How has America changed after eight tumultuous years under President Obama?
We put that big question to scores of people in seven states. We chose places where the president delivered speeches about his vision for America. What we collected is not the “inside story” of Obama’s administration. It is the outside story. By design, we questioned night shift workers, food servers, business owners and sometimes people we encountered at random. What emerged is an unfiltered look at a nation after years of political and economic struggle.
Many people had a wrenching personal story to share. And many spoke of Obama’s presidency as personal. They did not speak of “the government,” but of the president himself. He hurt my business (or saved it). He stuck up for me (or is coming for my guns).
“He’s too much in my life,” one voter said. Another, who met Obama after losing a son in a mass shooting, said: “He understood.”
Here’s a look at President Obama’s words — his promises and dreams — and assessment of where we are eight years later.
“What’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.” — President Obama in a speech on the economy in Osawatomie, Kan., Dec. 6, 2011
Obama took office amid the worst economic crisis in generations. Banks were depending on a federal bailout to survive. The official unemployment rate had reached 7.8 percent and would soon exceed 10 percent. The numbers were even worse when the underemployed were included. Many people dropped out of the labor market entirely.
Today the employment picture is drastically improved. Yet wages, when adjusted for inflation, remained steady for years and only recently have begun to climb. This continues a decades-old trend.
Patrick Casica of Denver is living that trend. He has a new job in quality control for bottling firms, a tech job with benefits. But he says he’s paid less than he made eight years ago as a bartender. “This is an investment,” he tells us. “I knew I was going to take a hit and work up the ladder to better myself.”
We met Casica at Denver’s Union Station, where he’s catching the train to work. The station and surrounding infrastructure were restored, partly with a grant from Obama’s economic stimulus law in 2009, an $833 billion spending and tax cut package geared to jump-start the economy amid the Great Recession. But Casica is not yet feeling the benefits of a stronger economy.
In Aurora, Colo., John Hoody works as a server at a Red Robin restaurant. He says he’s doing better than eight years ago, having moved up from a job at McDonald’s. He’s even bought his own home — and in Denver’s rising real estate market, it’s likely worth more than he paid.
But to make ends meet, the 29-year-old says he’s working at two different restaurants. And he does not have health care coverage. “With Obamacare, from my understanding of it, I can’t get insurance unless it’s astronomically priced,” he says. He pays a tax penalty instead.
Hoody is not alone — millions are still without insurance — though the rate of those uninsured has dropped sharply for every income group.
“I’ll invest $150 billion over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels — an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced.” — Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008
The president argued that the nation could improve the economy while also helping to save the planet. Republicans scorned his interest in subsidizing solar panels and windmills. They said their view was vindicated when Solyndra, a California solar company, went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving federal money.
But in 2016, much has changed. The use of every kind of renewable energy, including solar, has increased. The most dramatic increase is in wind, which has increased fivefold since 2007.
The windy state of Kansas now gets about 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, even though the Republican-led state Legislature recently removed a requirement that utilities make use of such energy.
One wind company owner, Matt Gilhousen, believes that Obama saved his business. Standing amid 111 wind turbines that he developed on a hilltop in Elk County, he says the Great Recession nearly killed his company, Tradewind Energy. The 2009 stimulus law provided cash grants that helped the company endure three years with no new business.
Gilhousen has gone from laying off 30 employees to hiring 70. “We’re lucky to be here,” Gilhousen says.
But it was a very different story for Matthew Anderson, who runs a small company in Denver that develops properties to drill for oil. His company, Acoma Energy, boomed with expanding domestic production.
But the price of oil has crashed, and Anderson has laid off some employees. Anderson knows Obama leans toward renewable energy. What has the president done for him? “Not one single thing.”
“You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.” — Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008
Obama tried several ways to gain legal status for many of the estimated 11 million people residing in the country illegally, but with limited results.
Urged by some advisers to seek comprehensive immigration reform when he had a Democratic Congress in 2009, Obama sought his health care law instead. Later, he used executive action to give legal status to “dreamers,” the children of immigrants who had entered illegally, a program he later expanded.
