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Divided Nation: 1992–2016

Barack Obama's Presidency

2008 Presidential Election

On January 20, 2009, Barack H. Obama, the first African American president, was inaugurated to the first of his two terms in the oval office.

The 2008 U.S. presidential election was historic in several ways. It was the first time in history that two sitting senators—Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and Arizona Republican John McCain—ran against each other. Alaska governor Sarah Palin was the first Republican woman to be nominated for vice president. And Obama became the first African American president of the United States.

The two candidates toured the country and engaged in televised debates to bring their ideas and platforms to the American people. The biggest issue at the time was the drooping economy, which was in the first throes of the Great Recession. Obama advocated a reversal of President George W. Bush's tax cuts for upper-income taxpayers and a tax credit for low- and middle-income workers. McCain hoped to make Bush's tax cuts, which would expire in 2010, permanent for individuals and businesses. He also intended to extend tax cuts to businesses to boost the economy.

The continuing war in Iraq was another major campaign issue. Both candidates believed troops would need to remain in Iraq for at least a few years to ensure the stability of the region. However, Obama was eager to end things as quickly as possible, while McCain was adamant about not withdrawing too early. On issues of the environment, both candidates wanted to decrease carbon emissions and increase fuel-economy standards in the auto industry, though Obama's plans were slightly more aggressive than McCain's.

In a first for a presidential candidate, Obama went beyond the traditional in-person meet and greets and TV appearances. He and his campaign staff reached out to potential voters via social media. Websites and applications that allowed users to share information and participate in conversations, such as Twitter and Facebook, were relatively new in 2008. Using them skillfully helped Obama reach two key audiences: young voters and non-white voters. His message of hope and promises to fundamentally change America, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, create a million jobs, and conduct government business with more transparency inspired a huge turnout of voters on November 4, 2008.

Approximately 64 percent of American adults voted in the election—the highest voter turnout since 1908. Record numbers of African Americans and Hispanics showed up at the polls. Ninety-five percent of the African American vote went to Obama, as did 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. The only majority votes McCain carried were with white voters and seniors. Obama secured 365 electoral college votes to McCain's 173 and became 44th president of the United States.

2008 Electoral Map

With a total of 69.5 million votes in his favor, Barack Obama received more votes than any previous presidential candidate. This was also the first year Nebraska split its electoral votes since changing its voting rules in 1992.

Social and Political Developments

In 2010 Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, and Barack Obama's promises of fundamental social change were hindered by congressional partisan politics.

When Barack Obama took office as president in 2009, the country was at war in the Middle East and suffering a severe recession. Though the first phase of combat was complete, U.S. troops were still in Iraq. The year-old Great Recession was dragging on. Unemployment numbers were at their highest point in 25 years, and millions of people had lost their homes and savings in the housing crisis. President Obama soon put in motion plans to end the war in Iraq by the end of 2011. He also secured a $787 billion stimulus package with the goal of saving the financial industry and restarting the economy. By the end of his eight-year term, there was steady but still sluggish growth in the economy—something both major candidates running for president in 2016 would attempt to exploit.

Obama's presidency will most likely be remembered for social changes in the United States, including the legalization of gay marriage and the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Most notable was his push to reform American health care. After much haggling in Congress, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law on March 23, 2010. While it did not provide actual health care, it made affordable health insurance available to more people, particularly those living in poverty. It also mandated, or legally required, everyone to have health insurance, including children and legal immigrants. It also expanded Medicaid in those states willing to cooperate and encouraged medical practitioners to use "innovative medical care delivery methods designed to lower the costs of health care generally."

Fallout from the Affordable Care Act Legislation

The Affordable Care Act sparked an immediate backlash and solidified opposition elements, especially within the Republican Party, which became divided between centrists and the growing conservative wing.

The ACA had a polarizing effect on Congress. Republican opponents and nearly two-thirds of the America people felt certain that ACA, if passed, would increase the cost of medical care, negatively affect existing health care plans, and increase the federal deficit. Furthermore, they claimed, the ACA represented an unprecedented expansion of government into the lives and pocketbooks of American citizens. Not a single Republican in the House or the Senate voted for the act. The bill passed because Democrats held the majority in both houses. Objections to the bill drove some libertarian-leaning Republicans to split off and form a new populist party in 2009 to champion the rights and concerns of ordinary citizens. Called the Tea Party, in memory of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, this was a grassroots populist social and political movement formed in revolt against the overreach of big government into Americans' private lives.

The formation of the Tea Party galvanized many Republican voters to turn out for the 2010 midterm election. Forty-four of the 138 Tea Party–backed candidates were successful in their campaigns for office. A general backlash against passage of the ACA helped Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives that year. They gained control of the Senate four years later. However, the success of the Tea Party also divided Republicans between mainstream Republicans and the conservative populists who represented the interests of ordinary people and were now gaining ground.

Partisan politics kept Congress as divided as ever and placed ideology and posturing above getting things done for the American people. Growing dissention between parties set the stage for the contentious 2016 election.