In Defense of the President: Barack Obama’s Impact and Legacy
Before he signed a single piece of legislation, Barack Obama was already a president like none before him simply because he is African American. Leading up to his election, he campaigned on the promise of hope for a better world; a more peaceful world which embraced open communication, plurality, and diversity. He also laid out his domestic and foreign policy objectives which included a public healthcare option, a nuclear deal with Iran, and American economic recovery.
When he was elected, there was a spirit of hope among his supporters, not just in the U.S. but around the world, that he would be able to accomplish many, if not all, of his objectives. Early on in his presidency, however, it became evident that he faced intense opposition in Congress which would impede his progress.
This article examines several critical areas of his domestic and foreign policy, and explores what he was able to accomplish, what he was not, and why.
“Now is the time to deliver on healthcare. The plan I’m announcing tonight would meet three basic goals. It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance for those who don’t. And it will slow the growth of healthcare costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.” – President Obama addressing a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care, September 9, 2009
When Barack Obama was an Illinois State Senator, he expanded healthcare coverage to an additional 70,000 children through the Illinois KidCare program which was made permanent. As part of his 2008 platform, he pledged to do the same for the rest of the country if elected president and in January 2009 he reauthorized and expanded the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). First passed by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997, CHIP must be reauthorized every ten years. In 2007, Congress passed a bipartisan measure to expand CHIP to include over 4 million more participants by 2012. U.S. President George W. Bush, a Republican, reauthorized the bill, but vetoed the expansion, denying coverage to millions of children.
Obama had also pledged to create universal healthcare coverage and, as promised, he signed the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) into law on March 23, 2010. Obamacare significantly expanded healthcare coverage for Americans by introducing subsidies and insurance exchanges. It also included expansions to Medicaid which was enacted in 1965 to provide health insurance to low-income individuals and families.
In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states did not have to uphold Medicaid expansion and many states, mostly Republican, dropped this provision which had allowed individuals and families making up to 133% of the federal poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. Still, since the passage of Obamacare, an additional 20 million Americans are now insured.
Additionally, the rate of increase in healthcare coverage cost has slowed from projected estimates. In 2009, approximately $2.5 trillion was spent on healthcare in the U.S., which is $8,086 per capita. In 2014, nearly $3 trillion was spent on health care, which is $9,000 per capita. However, that is actually $5 billion less than was projected for 2014 before Obamacare took effect. This means that health care costs are going down gradually as more Americans become insured. Further evidence of this is that uncompensated hospital care went down 21% in 2014, and this is projected to go down further. The projected cost of healthcare in the U.S. from 2015 to 2024 is $104 billion less than pre-Obamacare projections. Healthcare is one of many areas where the benefits of Obama’s policies will continue to expand long after he leaves office.
Obama is firmly against privatizing Social Security, a measure Republicans have striven to pass. If instituted, privatized Social Security would mean that Americans would have to invest in financial markets which suffered the worst recession since the great depression due to irresponsible banking practices.
Obama’s firm stance against privatization is well-founded. For example, American International Group (AIG) provided insurance protection for over 100,000 entities, including small businesses and 401 (k) plans. Its entities combined employed over 100 million workers, and it had over 375 million policyholders in the U.S., totaling $19 billion in value. It was the main source of retirement insurance. It suffered massive losses during the recession, and without government, assistance would have collapsed.
If social security was privatized, as Republicans wanted, the majority of American retirement assets would have been lost during the recession. Obama opposed privatization in both his 2008 and 2012 platforms and continues to strongly oppose it, despite Republican opposition.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which Obama passed and which will be covered later in this article, addressed Social Security benefits and expanded benefits to millions of aging Americans who had paid taxes for decades with the understanding that their financial future would be secure through Social Security benefits.
Drugs and crime
“If we know that in our criminal justice system, African-Americans and whites, for the same crime, are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, and receive very different sentences…That’s a substantive issue and it has to do with how we pursue racial justice.” – then-Senator Barack Obama, Congressional Black Caucus debate, January 21, 2008
A key issue in Obama’s 2008 platform was the elimination of racial profiling and sentencing disparities in drug-related crimes. This issue was poignantly shown in the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine, which primarily affected poor African American communities. It was claimed by legislative authorities at the time that crack cocaine was more addictive, and therefore more dangerous than powder cocaine. As a result, the federal weight ratio for powder cocaine to crack cocaine was 100:1 from 1986 to 2010 which means that legally 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine was needed to invoke an equal sentence. This disparity in addictive properties, however, is scientifically untrue and many studies in the decades following showed that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are equally addictive.
