President Obama’s tenure has been marked by a distinct balance between sweeping reform and a continuation of the status quo. Has he lived up to his promises of hope and change? How will his actions and policies be viewed in years to come?
As a sixteen-year-old activist and organizer who, in recent years, has become heavily involved with the Democratic Party through a number of campaign worked on and positions held, perhaps it may be no surprise that watching President Obama’s inauguration speech live on television in a cramped, elementary school classroom in January 2009 is likely my first political memory. Even at eight-years-old, I sensed the excitement about the promise of a fresh, new face leading the country out of turmoil and back into prosperity.
When first elected, President Obama represented the very themes of hope, change, and progress that he had campaigned so heavily on throughout the previous year. Even if much of the sense of change that came with his election was steeped more in identity politics than it was in a great ideological shift, the thought of a man of color from Hawaii rising from being a child of a broken home to serving as President of the United States of America inspired awe and respect from many from all ends of the political spectrum.
Taking Care of Business
President Obama didn’t quite have it easy when first elected in November 2008. His predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, left him with two great spills to clean up: the costly, arguably failed invasion and subsequent war in Iraq that had been launched in 2003, and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused primarily by the deregulation of the financial industry and the 2004 bursting of the American housing bubble.
At the beginning of his presidency, Obama appeared to be prepared to execute plans of action that would end these crises that had taken tolls on both international relations and domestic affairs. For example, on February 27, 2009, Obama delivered a speech at Marine Corps Base Fort Lajeune announcing plans to withdraw from Iraq, save for a “transitional force” of roughly 50,000 troops, by August 2010. In regards to the financial crisis, President Obama swiftly took action. A Keynesian, President Obama believed that signing economic stimulus legislation and thus increasing public spending in a time of decreased private spending would be the most effective manner to reverse the effects of the Great Recession. In 2009 and 2010, respectively, he signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act, which worked to save and create jobs, direct spending to sectors that had seen significant drops in economic activity during the recession, and relieve the financial burden placed on the middle class. Obama’s first months in office were, to say the least, incredibly promising. Though not an incredibly ideological leader, his form of pragmatic problem-solving was celebrated greatly in a time of great stress.
President Obama Has Made (Small) Steps Towards A More Progressive Future
Before exploring my criticisms of President Obama’s political legacy, I find it necessary to briefly discuss policies that he has pushed forward over the last seven-and-a-half years that have bred mostly positive results. For example, on the foreign front, President Obama’s selective use of what Joseph Nye, founder of the international relations theory of neoliberalism, would call “smart power” has proved to, at times, reap positive effects in various regions of the world. For example, along with, as previously mentioned, striving (and succeeding, for some time) to end most military activity in Iraq, President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, reducing the number of nuclear missile launchers by half. He also, in one of the most memorable moments of his presidency, ordered the special operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, in his second term, President Obama has continued to work to end military operations in Afghanistan following our invasion under Bush in 2001, negotiated an incredibly controversial nuclear deal with Iran, and normalized our relationship with Cuba after fifty years of estrangement.
In regards to domestic policy, President Obama has made great strides with the signing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, while also watching the Supreme Court, to which he has nominated two associate justices, strike down the controversial Defense of Marriage Act as well as state-level bans on marriage equality as unconstitutional. He has also worked, from the earliest days of his first term, to make healthcare more affordable for all Americans; his healthcare proposals, a grand series of reforms that have been compared to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, have received perhaps both more praise and more scrutiny than any other aspect of his domestic policy.
How Certain is the Legacy of the Affordable Care Act?
Perhaps the most notable act signed into law by President Obama during his tenure is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare.” The Affordable Care Act was initially proposed as a means to increase the availability of affordable healthcare through subsidies, mandates, and exchanges. The law requires insurers to accept all applicants and requires premium calculation to be based on community rating.
The Affordable Care Act, in the face of intense backlash and criticism from politicians and activists on both the left and right, has seen a healthy level of success, with a Gallup poll in April 2016 revealing that the percentage of uninsured Americans has dropped to 11%—the lowest rate seen in an eight-year trend. In addition, it has been projected by the Congressional Budget Office that while premiums per person could increase by 10%, more than half of individuals would receive subsidies that would lower net premiums to costs well-below anything seen before the Affordable Care Act. In 2013, it was noted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that while the cost per capita of healthcare had continued to rise since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the rate of inflation had begun to decrease. Though factors such as the 2008 financial crash also played a role in this change, it has been estimated that the shift in health policy from a paying-for-quantity system to a paying-for-quality system that has been realized under the Affordable Care Act has accounted for roughly one-fourth of the change.
