go the word ‘loser’ is flashing through people’s minds.” (13)
Returning to Springfield, Obama resumed his legislative work and attempted to gain more political support from his Democratic colleagues. He chaired the committee on Health and Human Services and served on others including Education and Welfare. He championed abortion rights and supported stem cell research. In other legislation, he backed unions and favored imposing a use tax for natural gas and restoring the estate tax to Illinois.
Still, Obama felt frustrated. He sought office on a higher level. Looking ahead to 2004, he spied an opportunity in the U.S. Senate seat of Republican incumbent Peter Fitzgerald. Although many pledged support, they also cautioned him not to run, warning that he would likely lose and put a great strain on his family in the process. Nevertheless, Obama viewed this as his final opportunity and seized it. Friends began making inquiries, and slowly a financial base of support in Chicago made a Senate run viable.
In the fall of 2002, before formally announcing his Senate candidacy, Obama spoke to an antiwar rally in Chicago. He told them he was not totally opposed to war but was opposed to the impending invasion of Iraq, calling it “a dumb war” that was “based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” (14) He later admitted that although “it was a hard speech to give,” (15) it was also the speech he was proudest of.
Emil Jones, Jr., now president of the Illinois Senate, agreed to help Obama strengthen his legislative credentials. Legislation was given him to guide through the ssenate that would help his profile; likewise, Jones kept Obama’s campaign schedule in mind to ensure that key votes did not occur while he was gone. (Obama’s voting record in the Illinois senate would later be questioned when it was learned that he voted “present” 130 times, when he did not wish to be on the record voting for/against a controversial issue such as abortion, which could trouble voters in later campaigns.) (16)
When the primary campaign began, the frontrunner was at first Don Hynes, whose father had a history in Chicago politics and who also originally had strong union backing. However, once Obama’s pro-labor state legislation demonstrated an active willingness to work for their cause, unions such as the Service Employees Union International endorsed the relatively unknown candidate. Other unions soon followed. Opponent Gery Chico excelled at providing the pithy sound bites that audiences tended to prefer to the longer speeches that Obama was prone to give. In fact, Obama worked to improve his public speaking skills by studying African American ministers and imitating their cadence and rhythm. David Axelrod, Obama’s media consultant, devised a campaign theme of “Yes, we can,” with commercials pledging change in Washington if Barack Obama was elected. The voters believed, and he handily won the primary with 53 percent of the vote. Now it remained to be seen if he could win a general election against the Republican incumbent Jack Ryan.
Ryan had served in the Illinois legislature with Obama, and he, too, had the good looks to help his candidacy. But not long before the general election, Ryan found himself awash in scandal. In the summer of 2004, newspapers successfully sued to open Ryan’s sealed divorce records., The resulting revelations about Ryan’s aberrant sex practices (which included pushing his then-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, to accompany him to sex clubs) caused him to drop out of the race. While the Republican Party frantically cast about for a replacement, an increasingly popular Barack Obama was selected as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention.
Few senatorial candidates are provided as rich an opportunity as awaited Barack Obama on July 27, 2004 when he addressed the crowd at Boston’s Fleet Center arena and the millions watching at home. In a speech that called for an end to the electorate’s increasing polarization, he told the audience, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” He went on to quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that his belief in “the audacity of hope” also included “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” (17) His speech received rave reviews and pushed Obama into a higher strata of political achievement.
Now, candidate Obama drew huge crowds wherever he went. Sometimes all of the adulation and attention became overwhelming for both he and Michelle. By August, Republicans had drafted black conservative (and non-Illinois resident) Alan Keyes to oppose Obama. The tidal wave of popularity was too much for the last-minute rival to fight. Obama won the senate seat by a historic margin of 70 to 29 percent.
2005 portrait of Barack Obama as junior senator from Illinois.
On January 4, 2005, Michelle and daughters Sasha and Malia watched proudly as Barack was sworn in as a U.S. senator. Afterwards the family posed for pictures and six-year-old Malia asked, “Daddy, are you going to be president?” (18) Others were asking the same question, and the next day, Obama told reporters that he was not planning to run for president in 2008. Instead, he found his life quite full as he learned to negotiate the turns and pitfalls of life in the capital city.
Obama gained a seat on the Foreign Relations committee and within the year traveled to Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. He and Republican Richard Lugar co-sponsored legislation to lessen the threat of unsecured conventional weapons throughout the world and traveled to Russia and the Ukraine to discuss their ideas. Obama supported building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico as a means to halt growing illegal immigration. He continued his push to fight global warming and supported a bill to significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 2050. He upset liberals by certifying George W. Bush’s re-election despite objections regarding Ohio ballots and then confirming the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. His advisors recommended that he continue to pursue this middle of the road course should he later want to attain higher office.
