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A Factual Look at Obama’s Presidency
In the closing weeks of his presidency, Barack Obama instructed the members of his cabinet to “prepare a detailed report on the progress we’ve made” since he became president. He then summarized these reports in a cover letter that paints a bleak picture of the U.S. before he entered the Oval Office and suggests that the nation turned around during his tenure.
Obama then repeated many points from this letter in his January 10th farewell address to the nation, where he declared that “by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
However, the claims in his letter and farewell address are based on a series of artful statistics that do more to mislead than inform.
For example, Obama contends that “on January 20, 2009,” when “I stood before you and swore a sacred oath” to “meet the challenges we faced,” the economy was “shrinking at more than eight percent,” but now “eight years later” it is “growing at more than three percent.”
In reality, that –8% figure is a quarterly annualized rate from October–December of 2008, and the +3% figure is from July–September of 2016. Quarterly GDP figures are often erratic, and this makes it easy to cherry pick in order to serve a narrative, as shown in the graph below:
Looking at the full picture, the economy has experienced historically weak growth under Obama. Even after the recession ended in 2009, average real GDP growth has been 35% below the average from 1960–2009, a period that includes eight recessions. Annual GDP data, which removes the noise from quarterly fluctuations, shows substandard growth over the entirety of Obama’s presidency:
Such poor growth is odd given that the U.S. economy typically performs well in the wake of recessions, and the deeper the recession, the stronger the growth. In fact, renowned liberal economist Paul Krugman once argued that “the economic expansion under President Reagan did not validate his economic doctrine,” because “rapid growth is normal when an economy is bouncing back from a deep slump.”
In early 2011, the White House Office of Management & Budget projected that real GDP would grow by an average of 3.6% per year for five years after the Great Recession (see pages 14–16). Obama’s economists noted that this figure was lower than the typical post-recession growth rate of 4.2%, but they concluded that the “lingering effects from the credit crisis may limit the pace of the recovery,” even though the recession left “enormous room for growth in 2011.” Ultimately, GDP grew by an average of 2.2%, or 39% below the White House’s conservative estimate.
Likewise, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected real GDP growth rates for upcoming years “under an assumption that current laws and policies regarding federal spending and taxation remain the same.” This graph shows CBO’s projections and what actually occurred:
In 2016, Obama took credit for “saving the world economy from a Great Depression,” but the recession ended in the U.S. in June 2009, or five months after he took office and well before the vast majority of his “stimulus” bill took effect (see page 2).
Along with economic growth, Obama’s missive provides other creative looks at his presidency, including this chart of high school graduation rates that is scaled to exaggerate the improvement:
America Under Obama
The upcoming 16 graphs present federal government data on certain key measures of America’s well-being during Obama’s presidency. The following features and caveats apply to these graphs/datasets and those above:
- To provide context and reveal trends, the graphs present all available full years of data back to 1960 or as far back in time as the datasets extend. All graphs are scaled from a baseline of zero or any negative figures.
- As explained in The Secrets of Economic Indicators, a textbook published by the Wharton School and Pearson Education, “The first release of many economic indicators contains pieces of data that are far from reliable and thus considered preliminary.” Hence, some of the more recent data may change over time.
- The graphs contain data on big picture outcomes with tangible impacts. Obama’s cover letter mentions variables like the portion of people with health insurance, but this is of little import if the insurance does not provide access to good medical care.
- None of the parameters graphed in these charts are an end-all, and each sheds limited light on very complex issues.
- A marker is placed on each graph in the year 2009, which was Obama’s first year in office. This provides a one-year buffer for Obama’s policies to begin taking effect, although some took longer and some shorter.
- CBO’s January 2009 projections are provided when applicable, and averages are provided when the data tends to oscillate over time.
It is also important to note that presidents cannot reasonably take credit or blame for everything that occurs during their tenures. Due to the limits of political power and the U.S. constitutional system of checks and balances, each president’s hands are tied to varying degrees by Congress, the courts, preexisting laws, state and local governments, economic cycles, demographic trends, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and the actions of U.S. citizens and foreign governments.
On the other hand, U.S. presidents have vast executive powers, and President Obama and the Democratic Party possessed more legislative power in 2009–2010 than any caucus in recent history. During this period, Obama enjoyed a 79-seat Democratic majority in the House and an effective 18- to 20-seat majority in the Senate. Obama’s House majority was greater than that of any president since Bill Clinton in 1993–1994, and Obama’s Senate majority was greater than that of any president since Jimmy Carter in 1977–1980.
After Republicans gained control of the House in 2011 and the Senate in 2015, they sometimes prevented Obama from having his way, but they generally failed to undo what he previously passed, stop Obama’s executive actions, or pass any laws without his consent. Over the past eight years, Obama has vetoed 12 bills, and Congress has overridden only one of these vetoes.
Median Household Income
Between 2009 and 2013 (latest available data), real median household income rose from $78,200 to $79,200. During the same period, real median household income after federal taxes declined from $69,800 to $69,200:
Between 2009 and 2015, real household cash income (which excludes “certain money receipts such as capital gains” and “the value of noncash benefits” like “food stamps, health benefits, subsidized housing” and “full or partial payments by business for retirement programs”) rose from $54,988 to $56,516.