For all of its successes, though, there is still much to be desired from “Obamacare.” For example, it is projected that twenty-three million Americans will still lack access to insurance by 2019, including undocumented immigrants, eligible citizens not enrolled in Medicaid, citizens who opt to pay the non-enrollment penalty, citizens who are exempt from the penalty as coverage costs more than 8% of their income, and citizens living in states that have opted out of Medicare expansion. In addition, much criticism has been levied towards the reform in regards to how it seems to benefit insurance companies, who have been granted the ability to drastically raise premiums, multiply profit, and increase stock value, and their shareholders more than it does the previously uninsured. With all of this in mind, though, we are only six years out from the signing of this law, and, frankly, it is far too early to understand the full scale of the ramifications that this overhauling of health policy will have on the economy and on society.
A Quieter Hawk, But A Hawk Nonetheless
The controversy surrounding Obama’s policy, though, doesn’t by any means end with his sweeping healthcare reform. Much of President Obama’s policy on the foreign front has alienated a number of progressives as a result of its hawkishness (though, admittedly, the Obama brand of hawkishness differs greatly from the Bush doctrine of “strike now, ask questions later”). Though President Obama did technically keep his word in withdrawing troops from Iraq (until dispatching troops in 2014 at the invitation of the Iraqi government following offensives conducted by the Islamic State) and Afghanistan (after an initial surge of sixty-thousand troops), we have seen, under his presidency, the spread of American military action to countries like Libya, where a NATO-led intervention ended in the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; like Syria, where our government, in response to the growing civil war, has taken part in roughly four-thousand coalition airstrikes and has seen the failure of a costly and risky rebel training program; and like Yemen and Pakistan, where we have seen an exponential growth in deaths by UAV strike, ninety percent of which aren’t of intended targets, as a result of the development of a highly secretive targeted killing program.
We, too, have seen the ramifications of such fear-based foreign policy at home in the form of increased mass surveillance programs (as evidenced by extensions of both the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act), in the forms of crackdowns on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, and in the form of an increase in mostly non-judicial deportations (currently floating around two-and-a-half million) of undocumented immigrants. The quite painful truth to many, including myself, who were so inspired by President Obama’s first presidential campaign based on reversing the damage of Bush’s tenure is that President Obama has, in many ways, simply co-opted many of Bush’s neoconservative policies and made them more digestible for a liberal audience.
Balancing Progressive Idealism With Pragmatic Realism
Many do, regardless of his flaws, celebrate President Obama’s incredibly pragmatic approach; he is, despite running on a platform in 2008 that at the time seemed like it would alter the face of American politics, arguably one of the least ideological presidents we’ve seen in recent years, balancing a deep-seated desire for socially progressive reform, as most clearly evidenced by his work on gun control reform and LGBT rights, with a somewhat Clintonian, “Third Way” perspective on economic policy, most notably exemplified by the push for the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that has drawn intense opposition from both conservatives and progressives.
Hope and Change: Building a New Party and New Nation
Though this approach has been dismissed by many as hypocritical or inconsistent, President Obama has worked, perhaps through (rather than despite) his refusal to be tied to any single ideology, to forge a meaningful coalition between various splintered factions of a party that has proved repeatedly to operate most efficiently as a broad coalition. In Barack Obama, members of the Democratic Party spanning different races, different generations, different religions, different classes, and different ideologies have found a man with whom they can, in one way or another, identify with.
Though only time will tell how effective such a loosely-defined coalition will be in the future in maintaining party unity, this coalition has transcended mere ideology and has worked to modernize the party and make it as diverse as the nation itself. Historian Stephen Walt perhaps said it best: “Perhaps Obama’s least-heralded achievement was his effort to prepare the country for its future as a genuinely multi-ethnic and multicultural society. People of color will soon outnumber white Americans, religious diversity continues to grow, and differences in sexual orientation are increasingly accepted. Obama’s presidency may one day be seen as a watershed in the construction of a genuinely ‘rainbow’ America.”
Though President Obama’s legacy is incredibly split between policies that have worked to advance progressive reform and policies that have worked to maintain the structures that define the status quo, it is undeniable that he has worked tirelessly to bring forth the hope and change that he had originally promised. What few expected, though, was that such hope and change would manifest primarily on a cultural, rather than purely political, level. How such a subtle alteration to the political landscape, especially when serving as a background to sweeping reform carried out by a president who, for the foreseeable future, will be most discussed when being contrasted to his predecessor, will be received in decades to come is, at the moment, unclear. One can speculate, though, that while Obama’s policies, particularly on the foreign front, will continue to be criticized as they very well should be, this nation will appreciate the role he had in ushering in a new social era a bit more as time goes by.
Featured Picture, Copyright: Everett Collection