Obama went home on weekends and held forty town hall meetings in Illinois during his first year in the Senate. He reminded constituents not to expect much from the first term of a junior senator and kept a generally low media profile. Though refusing most interview requests, he did make an exception and appeared on a Sunday talk show to discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Outraged African American leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson denounced the Bush administration and the slow response by the emergency agencies to help the people of New Orleans who were predominantly black. When Obama was asked about this, his tone was more measured:
I think that the important thing for us now is to recognize that we have situations in America in which race continues to play a part, that class continues to play a part, that people are not availing themselves of the same opportunities, of the same schools, of the same jobs, and because they’re not, when disaster strikes, it tears the curtain away from the festering problems that we have beneath them.... (19)
In August 2006, Senator Obama and his family and extended entourage of staff and reporters left for a trip to Africa. It was considered a congressional delegate excursion which also included visiting his father’s homeland again. The journey began in South Africa where Obama visited the jail cell that had housed Nelson Mandela for eighteen years. While in that country, Obama also spoke out against South African president Thabo Mbeki who refused to take action against the AIDS crisis plaguing his nation. To Obama’s disappointment, Mbeki refused to meet him during his stay.
The next stop was Kenya, where Obama was mobbed by a nation who claimed him as their own. After visiting Nairobi, the group moved farther inland and visited his grandmother’s village of Kisumu. There in the town’s hospital, the Obamas had blood samples drawn for AIDS testing to demonstrate to Africans that the test was safe and would not give a person the disease. They traveled to his father’s farm compound and visited with family members. After a safari and a quick detour to Chad to meet refugees from Darfur, Obama left Africa, and he hoped that his visit had given people there hope and the willingness to work towards improving their homeland.
Obama campaigning at American University in 2008.
Following his successful Africa trip, the talk increased of Senator Obama running for president. Others insisted that he was more interested in the governorship of Illinois. His popularity had been bolstered by appearances throughout the country to sell his second book, The Audacity of Hope, for which he won a Grammy award for his audio version. Obama’s youthful looks and optimistic tone appealed to many. It became increasingly difficult to dismiss the growing push for him to run for the Democratic nomination. Michelle was initially was opposed, but soon became convinced that it was the right thing to do.
On February 10, 2007, on the steps of the Illinois statehouse in Springfield, Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. At this time, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was considered to be the frontrunner. However, both candidates quickly gained donors and each had $20 million in their campaign coffers. Popular television host Oprah Winfrey announced her support of Obama and made a campaign tour on his behalf that many believed added tens of thousands of votes for him.
The first balloting in Iowa in January 2008 went to Obama, but the primary in New Hampshire was a close vote with Clinton winning. The two candidates see-sawed during the coming months, with Obama winning most of the southern primaries and the two splitting New England, but Clinton pulled a major win in California. Clinton had more political experience and was better known to voters. But the Obama campaign’s canny use of the Internet and bloggers kept donations pouring in and increased voter interest, making him a surprisingly tough foe for Clinton to defeat.
Still, Obama’s campaign hit a few missteps. Questions about his true beliefs surfaced when film footage was released of Rev. Wright’s sermons in which, among other things, he blamed the 9/11 attacks on the United States and made anti-white statements. Since Wright’s church had been the place of worship for Senator Obama and his family for twenty years, concerns were immediately raised that Wright’s hate speech must be affirmed by the Obamas or else they would have left his church. After attempts to distance himself from Rev. Wright, Obama ultimately announced that his family no longer attended Trinity United Church of Christ, and an announcement of Wright’s retirement soon followed.
Then the candidate himself made a serious gaffe when talking at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. Obama told the donors that they needed to understand why he was lagging in the polls in Pennsylvania and the Midwest was because of their broken-down economies. Then he said, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” (20) Immediately critics pounced on this remark as proof that Obama was not as he professed. He was the elite Harvard graduate and candidate for the rich and famous. Both of his two main rivals, Senator Clinton and Republican Senator John McCain derided Obama for being out of touch. He fired back that he had a better understanding of the typical voter than either. Senator Clinton went on to win the Pennsylvania primary, but by the end of May, Obama had secured the majority of pledged Democratic delegates for the convention.
Meeting in Denver, the Democratic national convention officially nominated Barack Obama to be their candidate for the presidency. He, in turn, nominated Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware to be his running mate. The two would oppose Republican candidate Senator McCain of Arizona and his vice presidential nominee Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Obama delivered his acceptance speech on August 28 and talked of his plans for the future and the change he hoped to bring:
Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.
That’s the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.
That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now. (21)
For the next two months, Obama and McCain toured the country. Repeatedly, McCain charged Obama with lack of experience -- a claim that Clinton had also used against him. His voting record in the Illinois Senate of 130 “present” votes and a lackluster record in the U.S. Senate were touted as proof that he did not take his legislative role seriously. Voters, however, continued to swell rallies for Obama and openly admitted that they preferred his freshness and lack of experience to someone like McCain whose twenty-five years in Congress made him too much of an insider.
As Election Day drew nearer, the American economy went into a downturn, causing President Bush’s popularity to drop more, and due to party association, Senator McCain’s as well. McCain’s statement that he believed “that the fundamentals of our economy were strong” was derided, especially when it came on the heels of his uncertainty regarding how many homes he and his wife owned. Obama hit McCain with being out of touch with America, and images of the youthful forty-seven-year old candidate versus the white-haired seventy-two year old veteran underscored Obama’s recurring mantra of “Change!”
When November 4, 2008, arrived, the American people went to the polls in record numbers, and with the declining economy on many minds, they cast their vote for change. Barack Obama easily won both the popular and electoral votes, becoming the nation’s first African American president.
