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


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.

sep. 9

Representative Joe Wilson gives a shout-out to Obama during a joint session of Congress: “You lie!”

Sep. 10

An upstart conservative website founded by Andrew Breitbart publishes undercover videos recorded inside the nonprofit ACORN in which conservative activists appear to ask for — and receive — advice on the sex trade. ACORN eventually shuts down; fringe right-wing muckraking is just getting started.

sep. 13

Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, saying, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” Obama declares West “a jackass.”

sep. 16

Facebook, a five-year-old social network, turns a profit for the first time and hits 300 million users.

Sep. 17

The Affordable Care Act, which will become known as Obamacare, is introduced in the House of Representatives. First counterstrike: Members of Congress start working on an amendment that would preclude using Obamacare for abortions.

Photo: Pete Souza/Courtesy of The White House
oct. 8

Obama plays basketball, among other things.

nov. 6

Unemployment hits 10 percent, the highest point of the recession — though, for some, the recovery will never come.

dec. 1

Obama announces a 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan.

dec. 11

Angry Birds hits the app store, and America discovers how much it loves wasting time. For a few years, no one goes broke underestimating the dumb stuff people will do on their phones.

dec. 18

U.N. climate talks end in deadlock; the same day, James Cameron’s Avatar, an environmental jeremiad, begins its climb to being the highest-grossing film of all time.

dec. 20

The NFL finally admits that football is dangerous and concussions can kill. Eighty-seven of 91 players’ brains posthumously tested have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Year 2


Dow Jones10,583.96
GDP$14.96 TR.
Troops in Afghanistan79,100
Troops in Iraq95,900
jan. 19

Scott Brown is elected Massachusetts senator, turning Ted Kennedy’s seat Republican for the first time since 1952 and suddenly throwing the prospect of passing Obamacare into jeopardy.

Jan. 21

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court rules that limits on corporate spending on political campaigns were violations of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Since the decision, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there has been more than $1 billion in super-pac spending, more than $600 million of which came from just 195 individuals and their spouses.

Feb. 11

Kentucky becomes the first of 45 states to adopt the Common Core curriculum and testing regimen. By 2015, a typical student will take 112 standardized tests between prekindergarten and 12th grade.

Mar. 7

Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first (and, to this day, only) woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, for The Hurt Locker, a movie about an Iraq War bomb-disposal squad.

mar. 18

An iPhone 4 prototype is accidentally left in a bar, and the world reacts to the publication of its specs like Gizmodo has discovered a new steam engine. Actually, it has: Along with Instagram, which will launch later in the year, the iPhone’s front-facing camera will power a whole new culture of narcissism (and a whole new economy of fame).

Mar. 22

Google pulls out of China; it’s one of more than 30 U.S. corporations that have been the target of sophisticated cyberattacks originating in the country. Announcing the decision, the company cites [REDACTED].

Mar. 23

Obama­care, the biggest expansion of the social safety net since LBJ, becomes law without a single Republican vote, extending health-­insurance coverage to millions. Fifteen million fewer people will be uninsured, resulting in 87,000 fewer preventable deaths and $19.8 billion in cost savings. In the next six years, Republicans will try to repeal the law more than 60 times.

Mar. 24

Birtherism runs rampant. A poll suggests at least a quarter of adult Americans, including one prominent reality-show host with presidential ambitions, doubt that President Obama was born in the United States.

Apr. 2

The U.S. economy gains 162,000 nonfarm jobs, the biggest increase since the start of the recession.

Apr. 3

WikiLeaks uploads “Collateral Murder” to YouTube. The 39-minute video shows a U.S. Army Apache helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq in 2007. It’s the first release from a trove of classified documents smuggled off military servers by Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning that reveal secret U.S. military operations in Yemen, American diplomats’ spying on foreign officials, and reports of abuse and murder of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Manning is convicted by court-martial in July 2013 and later sentenced to 35 years in prison, the longest sentence ever given to a government leaker.

