This Tuesday, a week before Barack Obama’s second inauguration, FRONTLINE will air a probing look at the first four years of his presidency. With inside accounts from his battles with his Republican opponents over health care and the economy to his dramatic expansion of targeted killings of enemies, Inside Obama’s Presidency, examines the president’s key decisions and the experiences that will inform his second term. Watch a preview of the film above.
FRONTLINE and Longreads have partnered up to cull the best long-form reporting and reading on President Obama’s first term, organized below by category for your reading pleasure.
What were some of your favorite stories about Obama’s first four years? Let us know in the comments or tweet your favorites using the #longreads hashtag.
“Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?”
“What you got for me?’ he asked and plopped down in the chair beside his desk. His desk is designed to tilt down when the plane is on the ground so that it might be perfectly flat when the plane is nose up, in flight. It was now perfectly flat. ‘I want to play that game again,’ I said. ‘Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.'”
“Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—’Back from the OVAL’—and often e-mails an index of the President’s handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants. A single Presidential comment might change a legislative strategy, kill the proposal of a well-meaning adviser, or initiate a bureaucratic process to answer a Presidential question.”
“We think of the presidency as somehow eternal and unchanging, a straight-line progression from 1 to 44, from the first to the latest. And in some respects it is. Except for George Washington, all of the presidents have lived in the White House. They’ve all taken the same oath to uphold the same constitution. But the modern presidency—Barack Obama’s presidency—has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives. The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systemic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the ‘news’ by the media, the willful disregard for facts and truth—these forces have made today’s Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place. They have shaped and at times hobbled the presidency itself.”
“Big donors were particularly offended by Obama’s reluctance to pose with them for photographs at the first White House Christmas and Hanukkah parties. Obama agreed to pose with members of the White House press corps, but not with donors, because, a former adviser says, ‘he didn’t want to have to stand there for fourteen parties in a row.’ This decision continues to provoke disbelief from some Democratic fund-raisers. ‘It’s as easy as falling off a log!’ one says. ‘They just want a picture of themselves with the President that they can hang on the bathroom wall, so that their friends can see it when they take a piss.'”
“If Obama aims to leave a legislative mark in his second term, he’ll need two things: a sense of humility, and a revitalized faction of Republican lawmakers willing to make deals with the President. Given the polarized environment and the likelihood of a closely divided Congress, it seems more implausible to suppose that Obama would turn radical in his second term than that he would cool to his Democratic base.”
“I want to give you something to think about before the vote,’ the president said gently into the phone. ‘Picture yourself on Monday morning. You wake up and look at the paper. It’s the greatest thing Congress has done in 50 years. And you were on the wrong team.’ Saturday. Two days left, and it was time for the closing strategy. Arm twist after arm twist, deal after deal, these last days played out so publicly that at some point amid the news conferences and speeches it started to feel like a compressed, frenetic rehash of the 14-month fight.”
“Obama has told Congressional leaders that his top priority is to get a health care bill signed into law this year. But whether that happens will depend, in some part, on whether the members in both chambers feel they can take the new president at his word. Veteran lawmakers know that presidents always arrive with grand plans to spend their political capital, but more often than not they end up cutting deals with their adversaries or retreating altogether. When they do compromise, it’s the representatives and senators who stood with them who often end up paying the price with their constituents.”
“Almost immediately after the so-called grand bargain between President Obama and the Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner, unraveled last July, the two sides quickly settled into dueling, self-serving narratives of what transpired behind closed doors. In the months that followed, some of Washington’s most connected Democrats and Republicans told me in casual conversations that they didn’t know whose story to believe, or even what, exactly, had been on the table during the negotiations. A few mentioned, independently of one another, that the entire affair reminded them of ‘Rashomon,’ the classic Kurosawa film in which four characters filter the same murder plot through their different perspectives. Over time, the whole debacle became the perfect metaphor for a city in which the two parties seem more and more to occupy not just opposing places on the political spectrum, but distinct realities altogether.”