The unfair law led to much higher sentencing rates, and longer sentences, to crack cocaine offenders, who are overwhelmingly African American, compared to white Americans dealing powder cocaine in similar amounts and receiving shorter sentences, if sentenced at all. This has significantly contributed to the ballooning of the American prison population, which costs taxpayers $80 billion per year to maintain. For this amount, the U.S. government could eliminate tuition at all community colleges.
In 2010, Obama passed the Fair Sentencing Act. He had attempted to reduce the ratio of powder to crack cocaine to 1:1, but the Senate Judiciary Committee pushed back and threatened to block the bill. The compromise was a ratio of 18:1. Fortunately, the bill also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time crack cocaine possession. There remains a push for a 1:1 ratio, but many in Congress oppose it.
Budget and economy
When Obama entered office, the U.S. was on the brink of economic disaster. The causes of this downturn are a complicated myriad of financial mechanisms designed to maximize profit without ethical guidelines. The history of the modern American banking system which allowed those mechanisms to flourish, however, can be explained succinctly.
Shortly after entering office, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt passed the U.S. Banking Act of 1933. Included in it was the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, among other provisions. In short, it prohibited Wall Street investment bankers from gambling their depositors’ money if it was held in commercial banks. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which repealed Glass-Steagall, allowing the merging of investment firms, commercial banks, and insurance companies.
“As a result, the culture of investment banks was conveyed to commercial banks and everyone got involved in the high-risk gambling mentality,” explained Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.
This included credit default swaps and predatory mortgages which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and global recession. To combat this, Obama passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Through these pieces of legislation, the U.S. government re-regulated the banks, restructured the banking and auto industries, and lowered interest rates to zero. As a result, the U.S. economy is much stronger. In 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate was 10% and it is now 4.7%, and consumer spending is up and rising at the fastest pace since April 2009. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created and due to its efforts over $11 billion has been returned to more than 25 million families who were defrauded by financial companies.
“As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.” – President Obama addressing a Joint Session of Congress on February 24, 2009
The American auto industry was deeply affected by the recession. In 2008, it was responsible for approximately 6.6% of the U.S. manufacturing workforce, totaling nearly 1 million jobs. U.S. President George W. Bush had authorized a temporary bailout of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler (aka “The Big Three”) in 2008, but left the extension and expansion of that bailout up to then President-Elect Barack Obama.
When Obama was considering the updated bailout, he was also considering the jobs and welfare of nearly 1 million American workers. In January 2009, the Auto Industry Financing Program (AIFP) gave $79.69 billion in loans, with strict benchmarks for clean energy innovation and repayment on the part of The Big Three, as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). The Big Three repaid the loans to the U.S. government by December 2014, and they continue to create more fuel-efficient vehicles, as specified in the loan agreements.
Stem Cell Research
“This bill embodies the innovative thinking that we as a society demand and medical advancement requires. By expanding scientific access to embryonic stem cells which would be otherwise discarded, this bill will help our nation’s scientists and researchers develop treatments and cures to help people who suffer from illnesses and injuries for which there are currently none.” – then-Senator Barack Obama addressing the Senate on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, July 17, 2006
Stem cells are life-saving. They can be used to replenish a body ravished by cancer, treat rare blood disorders, heart damage, and many other currently untreatable afflictions, and more funding is needed to research their uses and potentially lifesaving benefits. Congress passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Acts of 2005 and 2007, but President Bush vetoed them both. Obama supported these bills when Senator and pledged to bring the bill back to a vote if elected president.
Since Congress had passed the bill in 2005 and 2007, it was thought that when Obama was elected it would easily pass as well. However, when the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2009 was introduced it passed in the Senate, but it continues to be held in committee by the Republican-held House.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Osama bin Laden
“The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership, including Osama bin Laden. Now, even as we remove our last troops from Iraq, we’re beginning to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, where we’ve begun a transition to Afghan security and leadership.” – President Obama, October 21, 2011
The “war on terror” launched by President Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had far-reaching goals and consequences. The subsequent engagement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars had a detrimental impact on the soldiers engaged in the conflict, and the benefits were limited in scope and longevity.
In his 2012 platform, Obama stated that his goals were removing all U.S. forces and bases in Iraq, and bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. Though the U.S. did reduce its troops in the region, he was unable to bring both goals to fruition.
Obama might have hoped that he could accomplish these withdrawals after the successful assassination by an elite U.S. Navy Seal Team of Al-Qaeda leader, and the 9/11 terrorist attack mastermind, Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The old military adage: “when you cut off the head of the snake, the body dies,” i.e. remove the leader, and the organization will fall apart. That was not to be. Though the U.S. began troop withdrawal, in 2014 another, more radical terrorist group emerged calling itself the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).
