Who Is Barack Obama?
Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States and the first African American commander-in-chief. He served two terms, in 2008 and 2012. The son of parents from Kenya and Kansas, Obama was born and raised in Hawaii. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. After serving on the Illinois State Senate, he was elected a U.S. senator representing Illinois in 2004. He and wife Michelle Obama have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Father and Mother
Early Life and Parents
Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., was born of Luo ethnicity in Nyanza Province, Kenya. Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in Africa and eventually earned a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and pursue his dreams of going to college in Hawaii.
Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born on an Army base in Wichita, Kansas, during World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dunham's father, Stanley, enlisted in the military and marched across Europe in General George Patton's army. Dunham's mother, Madelyn, went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, the couple studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through the Federal Housing Program and, after several moves, ended up in Hawaii.
While studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Obama Sr. met fellow student Ann Dunham. They married on February 2, 1961, and Barack II was born six months later.
His father left soon after his birth, and the couple divorced two years later. In 1965, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, a University of Hawaii student from Indonesia. A year later, the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro Ng, was born in 1970. Several incidents in Indonesia left Dunham afraid for her son's safety and education so, at the age of 10, Obama was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His mother and half-sister later joined them.
As a child, Obama did not have a relationship with his father. When his son was still an infant, Obama Sr. relocated to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University and pursue a Ph.D. Obama's parents officially separated several months later and ultimately divorced in March 1964, when their son was two. Soon after, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya.
Obama struggled with the absence of his father during his childhood, who he saw only once more after his parents divorced when Obama Sr. visited Hawaii for a short time in 1971. "[My father] had left paradise, and nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact," he later reflected. "They couldn't describe what it might have been like had he stayed."
While living with his grandparents, Obama enrolled in the esteemed Punahou Academy. He excelled in basketball and graduated with academic honors in 1979. As one of only three Black students at the school, he became conscious of racism and what it meant to be African American.
Obama later described how he struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage with his own sense of self: "I noticed that there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalog. . .and that Santa was a white man," he wrote. "I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me."
Obama entered Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, graduating in 1983 with a degree in political science. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law in 1991.
After graduating from Columbia University as an undergrad, Obama worked in the business sector for two years. He moved to Chicago in 1985, where he worked on the impoverished South Side as a community organizer for low-income residents in the Roseland and the Altgeld Gardens communities.
It was during this time that Obama, who said he "was not raised in a religious household," joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. He also visited relatives in Kenya, and paid an emotional visit to the graves of his biological father, who died in a car accident in November 1982, and paternal grandfather.
"For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept," Obama wrote. "I saw that my life in America — the Black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away."
Returning from Kenya with a sense of renewal, Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988. The next year, he met with constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. Their discussion so impressed Tribe, that when Obama asked to join his team as a research assistant, the professor agreed.
“The better he did at Harvard Law School and the more he impressed people, the more obvious it became that he could have had anything,“ said Professor Tribe in a 2012 interview with Frontline, “but it was clear that he wanted to make a difference to people, to communities.”
In 1989, Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin as a summer associate, where he met his future wife Michelle. In February 1990, Obama was elected the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Marriage to Michelle Obama and Daughters
Obama met Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer who was assigned to be his adviser at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin. Not long after, the couple began dating. On October 3, 1992, he and Michelle were married.
They moved to Kenwood, on Chicago's South Side. Barack and Michelle Obama welcomed two daughters several years later: Malia (born 1998) and Sasha (born 2001).
Career in Law
After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer with the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He also taught constitutional law part-time at the University of Chicago Law School between 1992 and 2004 — first as a lecturer and then as a professor — and helped organize voter registration drives during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.
First Book and Grammy
Obama published his autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in 1995. The work received high praise from literary figures such as Toni Morrison. It has since been printed in more than 25 languages, including Chinese, Swedish and Hebrew. The book had a second printing in 2004 and was adapted for a children's version.
The audiobook version of Dreams, narrated by Obama, received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word album in 2006.
Entry into Illinois Politics
Obama's advocacy work led him to run for a seat in the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat in 1996. During his years as a state senator, Obama worked with both Democrats and Republicans to draft legislation on ethics, as well as expand health care services and early childhood education programs for the poor. He also created a state earned-income tax credit for the working poor. As chairman of the Illinois Senate's Health and Human Services Committee, Obama worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases after a number of death-row inmates were found to be innocent.