“When Obama was elected in 2008, many progressives looked forward to a replay of the New Deal. The economic situation was, after all, strikingly similar. As in the 1930s, a runaway financial system had led first to excessive private debt, then financial crisis; the slump that followed (and that persists to this day), while not as severe as the Great Depression, bears an obvious family resemblance. So why shouldn’t policy and politics follow a similar script? But while the economy now may bear a strong resemblance to that of the 1930s, the political scene does not, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are what once they were. Coming into the Obama presidency, much of the Democratic Party was close to, one might almost say captured by, the very financial interests that brought on the crisis; and as the Booker and Clinton incidents showed, some of the party still is. Meanwhile, Republicans have become extremists in a way they weren’t three generations ago; contrast the total opposition Obama has faced on economic issues with the fact that most Republicans in Congress voted for, not against, FDR’s crowning achievement, the Social Security Act of 1935.”
“For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long. Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.”
“We could have left this problem as we found it and hoped that, over time, banks would earn their way out of the mistakes they had made. Instead, we chose a strategy to lift the fog of uncertainty over bank balance sheets and to help ensure that the major banks, individually and collectively, had the capital to continue lending even in a worse than expected recession.”
“‘At each turn, when faced with congressional opposition, the instinct was to back off, and the result was not what the White House hoped,’ said a senior U.S. official involved in Guantanamo policy. ‘We kept retreating, and the result was more pressure to retreat more.'”
“President Obama was on edge. For two exhausting months, he had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan. He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were ‘really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted.’ He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out. His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end.”
“Most of the foreign-policy issues that Obama emphasized in his first two years involved stepping away from idealism. In the hope of persuading Iran’s regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions, Obama pointedly rejected Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ terminology. In a video message to Iranians on March 20, 2009, he respectfully addressed ‘the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.’ In order to engage China on economic issues, Obama didn’t press very hard on human rights. And, because any effort to push the Israelis and Palestinians toward a final settlement would benefit from help from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Obama was not especially outspoken about the sins of Middle Eastern autocrats and kings.”
“There was always the possibility, the president knew, that ‘this was some warlord from Afghanistan who had set up shop, the possibility that this was a drug dealer from the Gulf who valued his privacy or had a mistress or a second family.’ But he also understood that The Pacer might be exactly who they thought he was. From what he knew of the man, Obama had never bought the conventional wisdom—the assumption that bin Laden ‘was living an ascetic life somewhere, in some mountain somewhere.’ The evidence was circumstantial, but he agreed that it would be hard to find another explanation that fit all the facts. Obama kept his expectations under control, as he is known to do, but admitted to himself that ‘this might be for real.’ He instructed Panetta to get creative, to figure out a way to nail it down—to ‘run it to ground.’ He also asked Panetta to start preparing plans for action.”
“You must know the boy, Mr. President. Though you’ve never spoken a word about him, you must know his name, who and what he was. He was, after all, one of yours. He was a citizen. He had certain inalienable rights. He moved away when he was seven, but in that way he was not so different from you. He moved around a lot when he was growing up, because his father did. He went from Denver to San Diego, and from San Diego to a suburb of Washington, D. C. Then he went to Yemen. He was an American boy, but his father came to feel that America was attacking him, and he took his wife and son back to Yemen and began preaching hatred against Americans. Anwar al-Awlaki took it as his constitutionally guaranteed right to do so. When you decided that you had to do something about him, you also had to decide whether his citizenship stood in the way. You decided that it didn’t.”
“Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.”
“Thus the myth of ‘twice as good’ that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans — enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history — feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. ‘Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,’ he said in his ‘More Perfect Union’ speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s ‘God Damn America’ remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.”
“In interviews with dozens of black advisers, friends, donors and allies, few said they had ever heard Mr. Obama muse on the experience of being the first black president of the United States, a role in which every day he renders what was once extraordinary almost ordinary. But his seeming ease belies the anxiety and emotion that advisers say he brings to his historic position: pride in what he has accomplished, determination to acquit himself well and intense frustration. Mr. Obama is balancing two deeply held impulses: a belief in universal politics not based on race and an embrace of black life and its challenges.”