Between 2009 and 2015 the national debt rose from 85% of the U.S. economy to 105%:
Between 2009 and 2016, the unemployment rate dropped from 9.3% to 4.9%. During each of these years, the unemployment rate was higher than the Congressional Budget Office projected two weeks before Obama took office:
Between 2009 and 2016, the civilian labor force participation rate for people aged 16 years and over declined from 65.4% to 62.8%:
Between 2009 and 2015, the average annual hours worked per U.S. resident increased from 724 to 757:
In the words of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, “the most important factor determining living standards is productivity growth.” From 2010–2015, average annual productivity growth was 0.7%, as compared to 2.2% from 1960–2009:
Federal Taxes and Spending
Between 2009 and 2015, federal spending decreased from 25.9% of the U.S. economy to 22.5%. During the same period federal revenues increased from 15.7% to 19.3%:
Composition of Federal Spending
Between 2009 and 2015, the portion of federal spending devoted to social programs increased from 61% to 63%. During the same period, the portion devoted to national defense and veterans’ benefits decreased from 20% to 19%:
From 2010–2015, the average annual life expectancy increase was 0.05 years, as compared to 0.17 years from 1960–2009. The following graph also contains a marker on 2014, because this is when most major provisions of Obamacare became operative, including the Medicaid expansion, rule on preexisting conditions, fine for not having insurance, and the subsidized “marketplace” health insurance plans:
Drug Overdose Deaths
Between 2009 and 2015, the age-adjusted drug overdose death rate increased from 11.9 per 100,000 people to 16.3:
Between 2009 and 2015, the age-adjusted suicide rate increased from 11.8 per 100,000 people to 13.3:
Between 2009 and 2015, the age-adjusted homicide rate increased from 5.5 per 100,000 people to 5.7:
Sulfur dioxide is a common pollutant and highly reactive gas that can cause respiration problems. Between 2009 and 2015, the average sulfur dioxide level in ground-level air declined from 51 parts per billion to 25:
Energy Use & Composition
A particularly misleading aspect of Obama’s farewell address is the following statement, which he led up to by railing against the “selective sorting of the facts” and declaring that “science and reason matter”:
Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil we’ve doubled our renewable energy we’ve led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet.
Actually, renewable energy increased by 27% between 2009 and 2015, which is nowhere close to doubling. Obama’s statistic may be rooted in a crafty definition of renewable energy that excludes major sources like hydropower.
Furthermore, Obama’s words leave the distinct impression that the U.S. has cut oil consumption by replacing it with renewables. Yet, U.S. petroleum consumption rose from 6.6 billion barrels in 2009 to 6.7 in 2015.
The primary reason oil imports have fallen is that domestic production has risen due to the use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which is unpopular with many environmentalists. Per the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fracking has “allowed the United States to increase its oil production faster than at any time in its history,” and it now produces “about half of total U.S. crude oil production.”
Looking objectively at the issue of energy, between 2009 and 2015, U.S. energy consumption rose from 94 quadrillion BTUs to 98. During the same period, consumption of fossil fuels increased from 78 to 79, nuclear stayed level at 9, and renewables increased from 8 to 10:
Between 2007 and 2013, inflation-adjusted direct federal energy subsidies per unit of production of solar energy increased from $2,721 per billion BTUs to $17,807. For other energy sources, subsidies varied as follows:
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Mr. Obama basks in the sunshine after moving a meeting with his senior advisors out to the Rose Garden in the spring of 2009.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Mr. Obama mimics the face of a little boy while visiting troops and their families at Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe in 2013.
The Best Photos from President Obama's Final Year in Office
Chief White House photographer Pete Souza picks his favorites from 2016.
For the past eight years, chief White House photographer Pete Souza has shared his "Year in Photos," a collection of images taken by him or a photographer on his staff that showcase stunning behind-the-scenes moments with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the first family. The 2016 installment is a bittersweet one, as it captures the final year of the president's two terms in office. Take a look at some of the shots, then view them all on medium.com.
President Obama touches the face of a young man named Clark Reynolds during a reception at the White House celebrating Black History Month.
The President and First Lady dance with Virginia McLaurin, 106 years young, before a reception in honor of Black History Month.
Malia, Sasha and Michelle Obama attend the White House state dinner honoring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. "What an honor to watch these girls grow up," Souza wrote in his caption.
The Best Biographies of Barack Obama
Barack Obama undoubtedly possesses one of the most complicated – and fascinating – backgrounds of any former president of the United States.
Born to a father he hardly knew and to a mother he almost never saw, Obama’s path to the White House is one of the most remarkable and unlikely of any I’ve seen. And yet, in hindsight, his political ascent makes almost perfect sense.
Because his presidency ended so recently, and due to his young age, it could be three decades or more before the definitive biography of Obama is written. To wrap up this six-year journey through the best biographies of the presidents I read three books on Barack H. Obama:
Remnick’s “The Bridge” was the perfect place for me to start: it covers Obama’s life up through his presidential inauguration and although the narrative can be dense and dry, it is not tediously detailed and provides an excellent review of most aspects of his first forty-seven years.
But this book is not as engrossing as are the very best biographies and it underplays the drama embedded in Obama’s unlikely and remarkable political ascent. But Remnick’s reporting eye and his tenacity in seeking out interviews of everyone who ever knew Obama are remarkable. And, of the three books I read, this provides the most informative “all around” coverage of Obama’s pre-presidency – 4¼ stars (Full review here)
This 1,078-page biography, covering Obama’s life up through his presidency, is noteworthy for its length as well as the deep research which supports an often extraordinary level of detail. Unfortunately, the degree of satisfaction a reader achieves by patiently navigating its ten chapters is inadequate compensation for the persistently tedious experience.
Garrow makes no discernible effort to separate mundane details from consequential facts and there are few, if any, overarching themes or theses. Individual moments of merit are numerous, but are overshadowed by long stretches which seem aimless or inconsequential. And in stark contrast to the first 1000+ pages of the book, Obama’s presidency is covered in less than thirty pages. As a reference on his pre-presidency this book is, in some ways, commendable. But as a presidential biography it proves a mind-numbing exercise in patience and pointless perseverance – 2 stars (Full review here)
I had a great experience with Maraniss’s biography of the young Bill Clinton and this book on Barack Obama’s early life did not disappoint. Its focus, somewhat to my surprise, is as much on Obama’s forebears as Obama himself. It takes time to develop, and not until the book’s second half does the future president come into sharp focus. It also ends somewhat abruptly – just as Obama is leaving Chicago to attend Harvard Law and well before the start of his political career.
