The Obama Presidency

Young boy reaches out to touch Obama's hair as Obama bends over in the oval office.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American elected to the presidency. In this official White House photo from May, 2009, 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia said, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” Reference Pete Souza, White House, reference number P050809PS-0264, via Flickr.

By the 2008 election, with Iraq still in chaos, Democrats were ready to embrace the anti-war position and sought a candidate who had consistently opposed military action in Iraq. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois had been a member of the state senate when Congress debated the war actions but he had publicly denounced the war, predicting the sectarian violence that would ensue, and remained critical of the invasion through his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. He began running for president almost immediately after arriving in Washington.

A former law professor and community activist, Obama became the first black candidate to ever capture the nomination of a major political party. During the election, Obama won the support of an increasingly anti-war electorate. Already riding a wave of support, however, Bush’s fragile economy finally collapsed in 2007 and 2008. Bush’s policies were widely blamed, and Obama’s opponent, John McCain, was tied to Bush’s policies. Obama won a convincing victory in the fall and became the nation’s first African American president.

President Obama’s first term was marked by domestic affairs, especially his efforts to combat the Great Recession and to pass a national healthcare law. Obama came into office as the economy continued to deteriorate. He managed the bank bailout begun under his predecessor and launched a limited economic stimulus plan to provide countercyclical government spending to spare the country from the worst of the downturn.

Obama’s most substantive legislative achievement proved to be a national healthcare law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but typically “Obamacare” by opponents and supporters like. The plan, narrowly passed by Congress, would require all Americans to provide proof of a health insurance plan that measured up to government-established standards. Those who did not purchase a plan would pay a penalty tax, and those who could not afford insurance would be eligible for federal subsidies.

Nationally, as prejudices against homosexuality fell and support for gay marriage reached a majority of the population, the Obama administration moved tentatively. Refusing to push for national interventions on the gay marriage front, Obama did, however, direct a review of Defense Department policies that repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.

In 2009, President Barack Obama deployed 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a counterinsurgency campaign that aimed to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces and CIA drones targeted al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. In May 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs conducted a raid deep into Pakistan that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The United States and NATO began a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011, with an aim of removing all combat troops by 2014. Although weak militarily, the Taliban remained politically influential in south and eastern Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda remained active in Pakistan, but shifted its bases to Yemen and the Horn of Africa. As of December 2013, the war in Afghanistan had claimed the lives of 3,397 U.S. service members.

A line of Taliban fighters.

These former Taliban fighters surrendered their arms to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan during a reintegration ceremony at the provincial governor’s compound in May 2012. Wikimedia.

Climate change, the role of government, gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the rise of China, inequality, surveillance, a stagnant economy, and a host of other issues have confronted recent Americans with sustained urgency.