The Obama Record
By Nayyer Ali MD
President Obama has left office. In his eight years he has been among the best Presidents of the last hundred years. The only ones that were better were Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and arguably Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson achieved huge domestic goals, but his legacy was tarnished by the Vietnam War. Clinton was very good, but did not have to deal with the depth of problems confronting Obama. So what were Obama’s main achievements?
First and foremost, he was the Jackie Robinson of Presidential politics. To be the first African-American to be President was a huge responsibility; he needed to be more than just adequate given his historical significance. He cleared that bar. He was never involved in a scandal of any sort, he ran a very clean administration, and he carried himself with great dignity and decorum, both as President, and as a husband and father. Despite being the target of vicious racism (the birther movement, led by Trump, was just the most obvious of this), he never lashed out or lost his cool, or got into the gutter with his enemies.
When he entered office the pile of trouble he faced was immense. The economy was in free fall, losing a million jobs a month, the auto industry was about to go bankrupt, and the banking sector was in disarray. He organized and passed a concerted response to all these issues, despite uniform Republican opposition. His bold actions prevented another Great Depression, even though the recession was still the worst in 80 years. The contraction stopped by the summer of 2009, and job growth resumed by 2010. Despite the heavy initial losses, he leaves office adding almost 12 million jobs to the economy, compared to less than 2 million in George W Bush’s 8 years. Wall Street loved the recovery, with stock prices doubling in 8 years, and home prices have recovered almost all of their collapse from the housing bubble. Wage growth has been sluggish, but compared to all the other major industrial economies, the US has performed the best, even doing better than Germany.
In foreign affairs, Obama had some notable achievements. In 2009, the US was involved in active wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama kept his promise to pull the US out of Iraq, and after a surge for 2 years of forces in Afghanistan, he has drawn down the US presence to mostly an advisory and support role. The US is no longer deploying large forces overseas. The rise of ISIS in Iraq was due to the incompetence of the Iraqis, and with US air support they are now being defeated, holding on only to western Mosul as their last outpost in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have not been defeated, but they do not have the strength to actually win control of the country. US forces provide intelligence and airpower and logistics, but it is the Afghanis that do the fighting.
Obama had the wisdom to avoid a major commitment to the Syrian civil war. He wanted Assad out, but he correctly calculated that arming the Syrian rebels was a can of worms that could lead to an even worse outcome. The rebels were fractured and easily coopted by religious extremists. There was no good way to ensure the creation of a stable democratic Syria. He has been criticized for not doing more, but without a massive US military commitment, anything else would have been unlikely to succeed. A rebel victory would probably have led to a hopelessly divided and broken Syrian state, an outcome that was not in US interests, or anybody else’s really.
Obama had some major foreign policy successes, the biggest being the Iran nuclear accord. This deal meant that Iran could not develop a weapon for at least 10-15 years, when they were about a year away at that point. He has been criticized because the deal did not force Iran to change its Middle East policies to our liking, but this deal was about one thing only, nuclear weapons. The other world powers were not going to maintain sanctions just to get Iran to stop supporting Hezbollah, or the Yemeni Houthis.
Obama also opened US relations with Cuba, long overdue given that communism collapsed 25 years ago. An open policy with Cuba will likely accelerate reforms in Cuba; the previous policy of isolation clearly failed.
In domestic policy, Obama shielded the DREAMers with DACA, which allowed these undocumented who came as children to work and live openly in the US. The Trump team has yet to undo this Executive Order, and they are clearly worried about the political hit they would take for doing so. Obama also appointed the first Latina to the Supreme Court.
Obama oversaw a major advance in rights for LGBT. He got rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell rules in the military, allowing them to openly serve their country. He also oversaw a Supreme Court that declared marriage equality a constitutional right.
Obama’s greatest achievement in domestic terms was the Affordable Care Act. It plugged a massive hole in the nation’s health care system by expanding Medicaid to all of the working poor, and by banning insurance companies from charging customers more for having pre-existing illnesses, and requiring them to sell insurance to everyone. This has reduced the uninsured rate to a record low, and if the law is allowed to work, it will drive the rate even lower. The cost control measures within the act have also been very successful, with health care spending rising at its slowest in the last five years since the 1960’s. While the GOP has lusted after repealing the ACA, they are finding that very hard to do, given that it would mean stripping 20-30 million Americans of their health insurance.
Finally, Obama has won the battle against climate change. The government spent the last 8 years subsidizing the development of renewable energy and electric cars. These investments are now bearing fruit. Tesla and GM are releasing electric cars this year with a 250-mile range, three times that of the current electric cars. Over the next five years, every major auto maker is introducing long range electric vehicles. Projections suggest that these cars will be cheaper than gasoline powered cars by the early 2020’s, at which point an inflection point will occur, and electric car sales will take off. Wind and solar are now the fastest growing forms of electric power in the US and the world. Coal plants have closed, even though they work perfectly fine. The cost of wind and solar have plunged 60-80% over the last 8 years, and now are the cheapest form of new electric power. The battle for climate change was going to hinge on clean energy being cheaper than fossil fuels, at that point the conversion would occur naturally for economic reasons. Obama put the world on that path, and Trump can’t change that.
Obama’s achievements are historic. He left office with a 59% approval rating according to Gallup, which probably means 85% approval among minorities, and about 50% among Whites. If you back out Whites in the southern states, he almost certainly had majority approval among White voters elsewhere. He has been a great President, perhaps a bit too cautious at times, and too willing to believe in a rational GOP to work with, but his legacy is solid and four dark years of Trump will not be able to overturn it. This country remains majority center-left, with the Obama coalition of younger, urban, well-educated, and diverse voters representing the future.