Inauguration Day, 2009. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Within the week, the Obamas arrived at the White House to meet with President and Mrs. Bush. Bush had already promised a smooth transition, citing the nation’s critical issues required that the next president be ready to serve as of January 20. As President-elect Obama selected staff members, they arrived in Washington and began working with their Bush counterparts to ensure this transition was seamless. Meanwhile, Obama considered a variety of potential appointees to his cabinet, some of them surprising. He tapped his former rival Senator Clinton to be Secretary of State and decided to keep Bush appointee Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. To head the Treasury Department, Obama selected Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Board of New York. In total, the Obama cabinet would reflect America’s diversity, with women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians well represented.
The president-elect forwarded his stimulus plan to Congress, and his team hoped for its passage by inauguration day. This, however, was not possible due to its enormous scope and price tag. Although much of its money would be provided to states, some of the governors worried about the “strings attached” that would force the permanent addition of programs to their budgets after the stimulus monies ran out in two years.
Obama’s inauguration was centered around a celebration of the 300th birthday of another president from Illinois -- Abraham Lincoln -- and used his phrase “A new birth of freedom” from the Gettysburg Address as the theme. A major celebration occurred on the eve of the inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial.
The twentieth of January 2009, dawned as a perfect winter’s day. The Obamas met with President and Mrs. Bush at the White House before the motorcade to the capitol. There Joseph Biden was sworn in as vice president and then Chief Justice John Roberts swore in Barack Hussein Obama as America’s forty-fourth president. Millions watched around the world and witnessed this historic moment. (There was a miscue in the swearing-in when Roberts put the word “faithfully” at the wrong place in the oath, so Obama repeated it. To ensure there was no problem, another swearing in occurred the following evening when the oath was said correctly.)
In his inauguration speech, the new president told the nation,
And yet at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do, and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.
President Obama continued:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. (22)
First day in the Oval Office.
Shortly after entering office, President Obama enjoyed a wave of popularity and was even awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The luxury of working with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress also allowed him to initiate an ambitious agenda for his first one hundred days. Some priorities, however, took a back seat due to the deteriorating economic situation. As he explained in a presidential news conference held in March 2009 on his hundredth day in office: “... [W]hen I first started this race, Iraq was a central issue, but the economy appeared on the surface to still be relatively strong. There were underlying problems that I was seeing with health care for families and our education system and college affordability and so forth, but obviously, I didn’t anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” (23) He and the country would watch as the economy continued its freefall.
With unemployment figures rising as more Americans received pink slips, Congress and the president worked together to create a stimulus package of $787 billion titled “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.” The bill’s main provisions extended unemployment benefits, funded public works through “shovel-ready projects,” (26) and provided some health-care benefits. The vote revealed a strong partisan divide. House minority leader John Boehner, who with the rest of the House Republicans, voted against the stimulus package, said it was only about “spending, spending, and more spending” rather than “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” (27) More partisan showdowns would loom in the future.
Despite the stimulus, unemployment rates continued to rise, as did criticism for the $787 billion price tag, and the president later said that “shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.” By October, unemployment topped 10 percent, something the country had not seen for over a quarter of a century. Another incentive was also created in the languishing housing market: first-time home buyers were offered an $8,000 tax credit. Still, the economy refused to improve.
Meanwhile, two major American automakers, General Motors and Chrysler, fought to stay afloat financially. Before Obama took office, the Bush administration had approved a $17.4 billion government bailout loan, but the financial situations of both companies remained dire. During the first six months of 2009, $5 billion in loans was pumped into them from both United States and Canada to prevent their collapse, but ultimately both GM and Chrysler were taken over by the U.S. government and underwent managed bankruptcies.
Ultimately the Italian automaker Fiat purchased Chrysler and, three years later, President Obama announced that “Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes the American taxpayer from the investment we made during my watch.” (28) The administration did, however, forgive much of the loan provided in the last days of the Bush presidency (over $1 billion).
GM continued to hemorrhage money, and by the summer of 2009 had absorbed $19.4 billion in additional cash infusions from American taxpayers. Its bankruptcy required a major restructuring as well as the sale of many of its assets, and by the end of the summer, the United States was officially the major stockholder of GM. An additional attempt to prop up the automobile industry was introduced in the summer of 2009. “Cash for Clunkers” offered economic incentives to encourage Americans to trade in their old cars for newer, more efficient models. This popular program quickly ran out of steam when funds became exhausted within weeks.
Campaigning in 2012, Obama would herald the rescue of U.S. automakers: “I believe in American workers. I believe in this American industry. And now the American auto industry has come roaring back.” (29) While some Americans agreed with the president’s assessment, GM dealers who had been ordered to close their doors and the 211,000 auto industry workers who lost their jobs during 2008-2009 (52,800 were regained by the end of 2012) might argue over the wisdom of the government’s restructuring plan. Others look at the bailout for GM as another example of government helping an American company but at the great cost of adding billions to the deficit. Critics, upset with the government’s takeover, would later point to the $25 billion shortfall on the government’s return on its investment of GM. By the time of Obama’s re-election campaign, the government still held more than 30 percent of GM stock.
