The Biggest Controversies of Barack Obama's Presidency

President Obama at press conference

Leigh Vogel / WireImage / Getty Images

President Barack Obama may turn out to be a relatively popular president but he was not immune to controversy. The list of Obama controversies include a broken promise that Americans would be able to keep their insurers under the Affordable Care Act health care overhaul and accusations he downplayed links between terrorist acts and Islamic militants. 

Benghazi Controversy

President Barack Obama at a press conference

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Questions about how the Obama administration handled the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, dogged the president for months. Republicans portrayed this as an Obama scandal but the White House dismissed it as politics as usual.

Among other things, critics accused Obama of downplaying links to Islamic militants in the runup to the 2012 presidential election.

IRS Scandal

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller
IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The IRS scandal of 2013 refers to the Internal Revenue Service's disclosure that it had targeted conservative and Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny leading up to the 2012 presidential election between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

The fallout was fierce and led to the resignation of the head of the tax agency.

AP Phone Records Scandal

Attorney General Eric Holder
Attorney General Eric Holder. Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice secretly obtained telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press wire service in 2012.

The move was described as a last resort in a leak probe, but it nonetheless outraged journalists, who called the seizure a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into The AP's newsgathering operation.

Keystone XL Pipeline Controversy

Keystone XL Pipeline Protest

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News

Obama promised to spend much of his time in the White House trying to address the causes of global warming. But he came under fire from environmentalists when he indicated his administration could approve the $7.6 billion Keystone XL Pipeline to carry oil across 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska.

Obama later agreed with a State Department determination that the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline would not be in the best interests of the United States.

He said:

"If we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky."

Illegal Immigrants and Obamacare

Man walking by Obamacare center in Florida
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Does the health care reform law known as Obamacare (officially the Affordable Care Act) insure illegal immigrants or not?

Obama has said no. "The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," the president told Congress. That's when one Republican member of Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, famously retorted: "You lie!"

The former president's critics also lambasted him for his vow that his plan would not force them to change doctors. When some people did, in fact, lose their doctors under his plan, he apologized, saying,

“I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.”

Sequestration and the Federal Budget

President Barack Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011

Pete Souza / Official White House Photo

When sequestration was first put in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to encourage Congress to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion by the end of 2012, the White House and Republican lawmakers alike praised the mechanism.

And then came the budget cuts. And nobody wanted to own the sequester. So who's idea was it? You might be surprised to learn that Washington Post veteran reporter Bob Woodward pinned the sequester firmly on Obama.

Use of Executive Power

Presidential Signing Pens

Kevin Dietsch-Pool / Getty Images

There's lots of confusion over whether Obama issued executive orders or was just taking an executive action, but critics piled on the president for trying to bypass Congress on critical issues such as gun control and the environment.

In reality, Obama's use of executive orders fell in line with most of his modern predecessors in number and scope. Many of Obama's executive orders were innocuous and warranted little fanfare; they provided for a line of succession in certain federal departments, for example, or established certain commissions to oversee emergency preparedness.  

Gun Control Controversy

A Denver, Colo., gun dealer holds a Colt AR-15

Thomas Cooper / Getty Images

Barack Obama has been called the "most anti-gun president in American history." Fears that Obama would try to ban guns fueled record sales of weapons during his presidency.

But Obama signed only two gun control laws and neither of them placed any restrictions on gun owners.

National Security Agency PRISM Surveillance System

NSA Spy Facility

George Frey / Getty Images News

The NSA was using a super-secret computer system to scoop up emails, video clips, and pictures on major U.S. Internet company websites, including those transmitted by unsuspecting Americans, without a warrant and in the name of national security. The program was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge during Obama's second term in office.

Fast and Furious

As part of the Fast and Furious program, the Phoenix Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed 2,000 firearms to be sold to people it believed to be smugglers in hopes of tracing the weapons back to Mexican drug cartels. Though some of the guns were later recovered, the agency lost track of many others.

When U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was shot and killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border, two of the weapons purchased under the Fast and Furious program were found nearby.

Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt of Congress during the investigation.

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Murse, Tom. "The Biggest Controversies of Barack Obama's Presidency." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, August 31). The Biggest Controversies of Barack Obama's Presidency. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The Biggest Controversies of Barack Obama's Presidency." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).