Clockwise from corner left: The very first Instagram, by CEO and co-founder Kevin Systrom.; First #selfie: Instagram user Jennifer Lee coins a hashtag.; Ellen DeGeneres’s 2014 Oscars selfie goes viral.; More than 5 million likes for Selena Gomez.;.The most liked Instagram of 2014: Kim and Kanye’s wedding.; Justin Bieber has the first Instagram video to hit 1 million likes.
Apr. 20

Deepwater Horizon explodes, and Obama confronts what some call his first “Katrina moment.”

SLICKED: A brown pelican rescued from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo: Joel Sartore
Apr. 23

Arizona governor Jan Brewer signs a law allowing police to detain anyone they believe might be an illegal immigrant, saying her state can’t afford “the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings.” Obama will cite the heated rhetoric over immigration a month later when he calls for comprehensive reform.

May 1

“You might have heard we passed a health-care bill … Some Republicans have suggested that the bill contains a few secret provisions. That’s ridiculous. There aren’t a few secret provisions in the health-care plan — there are, like, hundreds.” —Barack Obama, White House Correspondents’ Dinner

May 2

Austerity marches across Europe as Greece is bailed out of debt in exchange for public-spending cuts and tax hikes; a nationwide strike and massive protests follow.

May 10

Obama nominates Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. And that makes four.

May 31

Uber launches a car service in San Francisco — and a million “It’s the Uber of …” dreams across America.

jun. 30

Student loans surpass credit-card debt, with $829.785 billion owed.

Jul. 8

LeBron James announces his decision to sign with the Miami Heat. The announcement is made on a live TV special.

Jul. 21

Obama signs into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the most comprehensive overhaul of financial regulation since the Great Depression. Bankers and liberals are both incensed.

Jul. 22

A bill to create a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions goes the way of the wetlands and the polar bears after its passage in the Senate is deemed politically impossible.

aug. 17

The 576th soldier dies in Afghanistan since Obama took office, surpassing the total who died under President Bush.

Aug. 23

Obama’s weekly job-approval rating hits a new low of 43 percent as Americans realize they didn’t elect the messiah.

Aug. 31

As promised, Obama announces the end of combat operations in Iraq. Though the last American combat brigade has already departed, 50,000 “advisers” and Special Operations troops are left behind.

Sep. 12

Lady Gaga wears a meat dress to the MTV Video Music Awards. A year later, she’ll be singing duets with Tony Bennett.

Sep. 23

Blockbuster declares bankruptcy. It’s been less than two years since the first documented use of the phrase “Netflix and chill.”

Nov. 2

Republicans sweep the midterm elections, taking control of the House, with a little help from two of the richest men in America, Charles and David Koch.

Nov. 3

Ben Bernanke announces that the Fed is going to buy an additional $600 billion worth of Treasury bonds.

Year 3


Dow Jones11,670.75
GDP$15.52 TR.
Troops in Afghanistan99,800
Troops in Iraq45,600
Jan. 8

U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords is shot, along with 19 others, by Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old mentally deranged conspiracist who had kept a file on the congresswoman in which he had written “die bitch.”

Jan. 8

Tiger mother Amy Chua explains “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” kicking off a joyous conversation about which Americans are worse parents.

Jan. 25

The Arab Spring comes to Egypt. Tens of thousands gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the dictatorial rule of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. After weeks of violent protests, his regime is overthrown.

Feb. 15

Then Libyans gather to protest dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The uprising soon becomes a civil war.

Feb. 16

Borders files for bankruptcy, prompting the writing of a thousand think pieces about the death of books.

Mar. 2

Apple announces that it has sold 100 million iPhones. Within a few months it will overtake ExxonMobil as the most valuable company in the world.

Mar. 15

Syrians gather in Aleppo and Damascus for the first time to protest the Bashar al-Assad regime, risking arrest and torture. Within three months, civil war will begin.

Mar. 17

The U.N. Security Council authorizes military intervention in Libya to protect civilians against Qaddafi’s troops.