Economists agreed that the initial bailout of the American auto industry was the right thing to do at the time. If either or both companies had completely collapsed, the economy’s slide could have proved even more disastrous, causing higher unemployment and endangering pension plans. Whether or not the taxpayer-funded $80 billion bailout and government restructuring of GM and Chrysler was a wiser move than allowing the kind of bankruptcy proceedings commonly seen in the airline industry was a question that would continue into the 2012 election campaign.
Obama signing health care reform into law in 2010.
Previous Democratic presidents had attempted to create a national health-care system but their efforts had fallen short. The most recent attempt, by President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, had collapsed on itself early in his first term. Now using valuable political capital gained with his historic election, President Obama intended to succeed where others had tried and failed.
On February 24, 2009, in his first State of the Union address, President Obama stated that the country needed to address health-care reform. He stated:
This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas. And it’s one of the largest and fastest growing parts of our budget. Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health-care reform on hold. We can’t afford to do it. (30)
Obama explained that all Americans were entitled to “quality, affordable health care” and promised it would be “paid for in part by efficiencies in our system.” He went on to say that he was about to begin bringing together Democrats and Republicans to start working on this issue. (31)
The “healthcare summit” opened the following week, and while some of the participants wrangled over what should or should not be included, lawmakers began creating legislation. Although the Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress, not all favored the same ideas. Some preferred a “public option” (government-supplied health care); others disagreed. When politicians headed back home in the summer of 2009 to hold town hall meetings to address concerns, angry constituents were ready with questions and comments.
By now the Tea Party, which had coalesced earlier in the year around economic issues, was kicking into full gear. Not an actual political party, but a loose network of small-government conservative activists, the Tea Party objected to the legislation’s cost and government interference, and scared many with their talk of possible “death panels” of unelected bureaucrats. Some town-hall meetings were cancelled by nervous legislators amid worries that health care reform could be stopped before it reached the White House. President Obama attempted to soothe the naysayers and promised that he would not be “pulling the plug on Granny.” (32)
In a surprise upset in Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown won a special election taking Senator Ted Kennedy’s longtime Democratic seat (Kennedy had died six months earlier from brain cancer). Now without their supermajority, Senate Democrats would not be able to break a possible Republican filibuster. The health-care bill was successfully pushed forward just before the Christmas recess, however, through an internal process called “reconciliation,” normally meant only for budget legislation. House Democrats secured enough votes to pass the Senate’s version in March 2010 and promised to make adjustments later. On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the bill into law. Technically named the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it was already popularly known as simply “Obamacare.”
The next challenge for the president’s health-care reform was the courts. States immediately launched challenges and many wondered how an individual mandate could be constitutional. Since lower courts had reached conflicting opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to serve as final arbiter, hearing arguments in March 2012. Their decision was handed down by Chief Justice John Roberts in June.
The Court stunned many -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- when Roberts announced in the 5-4 decision that the individual mandate was a tax and as such, was permitted by law. On the other hand, the court also ruled that states would not have to take on the burden of additional Medicaid enrollees, as this provision of Obamacare was deemed outside of the jurisdiction of Congress. Said Roberts:
Members of this court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices. (33)
Plans proceeded for the gradual implementation of the law through 2020, with most major provisions in place by 2014.
Obama greeting GOP House Speaker John Boehner at the 2011 State of the Union.
With the economy still in the doldrums and the war in Afghanistan continuing to drag along, Americans headed into the midterm elections. Since these elections are often viewed as a referendum on the president, many watched them in keen anticipation. Concern about the newly passed Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act was a major factor, as was the rapid proliferation of regulations from different government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had been largely laissez-faire during the previous administration, and increasingly strict banking guidelines that alarmed Wall Street and the business communities.
Illegal immigration rose to the forefront as the country debated Arizona Senate Bill 1070. Frustrated by the federal government’s refusal to enforce laws regarding illegal immigration, the Arizona legislature had taken action. The resulting bill required immigrants to carry documentation in an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigrants flooding Arizona borders. The firestorm of controversy around the constitutionality and morality of this bill, which Obama was publicly critical of, made immigration into one of the most contentious issues of the new president’s first term. Although deportations increased and illegal immigration dropped during Obama’s first term, both as a result of increased enforcement and the slackened economy (which reduced demand in businesses that hired large numbers of illegal immigrants), the president’s critics used his opposition to the Arizona bill as a sign that he was weak on the issue. (In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the key provision of the Arizona law saying that law enforcement officials had “to make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of a person stopped, detained or arrested if there’s reasonable suspicion that person is in the country illegally.” (34) This provision was considered the most controversial of the law and the only part upheld by the highest court in a 5-3 decision.)
This issue, along with the others, brought even more attention to the insurgent Tea Party movement, which supported a broad slate of far-right Republican candidates. Their efforts paid off. While Tea Party-backed candidates lost as many seats as they won in the Senate, Republicans took a decisive majority in the House of Representatives, gaining more than sixty seats. This marked the largest gain for a political party in the House since 1948. John Boehner became the new Speaker of the House. Now the country awaited the next chapter: Would there be bipartisanship as both sides proposed, or would gridlock take hold?
American soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011. Credit: Wiki Commons.