But it is extremely well-researched, quite well written and, in the end, paints a compelling portrait of the 44th president (as he approaches the end of his third decade of life). My fingers are crossed that Maraniss writes a follow-up volume focusing on Obama’s political ascent and presidency. (He has indicated an interest in doing so, but only after Obama’s book is published and once his library archives are accessible) — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
Obama Photographer Shares Candid Photos of the Former First Family at Work & at Home in the White House
"[Lawrence] and I had similar upbringings as black men in America, each of us raised by an extraordinary single mom," writes the former president, "both of us knowing what it's like, at times, to feel as if we might not belong."
Lawrence Jackson is not the first Obama White House photographer to publish his photos, and he was originally hesitant to embark on the project because Pete Souza, President Barack Obama‘s Chief White House photographer, had already published one of his own.
But Jackson’s wife, Alicia, helped talk him into it.
“‘You have your own experience, and you’re an African-American covering the first African-American president,’ ” he recalls her saying. “‘So you have a unique voice that you should tell and show the world.’ ”
For Yes We Did, the book Jackson ultimately wrote, published on Tuesday, he delved into his trove of candid photographs from the Obama administration.
The result is an intimate look at President Obama’s two terms, what it felt like to be a black man photographing the first black president of the United States and the ways, Jackson says, that the former president and first lady maintained their authenticity both on and off camera.
Jackson was following along for much of the Obamas’ journey.
“There were times, like when [President Obama] gave the remark on Trayvon Martin or he talked about the South Carolina church shooting, whenever he talked about race relations, like his 50th anniversary speech in Selma, those moments were always personal to me,” Jackson tells PEOPLE. “It’s not like I took pictures any differently. But they had more resonance for me personally because, being African American, I’m a part of that.”
“In the book I talk about how there were moments where my thoughts were kind of jumbled in my head,” Jackson says. “Then he would give a speech and it would be what I was thinking. I’ve always appreciated him for that.”
Subtitled “Photos and Behind-the-Scenes Stories Celebrating Our First African American President,” Yes We Did includes insider photographs and backstories as well as first-person recollections from senior administration staffers such as Valerie Jarrett and celebrities including Bono and Stephen Curry.
“It kind of falls in line with the title, Yes We Did,” Jackson explains of what he hopes readers will learn. “I think if people can remember the Obama administration as a collaborative effort or movement led by them, then I think that’s a very good lasting memory.”
“[The Obamas] have always kind of talked about the next generation being leaders,” he continues. “In all of their programs, it’s always about kids, about eating right, eating healthy, about developing young men, people of color, for the world.”
In the book’s foreword, President Obama explains that he connected with Jackson over their similar backgrounds.
“Lawrence has a talent for capturing the big scene, the iconic images that will help explain our times for future generations,” the president writes. 𠇋ut he also has a unique gift for capturing those quieter moments—the margins of a big event, the pauses in a busy day, some stolen times with Michelle and our girls.”
Pete Souza: photographing the real Barack Obama
I t was a tale of two Americas. In Las Vegas the casinos were humming with a hell-yes tide that was about to sweep the manic Donald Trump to his most pumped-up victory yet. In Washington DC, civilisation still existed. In the week Trump’s xenophobic bid to be the Republican presidential candidate began to look unstoppable, the man whose Americanness he has questioned was meeting 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin. In Pete Souza’s official White House photograph of their get-together, President Barack Obama cracks a delicious smile as the first lady dances with McLaurin, who was invited to visit the White House in recognition of community work she has done for decades in the US capital. The meeting was also a celebration of Black History Month – and Souza’s picture manages to be both intimate and historic. Here are three African Americans in the White House. The room they are in – the Blue Room – is opulently decorated with gold stars, Empire-style furniture, and a portrait of some grand national father who holds a white handkerchief in his white hand.
Feb 2016 – Watching the first lady dance with 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin in the Blue Room of the White House
This is just one in a stream of vividly human and often funny photographs – released not just through White House press office, but on Flickr and Instagram – in which Souza has documented moments of the Obama administration that will never be forgotten. These photographs are precious historical documents. Critics from left and right blame the two-term presidency of this evidently intelligent and decent man for everything from the failure to close Guantánamo Bay (he’s still trying) to a continuing economic malaise that has fuelled what is shaping up to be the most extremist presidential election since 1860. Yet Souza’s photographs tell a different story – and the one that matters. Obama accomplished the impossible and made the White House an African American home for eight years.
Nov 2009 – Obama jokes with staff before the Summit of the Americas in Singapore
If the image ofMcLaurin – who was born in 1909, a time when the civil war was still a living memory for many Americans – visiting the first black US president does not communicate the soft power of the Obama age, consider some of Souza’s other pictures. In 2012, he photographed Obama bowing to let five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia feel his head. The boy had told Obama: “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” The president had replied: “Touch it, dude!”
May 2009 – Jacob Philadelphia asked Obama if his hair was like his, so the most powerful man in the world bowed to a child
Jacob Philadelphia is just one in a long line of African American children who have met Obama in the White House, in encounters that have been touchingly, spontaneously, comically captured by Souza’s camera.
In a moving monochrome image, Souza showed three-year-old Clark Reynolds looking up in awe as Obama touches him on the cheek. The photograph is taken from child height and brilliantly captures a child’s-eye view of the president. We only see Obama’s hand caressing Clark’s face. Unlike the ones in all paintings and photographs of all previous presidents, it is not a white hand. How can anyone say that means nothing? Young Clark Reynolds evidently thinks it means something, and so does Souza, whose photography has perhaps become more lyrical, more poignant over Obama’s final year in office.