In 2000, Obama made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by four-term incumbent candidate Bobby Rush. Undeterred, he created a campaign committee in 2002 and began raising funds to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. With the help of political consultant David Axelrod, Obama began assessing his prospects for a Senate win.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Obama was an early opponent of President George W. Bush's push to go to war with Iraq. Obama was still a state senator when he spoke against a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq during a rally at Chicago's Federal Plaza in October 2002. "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." Despite his protests, the Iraq War began in 2003.
Encouraged by poll numbers, Obama decided to run for the U.S. Senate open seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald in the 2004 Democratic primary. He defeated multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes with 52 percent of the vote.
That summer, he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama emphasized the importance of unity and made veiled jabs at the Bush administration and the diversionary use of wedge issues.
After the convention, Obama returned to his U.S. Senate bid in Illinois. His opponent in the general election was supposed to be Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, a wealthy former investment banker. However, Ryan withdrew from the race in June 2004 following public disclosure of unsubstantiated sexual deviancy allegations by his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan.
In August 2004, diplomat and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes accepted the Republican nomination to replace Ryan. In three televised debates, Obama and Keyes expressed opposing views on stem cell research, abortion, gun control, school vouchers and tax cuts. In the November 2004 general election, Obama received 70 percent of the vote to Keyes' 27 percent, the largest electoral victory in Illinois history. With his win, Obama became only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
Sworn into office on January 3, 2005, Obama partnered with Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana on a bill that expanded efforts to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Eastern Europe and Russia. Then, with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he created a website to track all federal spending. Obama also spoke out for victims of Hurricane Katrina, pushed for alternative energy development and championed improved veterans' benefits.
Second Book: 'The Audacity of Hope'
His second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, was published in October 2006. The work discussed Obama's visions for the future of America, many of which became talking points for his eventual presidential campaign. Shortly after its release, the book hit No. 1 on both the New York Times and Amazon's best-seller lists.
2008 Presidential Election
In February 2007, Obama made headlines when he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He was locked in a tight battle with former first lady and then-U.S. senator from New York Hillary Rodham Clinton. On June 3, 2008, Obama became the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee after winning a sufficient number of pledged delegates during the primaries, and Clinton delivered her full support to Obama for the duration of his campaign.
On November 4, 2008, Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 52.9 percent to 45.7 percent, to win election as the 44th president of the United States—and the first African American to hold this office. His running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, became vice president.
Obama's inauguration took place on January 20, 2009. When Obama took office, he inherited a global economic recession, two ongoing foreign wars and the lowest-ever international favorability rating for the United States.
He had campaigned on an ambitious agenda of financial reform, alternative energy and reinventing education and health care — all while bringing down the national debt. Because these issues were intertwined with the economic well-being of the nation, he believed all would have to be undertaken simultaneously.
During his inauguration speech, Obama summarized the situation by saying, "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."
First 100 Days and Nobel Peace Prize
Between Inauguration Day and April 29, 2009, the Obama administration took action on many fronts. For his efforts during his debut in office, the Nobel Committee in Norway awarded Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
In his first 100 days in office, Obama coaxed Congress to expand health care insurance for children and provide legal protection for women seeking equal pay. A $787 billion stimulus bill was passed to promote short-term economic growth. Housing and credit markets were put on life support, with a market-based plan to buy U.S. banks' toxic assets. Loans were made to the auto industry, and new regulations were proposed for Wall Street.
Obama cut taxes for working families, small businesses and first-time home buyers. The president also loosened the ban on embryonic stem cell research and moved ahead with a $3.5 trillion budget plan.
Obama undertook a complete overhaul of America's foreign policy. He reached out to improve relations with Europe, China and Russia and to open dialogue with Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He lobbied allies to support a global economic stimulus package. He committed an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan and set an August 2010 date for withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq.
In more dramatic incidents, Obama ordered an attack on pirates off the coast of Somalia and prepared the nation for a swine flu outbreak. He signed an executive order banning excessive interrogation techniques and ordered the closing of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba within a year (a deadline that ultimately would not be met).
As he did in 2008, during his campaign for a second presidential term, Obama focused on grassroots initiatives. Celebrities such as Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker aided the president's campaign by hosting fundraising events.