“I have always sensed that he intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own. And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama’s life’s work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve.”
“When Obama ran for president the first time, urban poverty was a major policy focus for his campaign. Senator Obama gave speeches on the issue, his campaign Web site had a dedicated poverty section with a variety of policy proposals, and in his platform, he committed his administration to ‘eradicating poverty,’ pledging that ‘working together, we can cut poverty in half within 10 years.’ But the official poverty rate has continued to rise under Obama. In May, Bob Herbert, the former New York Times Op-Ed columnist, castigated the president in the online magazine The Grio for his failure to address publicly the ‘catastrophe’ of children growing up in urban poverty. ‘Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor,” Herbert wrote.”
“A former brothel manager who helped the FBI bust a national prostitution ring. A retired sheriff who inadvertently helped a money launderer buy land. A young woman who mailed ecstasy tablets for a drug-dealing boyfriend, then worked with investigators to bring him down. All of them and hundreds more were denied pardons by President Obama, who has granted clemency at a lower rate than any modern president, a ProPublica review of pardons data shows.”
“As the first anniversary of Obama’s election approached, David Koch came to the Washington area to attend a triumphant Americans for Prosperity gathering. Obama’s poll numbers were falling fast. Not a single Republican senator was working with the Administration on health care, or much else. Pundits were writing about Obama’s political ineptitude, and Tea Party groups were accusing the President of initiating ‘a government takeover.’ In a speech, Koch said, ‘Days like today bring to reality the vision of our board of directors when we started this organization, five years ago.’ He went on, ‘We envisioned a mass movement, a state-based one, but national in scope, of hundreds of thousands of American citizens from all walks of life standing up and fighting for the economic freedoms that made our nation the most prosperous society in history. . . . Thankfully, the stirrings from California to Virginia, and from Texas to Michigan, show that more and more of our fellow-citizens are beginning to see the same truths as we do.'”
“With his perma-tan, two-pack-a-day baritone, and natty wardrobe, House Republican leader John Boehner is a backslapping, deal-making throwback to the G.O.P.’s past. But his recent ‘Hell, no!’ anti-Obama strategy, as he seeks to ride the Tea Party wave, may point to an ugly future.”
“Ginni Thomas spent much of 2010 on a coast-to-coast campaign against the Obama Administration. As she said in an introductory video on her Web site, ‘If you believe in limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise, national security, and personal responsibility, and have felt these principles are under attack from Washington, then you’ve come to the right place’ In a later interview, she said, ‘I’ve never seen, in my thirty years in Washington, an agenda that’s so far left. It’s a radical, leftist agenda that grabs a lot of power to Washington so that Washington élites can pick the winners and losers.’ In his own speeches, Justice Thomas expresses himself in terms similar to those of his wife. Answering questions recently in Florida, he said, ‘The government has to be limited. We have separations of powers, and some of the other enumerated powers that prevent the government from becoming our ruler. I don’t know if that’s happened already.'”
“President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that ‘drill, baby, drill’ is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.”
“On Oct. 3, just a day after their failed Olympics bid in Copenhagen, Barack and Michelle Obama slipped into a Georgetown restaurant for one of their now-familiar date nights: this time, to toast their 17th wedding anniversary. As with their previous outings, even the dark photographs taken by passers-by and posted on the Web looked glamorous: the president tieless, in a suit; the first lady in a backless sheath.”
“But what we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics. Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge. And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned. Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.”
“We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”
“Now, Americans don’t begrudge anybody for success when that success is earned. But when we read in the past about enormous executive bonuses at firms even as they were relying on assistance from taxpayers, it offended our fundamental values. Not only that, some of the salaries and bonuses we’ve seen created perverse incentives to take reckless risks that contributed to the crisis. It’s what helped lead to a relentless focus on a company’s next quarter, to the detriment of its next year or decade. And it led to a situation in which folks with the most to lose – stock and pension holders – had the least to say in the process. That has to change.”
“You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government. But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
“Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. I am here to say they are wrong. I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.”
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