It came as no surprise to the U.S. military that President Obama would continue the drawdown of forces from Iraq begun by the previous administration. The new commander in chief quickly reaffirmed the timetable for disengagement hammered out in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement between the Iraqi and U.S. governments. On February 27, 2009, the president arrived at Marine Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to pledge that all combat units would be out of Iraq by the summer of 2010 and all others gone by the end of 2011. Obama stated that the Iraqis would have to continue the job and said, “We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military, and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars.” (35) What remained unsaid was the need for many of the American troops in Iraq to be dispatched to Afghanistan.
A month later, President Obama posed the question asked by some as to why America was still in Afghanistan. He answered, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just.” (36) He explained that 17,000 more troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Additional training would be done with Afghan units -- both military and civilian -- so they could take over more responsibility.
Not all were pleased by the president’s speech, which echoed many of the same goals set forth by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Some Democrats (already upset by Obama’s failure to follow up on his campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay) wanted American troops to leave immediately and would grow even more critical when it became apparent that Obama was ramping up Bush’s policy of using unmanned Predator drones to attack insurgent leaders hiding across the border in neighboring Pakistan. More concerns surfaced in the fall of 2009 when General Stanley McChrystal, who had been appointed by Obama to head American troops in Afghanistan, issued a lengthy assessment arguing that current troop strengths were insufficient to attain U.S. victory. McChrystal stated, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next twelve months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” (37) Two months later, President Obama deliberated on possible actions to take to turn the tide in Afghanistan.
Although Vice President Biden and other Democratic leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, desired to draw down troops, Obama wanted to see success in the war-torn nation. Leaning on his regional commander, General David Petraeus, for guidance in conducting a surge similar to the one many believed had helped stave off defeat in Iraq, the president announced that 30,000 more troops would be dispatched to Afghanistan as soon as possible (mid-2010), but then exit no later than July 2011. The strategy was to go into the country, overwhelm the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other insurgent elements, then leave. The president had no intention of allowing Afghanistan to turn into his Vietnam.
Disagreement on the administration’s handling of Afghanistan resurfaced in June 2010 when an interview with General McChrystal appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. In the article, the general and his aides described their skirmishes with the president and others in his administration, including Vice President Biden. Only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to escape unscathed, because she supported McChrystal and had said, “If Stan wants it, give him whatever he needs.” (38) Upset by his military commander’s public comments, President Obama relieved him of his duties and replaced him with General Petraeus in June 2010.
Taking over counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Petraeus decided to continue emphasizing the human factor. Increased effort was made to cite atrocities committed by the Taliban on the Afghan people with the hope that they would take a more active role in ridding themselves of the terrorists among them. This technique was also intended to remind NATO allies of the destructive capabilities of the enemy and its multiple human rights violations, thus prompting the allies to give second thoughts to any ideas of withdrawal. This tactic was not without risks, however, since the Afghan people might find these reminders of the Taliban’s violence frightening. As one military official explained, “No matter how much [an Afghani] may want you to win, if he thinks your adversary is going to win he’s going to remain aloof, and he’s going to withhold his support.” (39)
Awaiting news from SEAL Team Six.
Ever since the infamous 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, the American people and their government had sought the leader who masterminded this attack on innocent civilians. Osama bin Laden’s name became familiar around the globe; his picture appeared on television and websites. The hunt was on and a $25 million reward was offered for him, dead or alive.
President Bush left office without capturing this elusive quarry, so the Obama administration continued the search. Occasional messages, some videotaped, others only on audio, purported to be bin Laden. Some scoffed and argued that he had most likely died years before in the many attacks on Taliban strongholds in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Still, doubts lingered.
After nearly a decade of intelligence-gathering, CIA director Leon Panetta went to the president in the summer of 2010 with the Agency’s assessment that bin Laden was hiding inside a walled compound in a wealthy area of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Various assault options were offered and debated. Blasting the compound to the ground, killing all inside as well as some in neighboring houses, was unthinkable. Another option was to drop bombs with a smaller blast radius that would not kill the neighbors. The problem remained, though: How would one be sure that Osama bin Laden had died? A third option was to send a Special Operations team in by helicopter to take the compound along with its inhabitants. Targeting bin Laden could be done, although whether or not he should be taken as prisoner offered thorny legal issues. President Obama ordered to move forward with the ground attack plan.
On the night of May 2, 2011, members of SEAL Team Six -- codenamed Red Squadron -- entered the compound. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton anxiously watched the events unfold at the White House. None of them could be sure that the mission would not turn into another disaster like President Carter’s Desert One hostage rescue mission in 1980. Moving swiftly, SEAL Team Six wasted no time in gaining access to and killing Osama bin Laden. The next day, Obama announced the death of the terrorist leader. Internationally, tension mounted between the U.S. and Pakistan as many believed that Pakistani officials must have been aware that bin Laden was living in their country.
Protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. Credit: Wiki Commons.