"I guarantee you, we will move this country forward," Obama stated in June 2012, at a campaign event in Maryland. "We will finish what we started. And we'll remind the world just why it is that the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth."
In the 2012 election, Obama faced Republican opponent Mitt Romney and Romney's vice-presidential running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan. On November 6, 2012, Obama won a second four-year term as president by receiving nearly five million more votes than Romney and capturing more than 60 percent of the Electoral College.
Obama officially began his second term on January 21, 2013, when U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office. In his inaugural address, Obama called the nation to action on such issues as climate change, health care and marriage equality to a crowd gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
2014 Midterm Elections
In November 2014, Obama had to cope with new challenges on the home front. Republicans made an impressive showing on Election Day and gained a majority in the Senate, meaning that Obama would have to contend with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress for the final two years of his term.
Killing Osama bin Laden
On April 29, 2011, Obama gave the green light to a covert operation in Pakistan to track down the infamous al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and had been in hiding for nearly 10 years. On May 2, 2011, an elite team of U.S. Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and within 40 minutes killed bin Laden in a firefight. There were no American casualties, and the team was able to collect invaluable intelligence about the workings of al-Qaeda.
The same day, Obama announced bin Laden’s death on national television. “For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” Obama said. “As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.”
Chemical Attacks in Syria
Obama found himself grappling with an international crisis in late August and September 2013 when it was discovered that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians. While saying that thousands of people, including over 400 children, had been killed in the chemical attacks, Obama called Syria's actions "a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region, and as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable."
The president worked to persuade Congress and the international community at large to take action against Syria but found a majority on Capitol Hill opposed to military involvement. Obama then announced an alternative solution on September 10, 2013, by stating that if al-Assad agreed with the stipulations outlined in a proposal made by Russia to give up its chemical weapons, then a direct strike against the nation could be avoided. Al-Assad acknowledged the possession of chemical weapons and ultimately accepted the Russian proposal.
Iran Nuclear Deal
In September 2013, Obama made diplomatic strides with Iran. He spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the phone, which marked the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 30 years.
This groundbreaking move by Obama was seen by many as a sign of thawing in the relationship between the United States and Iran. "The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran's nuclear program," reported Obama at a press conference in which he expressed optimism that a deal could be reached to lift sanctions on Iran in return for that country’s willingness to halt its nuclear development program.
In July 2015, Obama announced that, after lengthy negotiations, the United States and five world powers had reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The deal would allow inspectors entry into Iran to make sure the country kept its pledge to limit its nuclear program and enrich uranium at a much lower level than would be needed for a nuclear weapon. In return, the U.S. and its partners would remove the tough sanctions imposed on Iran and allow the country to ramp up sales of oil and access frozen bank accounts.
As the administration began its effort to lobby Congress to endorse the deal, Obama made his first trip as president back to his father’s homeland of Kenya. In addition to having dinner with three-dozen relatives, some of whom he met for the very first time, Obama proudly proclaimed to a packed arena, “I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya—and of course I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.”
President Trump’s Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal
In 2018, President Donald Trump, Obama's successor who was elected in November 2016, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal put in place by Obama. He argued, with some evidence, that the country was exploiting the terms of the deal to build up its military and militias in the region, and that it would emerge with greater resources to make a nuclear weapon once the deal expired. He then began a campaign of “maximum pressure” economic sanctions to force Iran to accept permanent, comprehensive restrictions.
Iran responded by gradually increasing its uranium enrichment. In mid-2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had surpassed the uranium enrichment levels agreed on in 2015, bringing the nation closer to the development of an atomic bomb. European countries might in turn restore their own sanctions. Experts say the moves could push the U.S. and Iran closer to military confrontation.
Ukraine and Russia
Echoes of the Cold War also returned after civil unrest and protests in the capital city of Kiev led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's administration in February 2014. Russian troops crossed into Ukraine to support pro-Russian forces and the annexation of the province of Crimea.
In response, Obama ordered sanctions targeting individuals and businesses considered by the U.S. government to be Ukraine agitators or involved in the Crimean crisis. "In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders," Obama stated. The president said the sanctions were taken in close coordination with European allies and gave the U.S. "the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia's actions.”