Feb 2016 – Obama touches the face of three-year-old Clark Reynolds, in one of Souza’s most moving photographs
Not every delightfully warm and human moment recorded in Souza’s White House pictures is a chapter in history, of course. A lot of the time, he simply captures Obama’s sense of fun and quick-witted social grace. There is a great image of the president pretending to be caught in an invisible web, thrown by a boy in a Spider-Man costume. In another lovely moment, the president demonstrates his best dad moves backstage before his daughter’s dance recital. A more reflective portrait captures the tensions and secrets of power, as Obama is reflected in a White House mirror, finger to his lips, deep in a conspiratorial conversation.
April 2011 – Souza captures Obama at the heart of events, perhaps feeling the burden of his job
What made Souza such an ideal day-to-day chronicler of Obama’s presidency? The answer is surprising. Before he recorded the White House life of America’s first black president, Souza did the same job for the first Hollywood actor to rule from the Oval Office. From 1983 to 1989, he was Ronald Reagan’s official photographer. Perhaps his most famous picture of that era shows Ronald and Nancy Reagan meeting Michael Jackson, who is wearing a spangly military-style jacket. Reagan looks understandably confused – is this the king of pop or the commander of the Star Wars defence programme?
Nov 2005 – A young Obama ascends the Capitol steps
There may be more connecting Reagan and Obama than at first appears – and Souza can see it all. Both are great communicators. Neither let the pomp of office turn them into a stuffed shirt. Reagan, like Obama, had a human touch, a capacity to relate to people. Simply being human is a rare gift among modern politicians. Seeming relaxed in office is even rarer. Reagan was famously so laid-back that he could joke about nuclear war. He may have terrified peace activists, but the American public took confidence from the ease he projected.
Jan 2009 – Humour, love and friendship – the Obamas share a joke in a lift on inauguration night
Obama, too, projects absolute ease in the presidency. It is not a love of power. Souza’s photographs never show him looking arrogant, or distant, or dangerous. In these pictures, he always seems both happy and modest in his office: a photograph of him fist-bumping a cleaner in a government building quietly captures his sense of the larger realities of inequality that will go on beyond his eight-year presidency.
Reports on Souza’s photographs tend to repeat over and over again that they show how “cool” this president is, but that word means nothing. These images tell the true story of a presidency that words have failed. After all the hate, anger, birther theories, leftist critiques, rightist critiques, and even the liberal white awe of a “cool” black dude vanishes into the babble of the past, Souza’s photographs will tell the story of a leader who was calm under fire, unfazed by office, unquenchably human, and who showed the way for all the kids who passed through his Oval Office, and millions more, to be good people, good Americans, and good citizens of the world. Will we miss the man in these pictures? Hell, yes.
Above: Oct 2009 – The president jostles with congressmen during a basketball game at the White House. Below: March 2009 – Running down the White House’s East Colonnade with Bo, the family dog.
Above: March 2015 – The Obamas share an intimate moment as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Below: June 2013 – Obama shows his best dad moves backstage at one of Sasha’s dance recitals.
Above: Oct 2012 – The president shows his fun side, playing the villain to a three-year-old Spider-Man. Below: August 2013 – Obama and the first lady on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Above: June 2013 – Obama hugs his daughter Sasha during a visit to Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell in South Africa. Below: July 2012 – For one small child, the Oval Office becomes a playground and the president a playmate.
Above: May 2016 – The president waits pensively before a public speech.
All photographs © Pete Souza/The White House
This article was amended on 2 June 2016. An earlier version said the picture of picture of Barack Obama and Bo, the family dog, was taken in March 2008.
See Photos of the Obamas' New House
This is where the former president and first lady settled with their family after leaving the White House.
In May 2017, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Obamas had decided to buy the home for $8.1 million (they have reportedly held onto their Chicago house as well), and TMZ reported that they are in the middle of installing an in-ground swimming pool.
Scroll down for a look inside the Kalorama home courtesy of listing agent Mark McFadden. Keep in mind that these photos are from before the house sold in 2014, so it probably looks quite different now that the Obamas have made it their own.
44 Of The Most Iconic Pictures Of President Barack Obama
Here are the most memorable and moving pictures of the 44th president of the United States.
BuzzFeed News Photo Essay Editor
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and two daughters Sasha and Malia play cards in their RV on July 4, 2007, during a campaign swing between Oskaloosa and Pella, both in Iowa.
Obama and Michelle fist-bump before an election-night rally at the Xcel Energy Center on June 3, 2008, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
President-elect Obama stands on stage with Michelle, Malia, and Sasha during an election-night gathering in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2008. Obama defeated Republican nominee Sen. John McCain by a wide margin in the election to become the first African-American US president-elect.
Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the 44th president of the United States on the West Front of the Capitol alongside Michelle on Jan. 20, 2009, in Washington.
President Obama bends down to allow the son of a White House staff member touch his head during a family visit to the Oval Office on May 8, 2009. The boy wanted to see if the president's haircut felt like his own.
President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009.
Obama is welcomed by his daughters on his return to Washington after a day trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he participated in labor and economic rallies on Sept. 15, 2009. Malia walks behind holding their dog Bo.
President Obama meets with members of his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Jan. 29, 2010. The president’s chair is marked with a plaque engraved with the date of his inauguration.
Obama signs the health care reform bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington on March 23, 2010, as Marcellus Owens, 11, from Seattle, Washington, looks on.
President Obama picks up balls of tar while touring the beach in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on May 28, 2010. The oil spill resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster now officially ranks as the worst in US history.
President Obama speaks after a televised national address from the Oval Office of the White House on Aug. 31, 2010, in Washington. In his remarks, Obama formally declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq, saying that after seven years of war that claimed more than 4,400 American lives, it is time to face toward the war in Afghanistan and toward pressing problems at home.