Apr. 17

Game of Thrones arrives on television with an assemblage of dragons, torture, nudity, incest, and despair — a show the whole family can enjoy.

Apr. 22

Gwyneth Paltrow makes kale chips on Ellen.

Apr. 30

“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?” —Barack Obama, White House Correspondents’ Dinner, days after posting his birth certificate to

May 2

SEAL Team Six kills Osama bin Laden, raiding his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, while Obama and his top advisers watch a live feed of the mission from the White House Situation Room. The picture of the assembled becomes the Last Supper of the Obama era.

May 13

Bridesmaids opens, and women-driven comedy becomes, both commercially and artistically, the center of pop culture.

May 16

The debt ceiling is reached for the first time since the government shutdown of 1995, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner directs his department to use “extraordinary measures” to save funds. This is six months after the Bowles-Simpson commission recommended a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan that won no support in Congress or the White House. As the deficit continued to rise, congressional Republicans realized they held the power to deny the Treasury — and thus Obama — the ability to continue to borrow. The threat of federal-government default becomes, as Mitch McConnell later describes it, “a hostage that’s worth ransoming.”

Jun. 18

A “golf summit” between John Boehner and Barack Obama stirs hope that perhaps the two parties will come to a budget agreement and forestall a true crisis. Secret and semi-secret talks continue over weeks.

Jun. 20

Fifty Shades of Grey is self-published and goes on to sell over 100 million copies. Suddenly it becomes acceptable to read BDSM erotica on the subway.

Jun. 22

Obama announces the first round of troop reductions since the start of the war in Afghanistan, pledging to continue a steady drawdown until 2014. “The tide of war is receding,” he swears.

jun. 30

Glenn Beck kisses his beloved chalkboards good-bye. He leaves Fox News, and mainstream media.

jul. 14

Spotify arrives in the U.S., killing the MP3 in half the time it took the MP3 to kill the CD.

Aug. 1

Congresswoman Gabby Giffords returns to the House floor for the first time since being shot in a massacre in January, casting a vote in favor of the debt-ceiling deal.

Aug. 2

Finally: a budget deal. In a mad rush, Congress passes and the president signs the Budget Control Act, a compromise that lifts the debt ceiling but sets the stage for future clashes.

aug. 2

Still, Standard & Poor’s downgrades the country’s credit rating, a humiliating and painful consequence of the chaos in Washington.

Aug. 15

For the first time in his presidency, a Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans think Obama is doing a bad job.

Sep. 14

Goldman Sachs shutters Global Alpha, once one of its largest hedge funds. What was an $11 billion portfolio in 2007 had shrunk to less than $1.7 billion, after years of poor performance and subsequent investor withdrawals.

Sep. 17

A protest group sets up camp in Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street will wake the left from a 40-year slumber.

Revolt at Zuccotti Park. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos
Sep. 29

The term “hashtag activism” is used for the first time, transforming sitting at your computer and complaining into a noble act.

Oct. 5

Steve Jobs dies, and his passing is mourned with a fervor that rivals a president’s.

Oct. 12

The emoji keyboard is introduced to iPhones, and eggplants are never viewed the same way again.

Oct. 20

Qaddafi is killed, but Libya’s turmoil doesn’t end. In private, Obama calls it a “shit show.”

nov. 3

Deals aggregator Groupon goes public; somehow, it is worth $12.65 billion. (Though a year later, its stock will be sold at an 87 percent discount.)

Nov. 6

12,000 people show up at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. It will take Obama four more years to finally reject it.

dec. 17

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il dies, and scary North Korea gets scarier. His youngest son and Dennis Rodman fan Kim Jong Un is named Supreme Leader.

dec. 18

The last American troops leave Iraq, though the trauma of war doesn’t easily leave them.

Year 4


Dow Jones12,397.38
GDP$16.16 TR.
Troops in Afghanistan88,200
Troops in Iraq11,445
Jan. 7

Blue Ivy Carter is born at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Her Illuminati induction ceremony comes a week later.