ISIS Air Strikes
In August 2014, Obama ordered the first airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which had seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria and conducted high-profile beheadings of foreign hostages. The following month, the U.S. launched its first attacks on ISIS targets in Syria, although the president pledged to keep combat troops out of the conflict. Several Arab countries joined the airstrikes against the extremist Islamic militant group.
"The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama said in a speech to the United Nations. “So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death."
Diplomatic Relations with Cuba
Obama flexed his presidential power in December 2014 by moving to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. He and Cuban president Raul Castro announced the normalizing of diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961.
The policy change came after the exchange of American citizen Alan Gross and another unnamed American intelligence agent for three Cuban spies. In a speech at the White House, Obama explained that the dramatic shift in Cuban policy would "create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."
In renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba, Obama announced plans "to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba." The long-standing U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, however, remained in effect and could only be removed with the approval of Congress. Leading Republicans—including Boehner, McConnell and Florida Senator Marco Rubio—all spoke out against Obama's new Cuba policies.
On March 20, 2016, Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since 1928 as part of his larger program to establish greater cooperation between the two countries. Obama made the three-day visit with Michelle and their daughters Malia and Sasha.
At the top of the agenda during the milestone meeting between the two leaders were human rights, the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba and Guantanamo Bay. Following their first conversation at the Palace of the Revolution, Castro and Obama held a joint press conference broadcast on state television during which they fielded questions from the press. While they acknowledged its complexities, both also professed a shared optimism about the road ahead.
President Trump's Travel Restrictions to Cuba
Travel to Cuba from the United States began to surge, with the U.S. becoming the second-largest source of travelers to the island nation behind Canada. In June 2019, President Trump banned ship and commercial airline travel into Cuba. The restrictions effectively banned all tourist travel to Cuba by prohibiting people-to-people educational travel.
The Trump administration said the move was in an effort to pressure the Cuban government to stop supporting Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Experts said it could cripple the economy and might therefore be an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the hand-picked successor of Fidel Castro who took office in 2018.
India Nuclear Agreement
In 2015, Obama traveled to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to several news reports, Obama and Modi had reached a "breakthrough understanding" regarding India's nuclear power efforts.
Obama told the Indian people in a speech given in New Delhi that "we can finally move toward fully implementing our civil nuclear agreement, which will mean more reliable electricity for Indians and cleaner, non-carbon energy that helps fight climate change." This agreement would also open the door to U.S. investment in India's energy industry.
Meeting with Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
On March 10, 2016, Obama met at the White House with newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the first official visit by a Canadian leader in nearly 20 years.
Central among the topics addressed during their meeting—which also included trade, terrorism and border security—was climate change, with the two leaders promising a commitment to building an international “low-carbon global economy.”
Trudeau’s apparent concern for environmental issues and generally liberal agenda stand in contrast to his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Obama had strained relations with Harper due in part to Obama’s unwillingness to allow for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act
In spite of opposition from Congressional Republicans and the populist Tea Party movement, Obama signed his health care reform plan, known as the Affordable Care Act, into law in March 2010. The new law prohibited the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, allowed citizens under 26 years old to be insured under parental plans, provided for free health screenings for certain citizens and expanded insurance coverage and access to medical care to millions of Americans.
Supreme Court Ruling on Individual Mandate
Obama gained a legal victory in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which required citizens to purchase health insurance or pay a tax. In a 5-4 decision, the court decided the health care law’s signature provision fell within the taxation power granted to Congress under the Constitution.
Congressional Challenges to “Obamacare”
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, which foes dubbed "Obamacare," asserted that it added new costs to the country's overblown budget, violated the Constitution with its requirement for individuals to obtain insurance and amounted to a “government takeover” of health care.
In October 2013, a dispute over the federal budget and Republican desires to defund or derail the Affordable Care Act caused a 16-day shutdown of the federal government. After a deal had been reached to end the shutdown, Obama used his weekly address to express his frustration over the situation and his desire for political reform: "The way business is done in Washington has to change. Now that these clouds of crisis and uncertainty have lifted, we need to focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do—grow the economy, create good jobs, strengthen the middle class, lay the foundation for broad-based prosperity, and get our fiscal house in order for the long haul."
The Affordable Care Act continued to come under fire in October after the failed launch of HealthCare.gov, the website meant to allow people to find and purchase health insurance. Extra technical support was brought in to work on the troubled website, which was plagued with glitches for weeks.