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011. Also pictured are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
President Obama and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron play table tennis at the Globe Academy on May 24, 2011, in London. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are in the UK for a two-day State visit at the invitation of HM Queen Elizabeth II.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden shake hands in the Oval Office on July 31, 2011, following a phone call with House Speaker John Boehner securing a bipartisan deal to reduce the nation's deficit and avoid default.
President Barack Obama hugs a woman in the crowd after addressing the Labor Day celebration in Detroit on Sept. 5, 2011.
President Obama jokes with Vice President Joe Biden backstage before the STOCK Act signing event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium on April 4, 2012.
President Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum following an event April 18, 2012, in Dearborn, Michigan.
President Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office on June 11, 2012.
President Obama wipes water off his face during a rain shower at a campaign rally in Glen Allen, Virginia, on July 14, 2012.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama speak directly to each other during the second US presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, on Oct. 16, 2012.
President Obama jokingly mimics US Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney's "not impressed" expression while greeting members of the 2012 US Olympic gymnastics teams in the Oval Office Nov. 15, 2012, at the White House in Washington.
President Obama greets the children of US embassy staff during a reception at the Chulalongkorn University Sports Center in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. 18, 2012.
President Obama and daughters share a moment as he pardons the 2012 National Thanksgiving Turkey Cobbler during a Rose Garden event on Nov. 21, 2012, at the White House in Washington. Cobbler and its companion Gobbler will spend the rest of their lives at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia.
President Barack Obama prays with, from left, Richard Santana, Velma Massenburg, Jimmie Massenburg, and Tiffany Santana, during a visit to the Santana's home in Falls Church, Virginia, on Dec. 6, 2012.
President Obama is sworn in during the public ceremony as first lady Michelle Obama looks on during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as president of the United States.
President Obama and first lady Michelle dance together during the Commander-in-Chief's Inaugural Ball at the Walter Washington Convention Center in Washington on Jan. 21, 2013. Obama was sworn in for his second term of office earlier in the day.
President Barack Obama hugs Amy Simpson, principal of Plaza Towers Elementary School, outside what remains of the school following a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 26, 2013.
President Obama, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha attend Easter service at the 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington on April 20, 2014.
The Obamas join hands with Rep. John Lewis as they lead the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Malia and Sasha Obama join hands with their grandmother, Marian Robinson.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Obama outside the Elmau castle in Krün near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 8, 2015.
White House staff photographer Pete Souza writes, "the President carries the twin boys of Katie Beirne Fallon, Director of Legislative Affairs, into the Oval Office just a few months after they were born." June 17, 2015.
Obama brings tears to everyone’s eyes when singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for South Carolina State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney’s funeral service on June 26. Rev. Pinckney was killed, along with eight others, on June 17 during a prayer meeting in one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston.
President Obama reacts as Girl Scouts rush to him for a group hug as he and first lady Michelle Obama (not pictured) welcome them for a camp-out on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on June 30, 2015. A group of 50 fourth-grade Girl Scouts planned to spend the night in camping tents on the lawn in celebration of the scouting movement and the National Park Service centennial.
The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama's youth
The life stories, when the presidential candidate tells them, have a common theme: the quest to belong.
A boy wants to find his place in a family where he is visibly different: chubby where others are thin, dark where others are light.
A youth living in a distant land searches and finds new friends, a new language and a heartbreaking lesson about his identity in the pages of an American magazine.
A young black man struggles for acceptance at an institution of privilege, where he finds himself growing so angry and disillusioned at the world around him that he turns to alcohol and drugs.
These have been the stories told about the first two character-shaping decades of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's life, a story line largely shaped by his own best-selling memoir, political speeches and interviews.
But the reality of Obama's narrative is not that simple.
More than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and neighbors in his childhood homes of Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as a review of public records, show the arc of Obama's personal journey took him to places and situations far removed from the experience of most Americans.
At the same time, several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them. Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his life.
The handful of black students who attended Punahou School in Hawaii, for instance, say they struggled mightily with issues of race and racism there. But absent from those discussions, they say, was another student then known as Barry Obama.
In his best-selling autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," Obama describes having heated conversations about racism with another black student, "Ray." The real Ray, Keith Kakugawa, is half black and half Japanese. In an interview with the Tribune on Saturday, Kakugawa said he always considered himself mixed race, like so many of his friends in Hawaii, and was not an angry young black man.
He said he does recall long, soulful talks with the young Obama and that his friend confided his longing and loneliness. But those talks, Kakugawa said, were not about race. "Not even close," he said, adding that Obama was dealing with "some inner turmoil" in those days.
"But it wasn't a race thing," he said. "Barry's biggest struggles then were missing his parents. His biggest struggles were his feelings of abandonment. The idea that his biggest struggle was race is [bull]."
Then there's the copy of Life magazine that Obama presents as his racial awakening at age 9. In it, he wrote, was an article and two accompanying photographs of an African-American man physically and mentally scarred by his efforts to lighten his skin. In fact, the Life article and the photographs don't exist, say the magazine's own historians.
Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license. Others almost certainly illustrate how carefully the young man guarded the secret of his loneliness from even those who knew him best. And the accounts bear out much of Obama's self-portrait as someone deeply affected by his father's abandonment yet able to thrive in greatly disparate worlds.
Still, the story of his early years highlights how politics and autobiography are similar creatures: Each is shaped to serve a purpose.
In its reissue after he gave the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004, "Dreams from My Father" joined a long tradition of political memoirs that candidates have used to introduce themselves to the American people.
From his earliest moments on the national political stage, Obama has presented himself as having two unique qualifications: a fresh political face and an ability to bridge the gap between Americans of different races, faiths and circumstances. Among his supporters, his likability and credibility have only been boosted by his stories of being an outsider trying to fight his way in.