In June 2009, the Iranian people went to the polls and voted. The votes were counted, and to the people’s shock, the dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former Iranian prime minister, had supposedly lost, but the Iranian people refused to accept defeat in an election widely believed to have been stolen. Utilizing the Internet and social media, massive protests were organized. In Tehran, three million people asked, “Where is my vote?” Others wondered why the rest of the world, especially the United States, was not interceding on their behalf. On November 4, the anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy in 1979, the protest was not openly anti-American. Instead, the protesters objected to the nuclear weaponization of their country. They also demanded of Obama: “You are either with us -- or with them.” (40)
The American government remained silent and inactive. Students in universities, and people throughout the country in the hundreds of thousands demanded a voice. Their government expressed its own through sheer force of arms. Protesters were captured, imprisoned, and often tortured. Many were executed. Televised trials, during which some of the leaders confessed their “crimes,” signaled that for the time being, the totalitarian regime had won. When no word emanated from the Obama administration, some pondered if the president hesitated because he did not want to endanger any possible future nuclear disarmament talks with Ahmadinejad. Another argument against the administration publicly supporting the protestors (one also advanced by some of Ahmadinejad’s Iranian critics) was that it would have given Ahmadinejad’s allies an excuse to portray the protesters as Western dupes, but this was cold comfort to those pleading for help via the Internet from deep inside Iran.
The administration’s silence on Iran would be a source of criticism by Republicans vying for their party’s nomination in 2012, but the turmoil in the Middle East was only just getting started as a pro-democracy movement began inauspiciously in the Arab world in January 2011. The previous month, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi became outraged when police demanded he stop selling without a permit. In protest, Bouazizi set himself on fire, prompting his countrymen to take to the streets shouting opposition to their government. Within a month, the Tunisian dictator had fled the country, and the flame of discontent was already spreading across other Arab states.
Egypt felt the sting of opposition next. In February 2011, after weeks of nonstop protests, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s authoritarian president for the previous three decades, also stepped down from power. The United States, one of Egypt’s staunchest allies, stood by, surprising both Mubarak’s government and his military. Mubarak would later go on trial for corruption and the killing of protestors. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite being driven underground in 1948, was nevertheless the most well-organized political group in Egypt. The Brotherhood insisted that it only wanted to be one part of a new democratic regime. It wasn’t long, though, before pro-democracy activists would find themselves fighting attempts by the Brotherhood to create a theocratic regime even less democratic than the one they had just toppled.
A civil war soon erupted in Libya, and air support provided by France, Britain, and the United States ultimately turned the tide in the rebels’ favor. Unable to escape, longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was found in hiding and killed by a mob. The government of Yemen also toppled in 2011, while Bahrain’s King Hamad Al Khalifa kept tenuous control only through the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria became embroiled in a civil war and brutally turned his large air force on civilian targets in rebel-held areas despite protests from the world community.
What these upheavals of change meant for the United States remained to be seen. Desirous of spreading democracy, American leaders hailed the people’s revolt but it was feared that the cost could be considerable. Some of the ousted leaders, especially Mubarak, were key allies to the United States. Loss of influence in a war-prone area of the world could easily prove problematic. The Obama administration initiated meetings with the new Egyptian government. While some felt uneasy allying themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood, others believed there was not much choice. According to Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar, the situation had changed as far as the Arab world was concerned. “I think there is a growing perception in the Arab world that the U.S. is a power in decline and that it doesn’t have as much influence and leverage as it used to. And for that reason, they don’t have to listen to the U.S.; they can defy the U.S.” (41)
Using the backdrop of the Arab Spring, President Obama pledged to grant financial support to Arab countries that chose democracy. Speaking at the US State Department on May 19, 2011, the President praised those who worked for democracy, chided anti-democratic rulers who tenaciously clung to power, and told Syrian President Bashar Assad that he had a choice: “he [could] lead that transition or get out of the way.” President Obama also took the opportunity to state his preference for Israel to return to the 1967 border with Palestine. (42) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly dismissed Obama’s proposal, claiming it to be “unrealistic” and “indefensible.” (43) The division between the American president and Israel, who had never had a very cordial relationship, appeared to some as a major rift in the friendship of two longtime allies.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during one of the 2012 presidential debates. Credit: Flickr/Neon Tommy.
With the economy demonstrating virtually no improvement, economists espoused theories for why it continued to be sluggish. A few Canadians working for a satirical magazine decided that the downturn was just the vehicle for launching a grassroots effort to draw attention to Wall Street. Using the Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, a new movement was born. The first protest started on September 17, 2011, in New York City’s financial district. Proclaiming themselves to be the “99 Percent,” (as opposed to the one percent who held most of the nation’s wealth), the Wall Street protesters inspired other similar efforts across the nation. Violence sometimes accompanied the movement, and some communities such as Oakland, California, demanded an end to the protests. Due to evictions, a lack of clear objectives, and the onset of cold weather, the activists melted away, but their sentiment remained. Economic inequality became a favorite topic for the 2012 election. President Obama took up the cause as he confronted his most likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, a millionaire who many considered the embodiment of the one-percenters.
While Republican candidates vied for their party’s votes through an exhausting series of primaries and debates, Obama was unopposed and continued his work as president. Looking towards his own re-election, though, he changed course on gay marriage. Earlier in his political career, he had supported gay marriage and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act. Then in 2008, he announced that he believed marriage was a between a man and a woman, but he approved of civil unions. In May 2012, citing his “evolving” views (and likely pushed on the issue by Vice President Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks about it), he declared that he was in favor of gay marriage. This marked a strong counterpoint to the traditional Republican position of opposing same-sex marriage.