But the courts blocked Obama’s wider executive action. It would have allowed parents of American citizens and immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to be eligible to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Federal courts also stopped Obama’s expansion of the “dreamers” executive action. The two blocked programs would have covered an estimated 3.9 million people.
The court defeats dismay Jose Luis Valdez, a native of Mexico and recently naturalized U.S. citizen who is a restaurant owner in Kansas City, Kan. Obama’s administration deported many people — 2 million in his first six years, at a rate higher than any of his predecessors. But to Valdez, the president never delivered on a basic promise. “He used us,” Valdez says. “He used our votes.”
We heard a profoundly different view from Paul Czarzasty of Marion County, Fla. “These illegal immigrants coming over, and receiving benefits, when our own veterans are having to wait to receive theirs,” he says. “That bothers me a lot.”
In the same conversation, Christiane Lemke says she was a naturalized citizen from the former East Germany. She had come to the U.S. legally and felt others must do the same.
“I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.” — Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008
At the time he won his party’s nomination in 2008, Obama only endorsed civil unions; he did not overtly support the right for gays and lesbians to marry. The president’s position did not change until 2012, as public opinion shifted strongly in favor of marriage. Later, in 2015, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the right to same-sex marriage would be accepted across the country.
Fran and Anna Simon spent years as marriage activists; now, they say, they are able to live a “normal” family life, spending time volunteering at their son’s school.
At their home in Colorado, the family debated the president’s role in that change. “The president barely did anything,” their 8-year-old son, Jeremy, told us.
But his mom, Anna, says Obama changed the tone. “It was so exciting to have a president finally, who could even say the words gay and lesbian in a respectful way.”
A More Racially Diverse America
“The anger [in the black community] is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races. In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.” — Sen. Barack Obama in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008
Every presidency for generations has featured a debate about race — but none quite like Obama’s years. This era has seen a nation becoming more diverse; a number of incidents of police killings of black citizens, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement; a rise in white identity politics; and the first black president presiding over it all.
As Obama approaches his final months, a Pew Research Center survey finds a narrow majority of African-Americans today believes Obama “made progress” toward improving race relations. But a majority of white respondents found Obama “tried but failed to make progress” or even “made race relations worse.”
In Florida, Paul Czarzasty has come to see President Obama as a divisive force. The Marion County deputy sheriff cited the president’s public statements about some high-profile incidents in which African-Americans have been killed by white officers.
“We have concerns with the way that the president’s been dividing the country,” says Czarzasty, who’s white. “In any profession you’re going to have good and bad. … It’s made our job harder for the president with his lack of support.”
Kwame Rose had virtually the opposite assessment. He didn’t find Obama to be supportive of protesters. Rose was a prominent African-American protester in Baltimore in 2015, amid the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died after being placed in a police van. President Obama said most protesters were peaceful, but also criticized “criminals and thugs” who looted a number of stores.
“You don’t know the story behind each one of those individuals,” Rose says, insisting that demonstrators were simply trying to survive. “I don’t think President Obama at that moment looked inside the mirror and saw that there were people who looked like him who weren’t as fortunate as he was. And he chastised them.”
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross had more sympathy for Obama’s position. It was Philadelphia where Obama delivered his famous 2008 speech on race. Like Obama, Ross faces the challenge of being an African-American leader in a diverse community.
“This is going to get me in trouble,” Ross says, “but you asked it and I’m going to answer it. I think there are some people who believe that because they have an African-American president, he was supposed to be an African-American president only. He’s the president of the United States.”
Ross offers his own assessment of Obama’s presidency, which, he says, has brought out “the best and worst in people.” Millions of Americans of all races proved they could vote for a black man for president, whatever his policies might be. At the same time, Ross asserted that the first black president faced unprecedented attacks.
“I have not told you whether I’m a Republican or Democrat and I won’t,” he says. But I do believe this nation will miss this president. I really do. Like it or not, he brought us through a recession. Like it or not, he bailed out an auto industry. Like it or not, he found and dealt with one of the biggest terrorists that we’ve ever seen … in our history. And the list could go on and on. And yet they call him a weak president, and I’ll never understand that.”
— Morning Edition associate editor Reena Advani contributed to this report.