As much as he may have felt like an outsider at times, Obama rarely seemed to show it. Throughout his youth, as depicted in his first book, he always found ways to meld into even the most uninviting of communities. He learned to adapt to unfamiliar territory. And he frequently made peace--even allies--with the very people who angered him most.
Yet even Obama has acknowledged the limits of memoir. In a new introduction to the reissued edition of "Dreams," he noted that the dangers of writing an autobiography included "the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer . [and] selective lapses of memory."
He added: "I can't say that I've avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully."
Life without a father
It was a complicated time.
Hawaii had become a state only two years before Obama's birth, and there were plenty of native Hawaiians still deeply unhappy about it. The U.S. military was expanding on the island of Oahu, home to the new capital of Honolulu. And a young, iconoclastic white woman who had defied the social mores of the day by marrying a dashing black man from Kenya was coping with the fact that her new husband essentially had abandoned her and their young child in 1963 to study at Harvard.
Oblivious to all of this was a perpetually smiling toddler the entire family called Barry. In snapshots, the boy is a portrait of childhood bliss. He played on the beach. He posed in lifeguard stands. He rode a bright blue tricycle with red, white and blue streamers dangling from the handlebars.
In the six weeks since Obama announced his intention to run for the White House, he routinely has suggested that his diverse background--raised for a time in the Third World, schooled at elite institutions and active in urban politics--makes him the best-suited candidate to speak to rich and poor, black and white, mainstream voters and those utterly disenchanted with the political system.
Not as well known is the fact that the many people who raised him were nearly as diverse as the places where he grew up. There was his mother, Ann, a brilliant but impulsive woman his grandmother Madelyn, a deeply private and stoically pragmatic Midwesterner his grandfather Stanley, a loving soul inclined toward tall tales and unrealistic dreams.
"Looking back now, I'd say he really is kind of the perfect combination of all of them," said his half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. "All of them were imperfect but all of them loved him fiercely, and I believe he took the best qualities from each of them."
During her son's earliest years, Obama's mother, whose full name was Stanley Ann Dunham because her father desperately had wished for a boy, attended college at the University of Hawaii. Known as Ann throughout her adult life, she kept to herself. She became estranged from her husband, Barack Obama Sr., after his departure for Harvard and rarely saw the group of friends that they had made at the University of Hawaii.
One of those friends, Neil Abercrombie, then a graduate student in the sociology department, frequently would see young Obama around town with his grandfather Stanley, whom Obama called "Gramps."
"Stanley loved that little boy," said Abercrombie, now a Democratic congressman from Hawaii. "In the absence of his father, there was not a kinder, more understanding man than Stanley Dunham. He was loving and generous."
A close friend of Obama's from their teenage years, Greg Orme, spent so much time with Dunham that he, too, called him "Gramps." Orme recalled that years later, at Obama's wedding reception in Chicago, Obama brought the crowd to tears when he spoke of his recently deceased maternal grandfather and how he made a little boy with an absent father feel as though he was never alone.
Madelyn Dunham, a rising executive at the Bank of Hawaii during Obama's Punahou days, was more reserved but seemed to love having her grandson's friends over to play and hang out.
"Those were robust years full of energy and cacophony, and she loved all of it," Soetoro-Ng said of her grandmother, who has lived alone since her husband died in 1992.
Ann and the boy lived with the Dunhams in Honolulu until Obama was 6. Then his young mother, now divorced, met and married an Indonesian student studying at the University of Hawaii.
In one family photo before the mother and son moved to Indonesia, Obama walks barefoot on Waikiki Beach, arms outstretched as though embracing the entire beautiful life around him. The sailboat the Manu Kai (bird of the sea, in English) is about to set sail behind him.
Obama, too, was about to journey far from these familiar shores.
Memories of a racial awakening?
Obama has told the story--one of the watershed moments of his racial awareness--time and again, in remarkable detail.
He is 9 years old, living in Indonesia, where he and his mother moved with her new husband, Lolo Soetoro, a few years earlier. One day while visiting his mother, who was working at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Obama passed time by looking through several issues of Life magazine. He came across an article that he later would describe as feeling like an "ambush attack."
The article included photos of a black man who had destroyed his skin with powerful chemical lighteners that promised to make him white. Instead, the chemicals had peeled off much of his skin, leaving him sad and scarred, Obama recalled.
"I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation," Obama wrote of the magazine photos in "Dreams."
Yet no such Life issue exists, according to historians at the magazine. No such photos, no such article. When asked about the discrepancy, Obama said in a recent interview, "It might have been an Ebony or it might have been . who knows what it was?" (At the request of the Tribune, archivists at Ebony searched their catalogue of past articles, none of which matched what Obama recalled.)
In fact, it is surprising, based on interviews with more than two dozen people who knew Obama during his nearly four years in Indonesia, that it would take a photograph in a magazine to make him conscious of the fact that some people might treat him differently in part because of the color of his skin.
Obama, who has talked and written so much about struggling to find a sense of belonging due to his mixed race, brushes over this time of his life in "Dreams." He describes making friends easily, becoming fluent in Indonesian in just six months and melding quite easily into the very foreign fabric of Jakarta.
The reality was less tidy.
Obama and his mother joined her new husband, a kind man who later would become a detached heavy drinker and womanizer, family members in Indonesia say. Their Jakarta neighborhood resembled a village more than the bustling metropolis the city is today. Electricity had arrived only a couple of years earlier. Half the homes were old bamboo huts half, including the Soetoro house, were nicer, with brick or concrete and red-tiled roofs.
Former playmates remember Obama as "Barry Soetoro," or simply "Barry," a chubby little boy very different from the gangly Obama people know today. All say he was teased more than any other kid in the neighborhood--primarily because he was bigger and had black features.
He was the only foreign child in the neighborhood. He also was one of the only neighborhood children whose parents enrolled him in a new Catholic school in an area populated almost entirely by Betawis, the old tribal landowning Jakarta natives who were very traditional Muslims. Some of the Betawi children threw rocks at the open Catholic classrooms, remembered Cecilia Sugini Hananto, who taught Obama in 2nd grade.
