the obama years

8 Years in Obama’s America

All presidencies are historic. But no president since at least LBJ, and probably FDR, has arrived in Washington at a moment of greater historic urgency than Barack Obama. The man who took that oath of office seemed cut from American folklore — a neophyte politician elected senator only four years before, a prodigious and preacherly orator from the “Land of Lincoln” and the South Side of Chicago of the Great Migration. An embodiment not just of the American Dream as it had been imagined by the Greatest Generation of his own maternal grandparents but of a new version, too, one that might be embraced by his daughters — global, utopian-ish, post-boomer, “post-racial.”

More than “hope,” Obama’s candidacy promised “one America.” It is the deep irony of his presidency, and for Obama himself probably the tragedy, that the past eight years saw the country fiercely divided against itself. The president still managed to get a ridiculous amount done, advancing an unusually progressive agenda. But however Americans end up remembering the Obama years decades from now, one thing we can say for sure is that it did not feel, at the time, like an unmitigated liberal triumph. It felt like a cold civil war.

Or a never-breaking political fever. There was the tea-party rage and Occupy Wall Street. Every other week, it seemed, a new shooting. Each movement was met by a countermovement, and yet, somehow, both the left and the right were invigorated, watched over by a president marked so deeply by temperamental centrism even his supporters called him Spock. Whether you noticed or not, our culture was shaken to its core. There was a whole new civil-rights era, both for those whose skin color and for those whose love was long met by prejudice. The first iPhone was released during the 2008 campaign. We got our news from Facebook, debated consent, and took down Bill Cosby. Elon Musk built a spaceship to Mars.

In this issue, we’ve tried to create an inventory of those years and to think a bit about how they might look from the distance of history. (That is, how will millennials remember the era in which they were so casually mocked, even as they remade the world with social media and an easy openness about gender?) Thankfully, we’ve had some help in putting together our time capsule, including from the president, who sat down in August with Jonathan Chait to discuss some critical moments of his tenure.

History depends on who gets to tell the story, of course, and while we took care in our choice of storytellers, the perspectives here are by no means complete (or unskewed). The timeline, too — essentially a litany of events, some major and others telling but trivial — is painfully selective (to us, and probably you). And it only goes so far — to the present, that is, when the president, like the rest of us, watches uneasily over the final weeks of a very unsettling campaign that even he describes as a referendum on his presidency and the profound cultural changes that came with it.

Photo: Dan Winters

[Full Transcript: Barack Obama on 5 Days That Shaped His Presidency]

Year 1

2009

Unemployment7.8%
Dow Jones9,034.69
GDP$14.42 TR.
Troops in Afghanistan38,350
Troops in Iraq141,300
Jan. 8

Before Barack Obama even gets started, the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the country has lost 2 million jobs in the past four months alone.

Jan. 9

The president-elect says that his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, will live in the White House.

Jan. 10

With plans for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus bill, in full swing, Obama releases a report declaring the goal is to “save or create at least 3 million jobs by the end of 2010.”

Jan. 15

Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger successfully ditches an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River. He may be the last bipartisan national hero you’ll see here.

Jan. 16

The federal government finalizes a deal to stabilize Citi. By Inauguration Day, the country’s top-four banks have lost half their value.

Jan. 20

President Obama is inaugurated. Over a million people come to Washington to watch America swear in its first African-American president­ — and talk about Aretha Franklin’s hat.

Jan. 22

The new president signs an executive order to close the Guantánamo detention camp within a year. To this day, Gitmo is still open, if less populated; of the roughly 775 prisoners originally held there, 61 remain.

Jan. 27

John Boehner urges his caucus to reject Obama’s stimulus bill unanimously. One week in, it’s clear that Republicans will try to pretend the president does not exist.

jan. 29

Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, his first piece of legislation, which removes the statute of limitations on pay-discrimination cases. The pay gap, however, proves intransigent, narrowing by only three cents — from about 77 to 80 cents to the dollar — over the next eight years.

jan. 30

David After Dentist goes viral, making an anesthetized 7-year-old a sensation on a 4-year-old company called YouTube.

feb. 17

Obama signs the $787 billion stimulus bill into law despite Republican opposition not just staving off a depression (in part thanks to the most significant tax cuts since Reagan), but also making massive investments in high-speed rail, broadband, research, and infrastructure generally (the biggest investment since Eisenhower), not to mention education (more than $4 billion for Race to the Top), and also completely reinvigorating the green-energy business, which was otherwise in danger of dying for good.

FORECLOSED: At the beginning of 2009, 861,664 houses were already surrendered to banks. Photo: TJ Proechel
feb. 17

Obama announces a surge in Afghanistan: An additional 17,000 troops will be deployed to deal with increased violence on the ground, boosting the force by nearly 50 percent.

feb. 27

Then he promises an end to the war in Iraq: “Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

mar. 2

Jimmy Fallon begins his reign as the new prince of late night. “Fun” trumps “funny.”

Mar. 8

Middle-aged meth-maker Walter White estimates he needs to make “11 more drug deals” to provide for his family. Breaking Bad, season two, premieres.

Mar. 9

Stocks plunge to 12-year lows, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping below 6,600.

mar. 14

AIG doles out bonuses almost equal to the amount of its federal bailout. The American people reach for their pitchforks.

mar. 18

Airbnb, a company that started with two San Francisco roommates renting air mattresses on their floor, is so popular with investors that it gets funded even before its Y Combinator class’s “Demo Day.”

apr. 9

Parks and Recreation begins its seven-year celebration of government officials trying to do good despite a populace that doesn’t care.

apr. 30

Chrysler files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; GM will follow suit one month later.

may 9

“In the next hundred days, our bipartisan outreach will be so successful that even John Boehner will consider becoming a Democrat. After all, we have a lot in common. He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. What’s up, John?” —Barack Obama, White House Correspondents’ Dinner

may 19

Glee, a little show about a high-school singing club, premieres.

THIS IS 17: Mars and Molly, a couple in Brooklyn. Photo: Laurel Golio
may 26

Obama nominates Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, replacing the retiring justice David Souter.

jun. 17

The Obama administration unveils its plan for regulating Wall Street, which is then introduced in Congress by Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank.

jun. 25

Michael Jackson dies, and Twitter mourns.

jul. 10

The government acquires a 61 percent stake in GM and loans the company $50 billion. The auto bailout will eventually be heralded as a great success, adding more than 250,000 manufacturing jobs to the economy.

jul. 16

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is arrested for breaking into his own home by Cambridge police officer James Crowley. Obama invites Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer.

Aug. 5

Drones finally kill their most-targeted man, after as many as seven failed strikes.