ISIL rose to prominence quickly, sacking most of Southern Iraq and only being stopped by Kurdish military forces, the Peshmerga meaning “those who look death in the face,” in the North. ISIL sympathizers around the world have enacted terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Istanbul, and other major cities. Some Western women and teenagers even volunteered to be “ISIL brides” and left home to join the terrorist organization.
The U.S. did not want to be embroiled in another conflict, especially when it was trying to reduce American troops abroad. However, when the native Yezidi population in Iraq was forced into hiding in the mountains to escape ISIL, and they would have died of starvation without aid, President Obama intervened to save them. The Obama administration has labeled the actions of ISIL as genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing; and the U.S. has engaged in airstrikes as part of an international coalition, including Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which is defeating ISIL on the ground, reducing its holdings and dismantling its networks.
The Iran deal
“But we are also going to have to, I believe, engage in tough direct diplomacy with Iran and this is a major difference I have with Senator McCain, this notion that by not talking to people we are punishing them has not worked. It has not worked in Iran. It has not worked in North Korea. In each instance, our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their efforts to get nuclear weapons. That will change when I’m president of the United States.” – then-Senator Obama, First Presidential Debate, September 26, 2008
During his 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama stated that he would meet with any foreign leader in the interest of peace. This sentiment was part of the reason he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and it is what lead to a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran and the reestablishment of relations with Cuba.
The Iran nuclear deal for nuclear non-proliferation was reached in July 2015, with full international support and Congressional approval. On January 16, 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had reduced its nuclear program so that it can no longer be weaponized and can only be used for energy. This is in accordance with the Iran nuclear deal. If Iran were to break the deal and reverse these measures, it would take a year or more for them to create a nuclear weapon. Before the deal, when their nuclear program was stronger, it would have taken only two to three months. As with President John F. Kennedy’s Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963, this deal may lay a foundation for not only nuclear non-proliferation but also a more open, manageable relationship with Iran which is critical to pursuing peace and stability in the Middle East.
Relations with Cuba
Throughout his first term, Obama maintained U.S. policy with Cuba, upholding sanctions until Cuba improved their human rights record. As Cuba’s situation improved, Obama made moves to recognize that. In early 2011, he lifted travel restrictions that had been instated by President George W. Bush and returned to President Bill Clinton’s “people to people” policy, which allowed Americans to travel to Cuba if they were part of academic, religious, or cultural groups. He also allowed Americans to send money to Cubans, as long as they were not Communist Party members or in the Castro government. This second measure allowed Cuban Americans to send monetary aid to their relatives in Cuba, both freeing Cubans from their reliance on the Cuban government and improving Obama’s relationship with Cuban Americans. In his 2012 platform, Obama promised that as Cuba improved the treatment of its people, the U.S. would continue to ease sanctions against it. On December 17, 2014, Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced reestablished diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
Energy and oil
In his 2008 platform, Obama sought to make the United States less reliant on foreign oil and reduce its carbon emissions. In his 2012 platform, he pledged only to explore for oil responsibly and to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska where fracking had destroyed the natural habitats of countless animals, disrupting the ecosystem and creating a ripple effect of consequences.
Obama was swift to act on his promises, and many energy-saving measures were included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. By November 2013, the U.S. was producing more oil than it was importing for the first time in nearly twenty years, and its dependence on foreign oil was at a forty-year low. In February 2015, Obama vetoed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have stretched 12,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. The potential environmental impact of the pipeline was disastrous, including polluting groundwater and extracting “dirty oil” (oil that comes from oil sands and has 12-15% higher carbon emissions than “clean oil”).
When Barack Obama was elected, he inherited a country sliding into economic recession, engaged in two major military conflicts, and with the costliest healthcare system in the world. He had some significant ideas for reform, and campaigned on a promise of hope for a better future, bridging the partisan divide, and bringing the country together. It is remarkable what he was able to accomplish despite Republican opposition.
President Obama passed bills with benchmarks to reign in the big banks and restructure the floundering auto industry. He green-lighted the U.S. Navy Seal team which killed Osama bin Laden and made serious progress in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the military situation shifted due to ISIL. He created a national healthcare system, signed landmark drug and crime legislation, passed a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military, and reestablished relations with Cuba, among other accomplishments. Whether or not you agree with his policies, Obama fought hard to fulfill his campaign promises and succeeded far beyond what the opposition predicted, or is willing to admit.