Teachers, former playmates and friends recall a boy who never fully grasped their language and who was very quiet as a result. But one word Obama learned quickly in his new home was curang, which means "cheater."
When kids teased him, Obama yelled back, "Curang, curang!" When a friend gave him shrimp paste instead of chocolate, he yelled, "Curang, curang!"
Zulfan Adi was one of the neighborhood kids who teased Obama most mercilessly. He remembers one day when young Obama, a hopelessly upbeat boy who seemed oblivious to the fact that the older kids didn't want him tagging along, followed a group of Adi's friends to a nearby swamp.
"They held his hands and feet and said, `One, two, three,' and threw him in the swamp," recalled Adi, who still lives in the same house where he grew up. "Luckily he could swim. They only did it to Barry."
The other kids would scrap with him sometimes, but because Obama was bigger and better-fed than many of them, he was hard to defeat.
"He was built like a bull. So we'd get three kids together to fight him," recalled Yunaldi Askiar, 45, a former neighborhood friend. "But it was only playing."
Obama has claimed on numerous occasions to have become fluent in Indonesian in six months. Yet those who knew him disputed that during recent interviews.
Israella Pareira Darmawan, Obama's 1st-grade teacher, said she attempted to help him learn the Indonesian language by going over pronunciation and vowel sounds. He struggled greatly with the foreign language, she said, and with his studies as a result.
The teacher, who still lives in Obama's old neighborhood, remembers that he always sat in the back corner of her classroom. "His friends called him `Negro,'
" Darmawan said. The term wasn't considered a slur at the time in Indonesia.
Still, all of his teachers at the Catholic school recognized leadership qualities in him. "He would be very helpful with friends. He'd pick them up if they fell down,'' Darmawan recalled. "He would protect the smaller ones."
Third-grade teacher Fermina Katarina Sinaga, now 67, has perhaps the most telling story. In an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Obama "wrote he wanted to be president," Sinaga recalled. "He didn't say what country he wanted to be president of. But he wanted to make everybody happy."
When Obama was in 4th grade, the Soetoro family moved. Their new neighborhood was only 3 miles to the west, but a world away. Elite Dutch colonists once lived there the Japanese moved in during their occupation of Indonesia in World War II. In the early 1970s, diplomats and Indonesian businessmen lived there in fancy gated houses with wide paved roads and sculpted bushes.
Obama never became terribly close with the children of the new school--this time a predominantly Muslim one--where he was enrolled. As he had at the old school, Obama sat in a back corner. He sketched decidedly American cartoon characters during class.
"He liked drawing Spider-Man and Batman," said another friend, Widiyanto Hendro Cahyono, 46. "Barry liked to draw heroes."
Then, one day about a year after he had arrived, Obama was gone.
"Suddenly we asked, `Where's Barry?' remembered Ati Kisjanto, 45. "And we were told he had already moved away."
Not one of `the brothers'
As much as young Obama stood out physically in the classrooms of Indonesia, so, too, did he at Punahou School, the elite private prep academy his mother moved him back to Hawaii to attend.
Obama, his mother and new baby sister, Maya, moved into a small apartment near the school's sprawling, lush campus. And from the first day of 5th grade right up until his graduation in 1979, the young man was one of only a small number of black students at a school heavily populated by the children of Hawaii's wealthy, most of them white and Asian.
Then and now, Punahou and Hawaii liked to see themselves as more diverse and colorblind than the rest of the nation. But the reality felt far different for the handful of African-Americans attending classes there.
Rik Smith, a black Punahou student two years older than Obama, remembers a Halloween when white students would dress as slaves, coming to school in tattered clothes with their faces painted black with shoe polish. "Like being black was a funny costume in and of itself," recalled Smith, now a doctor who specializes in geriatrics in California.
"Punahou was an amazing school," Smith said. "But it could be a lonely place. . Those of us who were black did feel isolated--there's no question about that."
As a result, the handful of black students at Punahou informally banded together. "The brothers," as Lewis Anthony Jr., an African-American in the class of 1977 put it, hung out together, often talking about issues involving race and civil rights. They sought out parties, especially at the military bases on the island, where African-Americans would be in attendance.
Obama, however, was not a part of that group, according to Anthony and Smith. Both of them seemed surprised to hear that in "Dreams"--which neither of them had read--Obama writes about routinely going to parties at Schofield Barracks and other military bases in order to hang out with "Ray," who like Anthony and Smith was two years ahead of him in school.
"We'd all do things together, but Obama was never there," Smith said, adding that they often brought along the few other black underclassmen. "I went to those parties up at Schofield but never saw him at any of them."
Obama devotes many words in his book to exploring his outsider status at Punahou. But any struggles he was experiencing were obscured by the fact that he had a racially diverse group of friends--many of whom often would crowd into his grandparents' apartment, near Punahou, after school let out.
One of those kids was Orme, a smart, respectful teenager from a white, middle-class family. Though Orme spent most afternoons with Obama and considered him one of his closest friends, he said Obama never brought up issues of race, never talked about feeling out of place at Punahou.
"He never verbalized any of that," Orme said during a telephone interview from his home in Oregon. "He was a very provocative thinker. He would bring up worldly topics far beyond his years. But we never talked race."
Whatever misgivings Obama had about Punahou, attending the school was largely his decision.
When his mother, a woman said to have been born with a keen sense of wanderlust, announced she was returning to Indonesia, Obama, then a teenager, asked to stay in Hawaii, according to Soetoro-Ng, 36, who still lives in Honolulu. Once again, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, who had been as much parents as grandparents throughout the young man's life, said he could live with them.