The health care law was also blamed for some Americans losing their existing insurance policies, despite repeated assurances from Obama that such cancellations would not occur. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama insisted that the insurance companies—and not his legislation—caused the coverage change. "Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad-apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received, or used minor pre-existing conditions to jack up your premiums, or bill you into bankruptcy,” he said.
Under mounting pressure, Obama found himself apologizing regarding some health care changes. In an interview with NBC News, he said of those who lost their insurance plans, "I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me." Obama pledged to find a remedy to this problem, saying, "We are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this."
In 2014, Speaker of the House John Boehner launched an effort to sue Obama for overstepping his executive powers with some of his actions regarding the Affordable Care Act.
Supreme Court Ruling on Health Care Tax Subsidies
In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld part of the president's Affordable Care Act regarding health care tax subsidies. Without these tax credits, buying medical insurance might have become too costly for millions of Americans.
Obamacare Repeal Attempts Under the Trump Administration
Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In 2017, Congressional Republicans dropped the individual mandate tax penalty, which imposed a tax for not signing up for health insurance, to zero.
Texas and 17 other Republican states quickly sued to strike down the Affordable Care Act, mainly based on their opposition to its individual mandate. The 2012 Supreme Court ruling found that the individual mandate in and of itself was unconstitutional, but it could be allowed in this instance because the law as a whole was part of Congress’s right to impose taxes.
A Texas federal judge ruled in favor of the suit, saying that because there was no longer a tax, the law was unconstitutional. The case was sent to an appeals court.
As of 2019, polls suggested that the majority of Americans don’t think Congress should revamp the entire health care system. Analysts say that the demolition of the law could prove to be detrimental to Republicans in the 2020 elections.
Budget Control Act of 2011
Obama worked to steer the country through difficult financial times in the second part of his first term as president. After drawn-out negotiations with Republicans who gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, he signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 in an effort to rein in government spending and prevent the government from defaulting on its financial obligations. The act also called for the creation of a bipartisan committee to seek solutions to the country's fiscal issues. The group failed to reach any agreement on how to solve these problems.
NSA Wiretapping Controversy
In June 2013, Obama had suffered a significant drop in his approval ratings to 45 percent following new revelations about the extent of the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance program, allegations of the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative political organizations seeking tax-exempt status, and accusations of a cover-up in the terrorist killings of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama defended the NSA's email monitoring and telephone wiretapping during a visit to Germany in June 2013. "We are not rifling through the emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anyone else,” he said. "The encroachment on privacy has been strictly limited." Obama stated that the program had helped stop roughly 50 threats.
In October 2013, German Chancellor Angela Merkel revealed that the NSA had been listening in to her cell phone calls. "Spying among friends is never acceptable," Merkel told a summit of European leaders.
Obama saw his approval rating drop to a new low in November 2013. Only 37 percent of Americans polled by CBS News approved of the job he was doing as president, while 57 percent disapproved of his handling of the job.
Trayvon Martin Shooting
After a Florida jury’s decision in 2013 to acquit George Zimmerman in the murder of African American teen Trayvon Martin, Obama spoke out about the outrage that followed. "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” the president remarked at a White House press conference. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
Obama explained that this particular case was a state matter, but he discussed how the federal government could address some of the legislative and racial issues highlighted by the incident.
Obama’s Record on LGBT Rights
Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
In 2011, Obama signed a repeal of the military policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prevented openly gay troops from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. In March 2011, he approved U.S. participation in NATO airstrikes to support rebels fighting against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage in the U.S.
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn an earlier 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that same-sex marriage bans in several states were constitutional. By reversing this earlier decision, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the country.
Obama, who became the first president to voice support for same-sex marriage in May 2012, praised the court for affirming "that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they've reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love."
In his speech, Obama also said that the court's decision "is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents—parents who loved their children no matter what. Folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong . . . and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love."
President Obama’s Record on Climate Change
Clean Power Plan
In August 2015, the Obama administration announced The Clean Power Plan, a major climate change plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first-ever national standards to limit carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants in the United States. The plan became the administration’s main tool to meet the emissions reduction target from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Obama called the plan the "single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change." It called for aggressive Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including requiring existing power plants to cut carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and use more renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. Under the regulations, states were allowed to create their own plans to reduce emissions and are required to submit initial plans by 2016 and final versions by 2018.