The following month, Obama decided to alter the nation’s immigration course. The Dream Act, legislation with bi-partisan sponsorship, had failed to become law after several attempts. Its main objective was to create a path for citizenship for youth brought to the United States illegally.
President Obama announced in June that American policy would no longer include deporting young illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children. The president stated that this policy would be “more fair, more efficient and more just.” He insisted that it was not to be construed as amnesty. Still, Republicans believed that was exactly its purpose. Many were angered that Obama used an executive order to bypass legislation, but the president derided the cry that the move was politically motivated and insisted that it was “the right thing to do.” (44)
Winning the majority of Republican primaries was former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire who had been the co-founder and chief executive officer of Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. His Wall Street credentials proved to be a favorite target of Democrats. Romney’s image as an economic elitist was hammered in by pro-Obama campaign ads and further underscored by a taping of the candidate himself telling a group of supporters that “[t]here are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” (45) Romney apologized for the remark, but the harm was done, and his image remained that of the wealthy fat-cat who cared nothing for those with less.
Romney chose Wisconsin senator Paul Ryan as his running mate. This move was not without risks, as Ryan had upset many with his budget plan calling for significant reductions in federal entitlements as necessary for decreasing the federal deficit over time. Democrats again pointed to the Republicans as the unfeeling party. Though Obama presided over a country with the worst economy since the Great Depression, he was still viewed as the candidate who cared. After a first debate in which Obama seemed ill-prepared and disinterested next to the crisp and debate-ready Romney, the two following debates were considered narrow wins for the president. In the days leading up to the election, the country seemed equally divided. Democrats believed that Romney had been forced so far to the right in the early debates that later attempts to moderate his positions wouldn’t hold water with centrist voters. Republicans were reassured by historical precedent which indicated that no incumbent president with such a poor-performing economy and low approval numbers could ever win re-election. Polls indicated the race was too close to call.
Then, in late October, Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast with a wallop. Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of Bush after Hurricane Katrina, President Obama and his spokesmen immediately reminded Americans that the state and local authorities take the lead in natural disasters but offered assurances that federal aid would be available soon. Although seeing New Jersey’s Republican governor, and staunch Romney surrogate Chris Christie, hugging Obama and praising the president’s leadership offered a picture of bipartisanship at a time when many wavering voters wondered about his ability to lead, most voters had made up their minds long before. Distrust of Wall Street and the business community, as well as a slowly improving economy and an ugly primary season, propelled the president’s re-election.
The forecasted close election failed to materialize. While Obama garnered nearly 6.9 million fewer votes than in 2008, he nevertheless bested Romney by some 3.5 million votes. Although he won fewer states than in 2008, Obama still maintained a sizeable majority of 332–206 in the Electoral College.
Photo tweeted by the Obama campaign upon news of the president's re-election.
Two interconnected scandals broke around the time of the election. The first erupted on September 11, 2012, when American ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. government employees were killed in Benghazi, Libya. Administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and the president himself cited an inflammatory anti-Muslim YouTube video, which had been sparking riots across the Middle East, as being the cause for an impromptu demonstration that turned violent. It soon became clear, however, that the video had nothing to do with the attack. Instead, it was a planned, deliberate assault by an al Qaeda affiliate conducted just days after the organization was declared to have been rendered ineffective by the Obama administration’s efforts. Worse yet, Ambassador Stevens had personally requested additional security for the U.S. mission in Libya but saw it reduced instead. Questions also arose over why so little support was provided during the seven-hour assault on the beleaguered Americans.
Little, though, was reported by most media outlets until three days after the election when David Petraeus, who had become the CIA director upon leaving the army, resigned due to his involvement in an extramarital affair. The resignation came just days before Petraeus was scheduled to appear a second time before a congressional committee investigating the events of Benghazi. During his initial testimony as CIA director, he supported the video story. After a week’s delay and more details became public, Petraeus, now a private citizen, testified that the CIA had known right from the beginning that the well-organized attack had not evolved from a demonstration that had gotten out of control.
Worries about the economy also moved to the forefront at this time. Negotiations from earlier in Obama’s first term had set a deadline at the end of 2012 for an agreement to reduce the deficit by a specific amount. If no agreement was reached, the country faced the possibility of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” with deep, automatic budget cuts and tax hikes coming into effect in January 2013. Seeing the possibility of more government gridlock as the House of Representatives remained in Republican hands and the Senate still firmly Democratic, the country waited to see who would make the first move. House Speaker John Boehner said that if Obama received a mandate by being re-elected, so had the Republicans who had campaigned against raising “job killing” taxes.
The number of Americans with full-time employment had declined by 5.9 million between September 2007 and November 2012 and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while the unemployment rate had edged down to 7.9 percent, it was 14.6 percent when accounting for “involuntary part-time workers” such as a computer programmer working in a fast-food restaurant while waiting for the job market to improve. Though some aspects of the country’s economy were in better shape than when Barack Obama took the reins of office, few of its citizens would have said that things had come all the way back. Said Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward:
“No matter who is president, [he] is the chief strategist. Presidents set the tone. They say this is how we’re going to do things and fix things. In the case of Obama and the first term, and the economic issues, he didn’t fix them. And he didn’t find a way to work his will. And you see Lincoln and Jefferson and Eisenhower did. Now, we’re catching Obama midstream. He still has another four years. The interesting question is going to be, how he takes victory.” (46)
As Obama’s first term wound down, decisions made in his first four years but “backloaded” for implementation until after 2012 if he should win re-election — the Affordable Health Care Act, payroll and income tax increases, as well as an expanded regulatory structure — would create the foundation for his second term.