"I don't imagine the decision to let him stay behind was an easy one for anyone," Soetoro-Ng said. "But he wanted to remain at Punahou. He had friends there, he was comfortable there, and to a kid his age, that's all that mattered."
One place Obama has said he found a sense of community was on the basketball court. A member of the varsity squad, though not a starter, Obama and his teammates brought Punahou the state championship in 1979, his senior year.
Adept at nailing long jump shots, Obama was called "Barry O'Bomber" by teammates. Alan Lum, who later would coach the basketball team at Punahou as well as teach elementary school there, recalled Obama as always being the first to confront coaches when he felt they were not fairly allotting playing time.
Obama wasn't shy about advocating for himself and his fellow backup players, Lum said. "He'd go right up to the coach during a game and say, `Coach, we're killing this team. Our second string should be playing more.'"
But it was on the court in the off-season that Obama seemed to be even happier. Back then, Punahou was a completely open campus, with several basketball courts where 20-something men from Honolulu would come in the late afternoon for what often turned into flashy, highly competitive pickup sessions. Many of the men were black.
Orme would stay for the games.
"At the time, it was about basketball," said Orme, who has remained friends with Obama over the years and who plays basketball with him almost every Christmas when the two return to Hawaii to visit family. "But looking back now I can see he was seeking more from those guys than that. He was probably studying them and learning from them. He was a younger black man looking for guidance."
Old friend disputes memoir
Every senior graduating from Punahou gets to design a quarter-page in the yearbook. They compose notes to friends and family and include photos or quotes that best represent them.
On page 271 of the 1979 Oahuan, Obama's entry reflects the crossroads he found himself at as he prepared for life beyond Hawaii. He thanked "Tut and Gramps," his nicknames for Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, but didn't mention his faraway mother.
He also thanked the "Choom Gang," a reference to "chooming," Hawaiian slang for smoking marijuana. Obama admits in "Dreams" that during high school he frequently smoked marijuana, drank alcohol, even used cocaine occasionally.
"Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man," Obama wrote in "Dreams."
In the book, Obama discusses race and racism at his high school with one other Punahou student, "Ray,'' the young black man described in detail in "Dreams" as perpetually angry at the white world around him. "It's their world, all right," Ray supposedly shouts at Obama. "They own it and we in it. So just get the f--- outta my face."
But Kakugawa, in the interview Saturday, said Obama's recollection of that conversation was mistaken. "I did say we were playing in their world," he explained, "but that had nothing to do with race. He knew that."
Kakugawa explained that he had meant they were playing in the world of the elite people who populated and ran Punahou--famous Hawaiian families like the Doles, owners of the pineapple fortune, or the original developers of Waikiki, the tourist mecca. "It just wasn't a race thing," he reiterated again and again.
Obama confirmed in an interview earlier this month that the Ray character in "Dreams" actually is Kakugawa.
In another passage from the book, Ray complains that white Punahou girls don't want to date black guys and that he and Obama don't get enough playing time as athletes, speculating that they'd be "treated different if we was white. Or Japanese. Or Hawaiian. Or f------ Eskimo."
But Kakugawa, a convicted drug felon, said Saturday that he had never been the "prototypical angry black guy" that Obama portrays. Because of his biracial heritage, he said, he was "like everyone in Hawaii, a mix of a lot of things."
A close friend and track teammate of Kakugawa, John Hagar, also said he was surprised by Obama's description of the character representing Kakugawa as an angry young black man. "I never picked up on that," Hagar said. "He was just one of those perfect [ethnic] mixes of everything you see in Hawaii."
Asked Saturday about Kakugawa's recollections, the Obama campaign declined to make the senator available. But spokesman Bill Burton said Obama "stands by his recollections of these events as related in his book."
"There's no doubt that Keith's story is tragic and sad," Burton added.
While Obama rocketed to political prominence, his friend headed down the troubled road Obama had feared he was following. Since 1995, Kakugawa has spent more than 7 years in California prisons and months in Los Angeles County Jail on cocaine and auto theft charges.
Another story put forth in "Dreams" as one of Obama's pivotal moments of racial awakening checks out essentially as he wrote it. Obama recounts taking two white friends, including Orme, to a party attended almost entirely by African-Americans.
According to the book, the characters representing Orme and the other friend asked to leave the party after just an hour, saying they felt out of place. The night, Obama later wrote, made him furious as he realized that whites held a "fundamental power" over blacks.
"One of us said that being the different guys in the room had awakened a little bit of empathy to what he must feel all the time at school. And he clearly didn't appreciate that," Orme said. "I never knew, until reading the book later, how much that night had upset him."
As Obama's senior year drew to a close, his mother sent him letters from afar, about life in Indonesia and her work there with non-profit groups doing economic development. She also sent advice about his future. College would be his next stop. She mixed encouragement to keep up his grades with laments about American politics.
"It is a shame we have to worry so much about [grade point], but you know what the college entrance competition is these days," she wrote. "Did you know that in Thomas Jefferson's day, and right up through the 1930s, anybody who had the price of tuition could go to Harvard? . I don't see that we are producing many Thomas Jeffersons nowadays. Instead we are producing Richard Nixons."
In the spring of 1979, Obama's mother and Maya, Barack's younger half sister by almost nine years, flew to Hawaii for his high school graduation. If young Obama had struggled to find a place at Punahou, it was well hidden on this day as well. He laughed and posed for photos with friends.
With a trimmed Afro, Hawaiian flower leis around his neck, Obama was surrounded by the disparate people who shaped him. In one photo he hugs his beaming sister.
In a striking snapshot with his grandparents, Stanley smiles proudly while Madelyn hugs him fiercely, as though she doesn't want to let him go forth into a world far from the remote island that for so long had been his home.
Kirsten Scharnberg reported from Honolulu and Kim Barker from Jakarta, Indonesia Tribune staff reporter Ray Gibson contributed to this report.