This is my article, titled Back to Obama, published in the Express Tribune Blog on January 22, 2017.
In just a few days, America and the world will have to say goodbye to an era that we have known for eight years, the presidency of Barack Obama. It will give way to a radically different and unorthodox presidency, which makes the change all the heavier. Barack Obama should utilize most of the time that he has left, and so should we. As we do so and as we await the inauguration of Donald Trump, we need to look back and see how the eight years of the Obama Administration have been, what he has done and what he has accomplished, and figure out what his legacy will be.
Obama presided over America during one of the tougher periods in its history. The previous eight years of the administration of George W. Bush was turbulent, with a significant threat of terrorism materializing and long-running wars which were bearing little fruit. Then, at the end of the administration, a major recession struck America’s economy. Barack Obama inherited all this and his job for the next four years was to turn America’s problems around. He also wanted to bring all kinds of other improvements to American society.
The economy was the most pressing issue for him. He responded within his first one hundred days by signing into law a stimulus package called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Its most immediate goal was to save and create jobs. Obama request to get another stimulus bill enacted in December 2009 was unheeded. With the automobile industry being among the sectors worst affected by the recession, Obama launched a bailout of car-making companies. Many believe this saved General Motors and Chrysler, two corporations very important to America’s economy, from bankruptcy. The economy worsened during Obama’s term until October 2009, when the unemployment rate reached 10.1 percent. However, an unprecedented recovery hereafter resulted in the unemployment rate being cut by more than half by December. 2010 also saw rapid growth in the economy which slowed in the latter parts of the year, and the economy grew at a steady and slow pace until 2014. While Obama has not succeeded much in improving the economy, many argue that he prevented America from sinking into much worse conditions in the earliest days of his administration.
One of his major early initiatives was to overhaul America’s healthcare system and insure affordable healthcare for all Americans, something he focused on after he was through with the stimulus bill. The big dream of his presidency came true with the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, on March 23, 2010. One of its goals was to extend health insurance and make healthcare more affordable. This was one of Obama’s most challenged policies but it has succeeded in reducing significantly the number of Americans without health insurance by twenty million, although another twenty million are still without health insurance. Obamacare has survived intense opposition since it was passed, such as endless repeal attempts by Republicans and two major challenges by the Supreme Court.
Regarding the most important issue in foreign policy, the War on Terror began a slow die-down under Obama. He opposed the Iraq War during his 2008 presidential campaign and while he was in office, a program of withdrawing American troops progressed until all had left except embassy guards by the end of 2011. However, this was in accordance with an agreement signed by George W. Bush when he was president and Obama cannot really therefore take much credit except for presiding over the success of the endeavor. Later on in 2014, Obama had to return American soldiers to Iraq to fight the insurgency of ISIS, which is ongoing with no clear end in sight.
In Afghanistan, however, Obama increased the number of troops during his first year in response to a deteriorating situation with the insurgency. He then said that he would soon end the war and start withdrawing US troops in July 2011. In 2012, the US signed a deal with Afghanistan to slowly start handing the war over to the local military. Obama said all US troops except for embassy guards will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. However, although US involvement in Afghanistan largely decreased by the start of 2015, Obama later decided to indefinitely keep troops there in combat operations. There are now about 8,400 US soldiers in Afghanistan as Obama leaves office and the Afghanistan War is ongoing as America’s longest war ever.
One of the highest points of Barack Obama’s administration is to preside over something that the United States tried its hardest to do for ten years, bring justice to Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States, the worst terror attack in world history. It meant accomplishing what was arguably the main goal of the War on Terror, creating hope that the war could soon be concluded. But while Obama played a big role in the search that found bin Laden and authorized the raid, it was not like another policy he was pushing or something he was mostly doing on his own, so it may not be considered a big part of his legacy.
A considerable achievement in foreign policy was Obama’s work regarding one of the biggest problems in international relations, fears over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran was a theocratic, hardline Muslim nation hostile to the West and to Israel and it was working to develop nuclear power. As this would enable Iran to build nuclear weapons, it made its enemies very nervous, especially Israel, which once launched a military strike on Iraq’s nuclear program when Saddam Hussein was ruling. After more than a year of negotiations, Iran finally in July 2015 agreed on a deal with the big five powers of the UN, Germany, and the European Union to limit its nuclear activities, such as by eliminating medium enriched uranium and by not building heavy water facilities, in exchange for easing of nuclear related sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency would have full access to all Iranian nuclear facilities to inspect in order to monitor Iran’s compliance. Obama played a significant role in this deal as the participation of the United States was crucial.
Many of Obama’s achievements were to bring change to situations that lasted a long time, and one of the longest was the US embargo of Cuba. Since 1961, as part of the Cold War, the US put the nearest communist country under an intense economic blockade and diplomatic shut-off and this continued after the Cold War ended. The US and Cuba held secret talks starting in early 2013 and in December 2014, Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. The two countries’ opened their embassies for the first time in more than fifty years in August 2015.