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8: Tammerlin Drummond,"Barack Obama's Law Personality," Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1990.
9: Jodi Kantor, "In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice," New York Times, January 28, 2007.
16: Raymond Hernandez and Christopher Drew, "It’s Not Just ‘Ayes’ and ‘Nays’: Obama’s Votes in Illinois Echo," New York Times, December 20, 2007.
17: Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic Keynote Address, July 27, 2004.
20: Katharine Q. Seelye and Jeff Zeleny, "On the Defensive, Obama Calls His Words Ill-Chosen," New York Times, April 13, 2008.
21: Barack Obama's Acceptance Speech, New York Times, August 28, 2008.
22: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address, New York Times, January 20, 2009.
23: Reuters, “Obama: Didn’t Foresee Severity of Economic Crisis,” April 29, 2009.
24: “The Nobel Peace Prize 2009,” accessed November 23, 2012.
25: “The Nobel Peace Prize 2007,” accessed November 23, 2012.
26: David Jackson, “Obama Jokes About ‘Shovel-Ready Projects,’” USA Today, June 13, 2011.
27: David M. Herszenhorn, “Recovery Bill Gets Final Approval,” New York Times, February 14, 2009.
28: David Jackson, “Obama and Chrysler Repayment—What He Really Said,” USA Today, June 6, 2011.
29: Zachary A. Goldfarb, “Auto Bailout Was Not Unmitigated Success,” Washington Post, September 6, 2012.
30: “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, February 24, 2009,” American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara, accessed November, 23, 2012.
32: Julie Rovner, “Kill Grandma? Debunking A Health Bill Scare Tactic,” Minnesota Public Radio, August 12, 2009.
33: Abner Greene, “Roberts Shuffles the Deck with Health Care Decision,” The National Law Journal, June 28, 2012.
34: Alia Beard Rau, “Arizona Immigration Law: Supreme Court Upholds Key Portion of Senate Bill 1070,” The Arizona Republic, June 25, 2012.
35: Ewen MacAskill, “Six years after Iraq invasion, Obama sets out his exit plan,” The Guardian, February 27, 2009.
36: “Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, March 27, 2009.
37: Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “General Calls for More US Troops to Avoid Afghan Failure,” New York Times, September 21, 2009.
38: Michael Hastings, “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone, July 8–22 2012, web: June 25, 2012.
39: Anna Mulrine, “How Petraeus Has Changed the Afghanistan War,” Christian Science Monitor, December 31, 2010.
40: Abbas Milani, “The Green Movement,” The Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace.
41: Deborah Amos, “Is The Arab Spring Good Or Bad For The US?” NPR, January 9, 2012, .
42: Lara Setrakian, “US on Arab Spring: Inching Forward, Slapping Wrists, Nudging Dictators,” ABC News, June 16, 2011.
43: Peter Beaumont, “Netanyahu’s Rejection of Obama’s 1967 Border Deal Leaves Peace Talks in Tatters,” The Guardian, May 21, 2011.
44: Tom Cohen, “Obama Administration to Stop Deporting Some Young Illegal Immigrants,” CNN.com, June 16, 2012.
45: “Romney to Campaign Donors: Obama Voters ‘Dependent,’ See Selves as ‘victims,’” CBS News, September 17, 2012.
46: Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer, November 25, 2012.
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Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Presidents
In 1866, Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and also developed over 350 patents in a variety of areas, including rubber and synthetic silk. Although Nobel’s most famous invention revolutionized weapons of the late nineteenth century, he desired for his legacy to be one of peace. To that end, Nobel provided in his will for those who helped humanity in the areas of physics, chemistry, literature, medicine, and peace to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. The first was granted in 1901. Among those receiving this prize have been four American presidents:
1906 – Theodore Roosevelt for his work to end the Russo-Japanese War.
1919 – Woodrow Wilson for his efforts to start the League of Nations following World War I.
2002 – Former President Jimmy Carter for his efforts to resolve conflicts throughout the world and provide humanitarian aid.
2009 – Barack Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (24)
One former vice president has also won the honor, Albert Gore, Jr., in 2007, for “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.” (25
The Citizens United Decision
One of the most contentious issues to arise during Obama’s first term over which he would have little or no control was the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. A conservative nonprofit organization, Citizens United had run afoul of campaign guidelines when it tried to distribute a documentary titled Hilary: The Movie via video-on-demand using corporate money instead of funds from its related political action committee. Their challenge to the FEC’s ruling made it to the Supreme Court. The court’s dramatic 5-4 decision in January 2010 decisively changed the nation’s campaign financing landscape, stating in effect that political spending (not direct contributions to candidates, which was still limited) by groups like corporations and labor unions was protected as free speech and in essence, unlimited. Obama, a former lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago, was unvarnished in his criticism during his State of the Union speech later in the month, saying “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.” Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who voted with the majority, was visibly uncomfortable during that part of Obama’s speech and was seen shaking his head in disagreement.
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