Critics quickly voiced loud opposition to the plan. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, sent a letter to every governor in the United States urging them not to comply with the regulations. States and private companies, which rely on coal production for their economic livelihoods, are also expected to legally challenge the plan.
Despite the backlash from those sectors, Obama remained steadfast in his bold action to address climate change. "We've heard these same stale arguments before," he said in an address from the White House. "Each time they were wrong."
He added: "We're the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it."
Business groups, companies and 27 states continued to fight the legislation in court. In February 2019, a newly conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to block Obama’s Clean Power Plan by putting a hold on regulations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, mostly from coal power plants.
President Trump's Replacement for the Clean Power Plan
In June 2019, President Trump effectively killed Obama’s Clean Power Plan, replacing it with the Affordable Clean Energy rule. The new legislation was much weaker and only proposed to lower power sector emissions by 11 million tons by 2030 (about 0.7 to 1.5 percent). Some researchers said that the new plan could increase greenhouse gas emissions, and the EPA estimated it could lead to thousands more deaths from air pollution.
Paris Climate Agreement
In November 2015, Obama was a primary player in the international COP21 summit held outside of Paris, France. Addressing the gathered representatives of nearly 200 countries, Obama acknowledged the United States’ position as the second-largest climate polluter and the nation’s primary responsibility to do something about it.
The resulting Paris Climate Agreement required all participating nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the rise of global temperatures over the ensuing century and also to allocate resources for the research and development of alternative energy sources. Obama praised the agreement for establishing the “enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis” and pledged that the United States would cut its emissions more than 25 percent by 2030.
In September 2016, the United States and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, announced that their countries would ratify the Paris Agreement. One month later on October 5, 2016, the United Nations announced that the agreement had been ratified by a sufficient number of countries to allow it to take effect starting on November 4, 2016.
Speaking from the Rose Garden at the White House, Obama said: "Today, the world meets the moment, and if we follow through on the commitments that this Paris Agreement embodies, history may well judge it as a turning point for our planet.”
"One the reasons I ran for this office was to make America the leader in this mission," he continued, adding he was hopeful the historic agreement could make a difference. "This gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we've got.”
Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement
On June 1, 2017, President Trump made good on his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. With his decision, the United States joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only three countries to reject the accord.
“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States,” Trump said in a speech from the White House Rose Garden. "We're getting out. And we will start to renegotiate and we'll see if there's a better deal. If we can, great. If we can't, that's fine.”
Former president Obama responded in a statement: “The nations that remain in the Paris Agreement will be the nations that reap the benefits in jobs and industries created. I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack. But even in the absence of American leadership; even as this Administration joins a small handful of nations that reject the future; I’m confident that our states, cities, and businesses will step up and do even more to lead the way, and help protect for future generations the one planet we’ve got.”
Supreme Court Nominees
During his presidency, Obama filled two seats in the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor (confirmed in 2009) and Elena Kagan (confirmed in 2010). Both justices were confirmed under a Democratic-majority Senate.
In March 2016, Obama held a press conference at the White House to present 63-year-old U.S. Court of Appeals chief judge Merrick Garland as his nominee for the Supreme Court seat vacated with the unexpected death of conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia. Garland was considered a moderate “consensus” candidate.
Garland’s nomination was immediately rebuffed by leaders of the Republican Party. They stated their intention to block any nominee put forward by Obama, fearing that such a confirmation would tip the balance toward a more liberal-leaning court.
In an allusion to the political standoff, Obama closed his remarks about Garland by saying, “I am fulfilling my constitutional duty. I’m doing my job. I hope that our senators will do their jobs, and move quickly to consider my nominee.”
President Obama on Gun Control
Sandy Hook School Shooting
On December 14, 2012, nearly one month after Obama's re-election, the nation endured one of its most tragic school shootings to date when 20 children and six adults were shot to death at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Two days after the attack, Obama delivered a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims in Newtown and discussed the need for change in order to make schools safer while alluding to implementing stricter gun-control measures.