Feb. 21

Feminist punks Pussy Riot, wearing neon tights and face masks, hold a punk prayer service in a church in Moscow — “Holy Mother, send Putin packing!” — and get thrown in jail for it.

Feb. 26

Trayvon Martin, age 17, is killed by neighborhood-watch member George Zimmerman while returning from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida, where he was visiting his father. President Obama will later say, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Zimmerman, who claimed he fired at the unarmed Martin in self-defense,will be found not guilty in 2013.

Mar. 7

“Pink slime” makes the evening news when ABC reports that this additive — waste trimmings, sanitized with ammonia, from multiple cows — is found in 70 percent of ground beef in supermarkets. Suddenly it seems nobody wants to eat anything.

Mar. 23

The Hunger Games hits theaters, proving that today’s teens like their YA love triangles with a side of dystopic inhuman violence.

Apr. 4

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefly becomes a badass when a Tumblr called Texts From Hillary turns a picture of her texting in black sunglasses while on a military plane en route to Tripoli into a meme. Later, her use of a BlackBerry will not seem so endearing.

Apr. 4

Facebook acquires Instagram for $1 billion, or about $80 million per employee.

Apr. 15

Girls premieres, and millennials get pilloried.

EXPOSED: Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in season one of Girls.
Apr. 28

“Four years ago, I was locked in a brutal primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Four years later, she won’t stop drunk-texting me from Cartagena.” — Barack Obama, White House Correspondents' Dinner

May 4

Google’s self-driving car passes Nevada’s road test. According to testing officials, it was “overly cautious approaching some lights,” possibly because streetlights are its distant relatives.

May 9

The NYPD has been stopping and frisking 600 percent more people on the street since Mayor Bloomberg’s first year in office, according to a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union. In 2011 alone, “the number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”

Jun. 15

Undocumented kids are saved by Obama’s executive order DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which would put a halt to deportation for those who’d entered the country before age 16. And yet, in a bid to get the GOP to come over to his side on immigration reform, the president has also deported a record 1.5 million people in his first term.

Jun. 28

After it seemed nerve-rackingly likely that the Supreme Court — having taken up one of the law’s many challenges — would deliver Obamacare a deathblow, a surprise savior emerges in Chief Justice John Roberts. He’s persuaded by the administration’s argument that the law’s “fees” may in fact be considered a “tax.”

Jul. 16

Former president George W. Bush reveals his love of painting — particularly dogs and Texas — to a private group of civic leaders in Memphis (he also loves painting himself, naked, but that goes unmentioned). A year later, Romanian hacker Guccifer will exhibit some of Bush’s work to the world.

Jul. 20

12 people are killed in a shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado. Gun sales skyrocket after the attack.

Aug. 11

A 16-year-old girl is raped in Steubenville, Ohio, and the assault is broadcast all over the internet.

Aug. 20

Obama establishes a “red line” that the Assad regime in Syria cannot cross, saying in a press conference that if “we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he would feel compelled to intervene in the country’s growing civil war.

Aug. 29

Obama participates in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” declining to answer “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”

Sept. 10

2009 Chicago teachers strike against “corporate school” reform.

Sept. 11

Militants attack American compounds in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. There will eventually be eight congressional probes into the incident.

Sept. 12

Tinder launches, giving people a whole new set of ways to be dissatisfied while dating.

Oct. 3

Obama tanks the first presidential debate.

Oct. 25

Twitter hits half a billion tweets a day. Donald Trump, responsible for probably a third of them, joined in March 2009.

Oct. 29

Sandy makes landfall in New Jersey.

Nov. 6

Washington State and Colorado vote to legalize marijuana. (Also: Obama is reelected with 51.1 percent of the vote.)

Nov. 12

The U.S. could become the world’s largest producer of oil by 2017, says the International Energy Agency, as a result of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Nov. 29

The fight for a $15 minimum wage kicks off when fast-food workers abandon their stations in New York to demand higher pay.

Dec. 14

Adam Lanza, 20, opens fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 6- and 7-year-old children, six staff members, then himself.