"These tragedies must end," Obama stated. "In the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement, to mental-health professionals, to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like these as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"
Obama achieved a major legislative victory on January 1, 2013, when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a bipartisan agreement on tax increases and spending cuts, in an effort to avoid the looming fiscal cliff crisis (the Senate voted in favor of the bill earlier that day). The agreement marked a productive first step toward the president's re-election promise of reducing the federal deficit by raising taxes on the extremely wealthy—individuals earning more than $400,000 per year and couples earning more than $450,000, according to the bill.
Prior to the bill's passage, in late 2012, tense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over spending cuts and tax increases became a bitter political battle until Vice President Joe Biden managed to hammer out a deal with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Obama pledged to sign the bill into law.
Boston Marathon Bombings
Terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, killed three people and left more than 200 injured. At a memorial service in Boston three days after the bombings, he told the wounded, "Your country is with you. We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again. Of that I have no doubt. You will run again." And he applauded the city’s response to the tragedy. "You’ve shown us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what’s good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion."
In the same month, Obama also found his efforts for gun-control measures thwarted in Congress. He had supported legislation calling for universal background checks on all gun purchases and a ban on sales of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. When the bill was blocked and withdrawn, Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Gun Control Executive Orders
In early January 2016 Obama held a press conference to announce a new series of executive orders related to gun control. Citing examples such as the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, the president shed tears as he called on Congress and the gun lobby to work with him to make the country safer.
His measures, which were met with vehement opposition from members of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as gun advocacy groups such as the NRA, would have implemented more thorough background checks for gun buyers, stricter government oversight and enforcement of gun laws, better information sharing regarding mental health issues as related to gun ownership and investment in gun safety technology.
President Obama’s Notable Speeches
2010 State of the Union
On January 27, 2010, Obama delivered his first State of the Union speech. During his oration, Obama addressed the challenges of the economy, proposed a fee for larger banks, announced a possible freeze on government spending in the following fiscal year and spoke against the Supreme Court's reversal of a law capping campaign finance spending.
Obama also challenged politicians to stop thinking of re-election and start making positive changes. He criticized Republicans for their refusal to support legislation and chastised Democrats for not pushing hard enough to get legislation passed.
He also insisted that, despite obstacles, he was determined to help American citizens through the nation's current domestic difficulties. "We don't quit. I don't quit," he said. "Let's seize this moment to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more."
2015 State of the Union
In his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama declared that the nation was out of recession. "America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back . . . know this: The shadow of crisis has passed," he said. He went on to share his vision for ways to improve the nation through free community college programs and middle-class tax breaks.
With Democrats outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and the Senate, Obama threatened to use his executive power to prevent any tinkering by the opposition on his existing policies. "We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got to fix a broken system," he said. "And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it."
2016 State of the Union
On January 12, 2016, Obama delivered what would be his final State of the Union address. Diverging from the typical policy-prescribing format, Obama’s message for the American people was centered around themes of optimism in the face of adversity, asking them not to let fears about security or the future get in the way of building a nation that is “clear-eyed” and “big-hearted.”
This did not prevent him from taking thinly disguised jabs at Republican presidential hopefuls for what he characterized as their “cynical” rhetoric, making further allusions to the “rancor and suspicion between the parties” and his failure as president to do more to bridge that gap. But Obama also took the opportunity to tout his accomplishments, citing the Affordable Care Act, diplomatic progress with Iran and Cuba, the legalization of gay marriage and profound economic recovery as among them.
On January 10, 2017, Obama returned to his adopted home city of Chicago to deliver his farewell address. In his speech, Obama spoke about his early days in Chicago and his continued faith in the power of Americans who participate in their democracy.
“Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it,” he told the cheering crowd. “After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.”
The president went on to address the accomplishments of his administration. “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high,” he said. “But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started."
Obama also expressed his commitment to the peaceful transfer of power to President-Elect Donald Trump and called on politicians and American citizens to come together despite their differences.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” he said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
He also appealed for tolerance and to continue the fight against discrimination: “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America," he said. "Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.
“If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce,” Obama continued. “Going forward, we must uphold laws against discrimination . . . But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.”
He also quoted Atticus Finch, the main character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, asking Americans to heed his advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In a tearful moment, Obama addressed his wife, Michelle, and then spoke about being the proud father of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and expressed his gratitude for Vice President Biden. Obama concluded his farewell address with a call to action: “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” he said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”