Obama did not take the issue of gun ownership in the US in much consideration during his first term, but after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which twenty children died, which occurred before he was re-inaugurated, he made it a central policy of his to increase gun control so people will be less likely to engage in gun violence. He urged Congress to carry out various restrictions, particularly a ban on assault weapons. However, not a single major gun control bill passed Congress under Obama and the Senate blocked a gun control program by two senators as well. This was due to the enormous influence of gun rights activists. Gun rights in fact increased while Obama was president and he signed two bills that allowed people to carry guns on Amtrak trains and in national parks (where, evidently, the fear of gun violence is not high). Since the goal of all this is to reduce gun violence, which everybody can agree on (while they cannot agree on whether gun rights should be restricted), Obama’s success in this regard should be measured by how much gun violence, not ownership, has been reduced. That has not happened either and mass shootings have occurred regularly since 2012. It is a fail for Obama.
Illegal immigration has long been a huge issue for the US because of the country’s to the barely-controllable movement of people from Latin America, especially Mexico, into the United States. There are two main measures that the US takes in regard with this problem, preventing people from entering and deporting them if they are caught having entered at any point in the past. Obama from the start called for immigration reform that focused on easing down the latter. Many of his attempts were blocked, but one that was successfully passed in 2012 was to protect illegals from deportation if they came in before their sixteenth birthday. That same year, though, saw a record rise in deportations, which then died down during Obama’s second term. Meanwhile, the number of illegal immigrants in the US has stabilized during his presidency.
Another serious issue was the selling of drugs in the United States. This was closely tied with the above issue because both most of the illegal drugs and most of the illegal immigrants in the United States came from the same place, south of the border, and the easier illegal immigration was, the easier drug smuggling was. US efforts against drugs were so extensive that they took on almost the form of a war. Again, Obama called for leniency. US prisons were brimming as many believed the nation was going too far in punishing those who sold drugs. Obama was generally successful in passing laws to ease the war on drugs and he also commuted the sentences of 1,000 drug offenders. As a result of all this, Obama is set on being the first president since the 1960s under whom the federal prison population decreased. But one should also look at the rates of people suffering from drug usage in America, for they should also define his legacy.
Obama has been a very environmentally conscious president. The rest of the government has not been, however, and he has had trouble passing bills to protect the planet. The use of coal, which is a particularly dirty energy source, declined while he was president, which was encouraged by some regulations he imposed. He got around a stubborn Congress by getting the EPA to work for a reduction in carbon emissions by America. The environmental degradation- fighting duo unveiled their grand plan, the Clean Power Act, in different steps in 2014 and 2015. The final version by Obama put a national limit on carbon emissions for the first time. The goal of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2030. In order to assess this part of Obama’s legacy, we will have to wait until then.
With most Republicans, and some other people, hostile to Obama’s environmental policies on the grounds that they conflict with the economy, Obama found greater success outside the country. He participated in 2009 in the Copenhagen Accords which provided for monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions by developing countries. He made a deal with China in 2014 for that country to halt the rising of its carbon emission by 2030 while the US would have the aforementioned Clean Power Act, paving the way for wider agreements among nations. Obama’s biggest green achievement came with the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2015. The meeting ended with the historic Paris Agreement in which nearly all countries agreed to a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The US, as well as China, played the most important role in the agreement and it is believed Obama’s EPA plan and deal with China made the Paris Agreement possible. It is one of Obama’s great achievements, but for this part of his legacy to truly bear fruit, we will have to wait and see how much the signatory countries reduce their carbon footprint.
Right from the start, one of Obama’s most widely acclaimed achievements was becoming president in the first place. Every single president before was white and of northern European descent. Obama was the first African American president and that in a nation which long suppressed the ability of black people to succeed and in barely discernible ways still continues to do so. But more than that was needed. When Obama won his first election, people hoped his administration would improve race relations in the US. But under his administration, several racial issues started to emerge, some of which people saw as a reaction to his being president. But the most severe issue was the law’s approval of violence towards black people, starting with the shooting of Travyon Martin in 2012 and continuing in 2016 with several police killings. Obama was deeply concerned with Travyon’s death but it was not until 2014 that he freely talked about issues faced by blacks and other racial minorities in the US. Race relations are now viewed by many Americans to be in dire straits. As Obama leaves office, America appears to be descending into increasing racial tension, whether it is his fault or the fault of the nation.
A great problem faced often by American presidents is that they are not dictators. They have considerable power in deciding what the nation does, but most of their decision-making has to contend with the legislative branch of government (and the judicial branch if they go too far), filled with a wide variety of people with different opinions. If these people belong to the party Obama belongs to, they are the most likely to agree with him. The general elections of 2008 ended with Democratic dominance in the legislative branch, with majorities in both houses of Congress, a favorable condition for Obama. But in the 2010 mid-term elections, Republicans scored a major upset, increasing their seats in the Senate and taking over the House of Representatives. The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was greatly opposed to Obamacare. In the 2012 general elections, Democratic seats increased in both houses of Congress but the House was still in the hands of the Republicans, so Obama remained in the same hard situation. It got worse in 2014 when Republicans took over the Senate as well, giving them the power to block Obama from appointing people to judicial and executive positions. The Republican Party was generally opposed to Obama’s policies, preventing him from doing much of what he wanted to do and generally being a more successful president.
One can say that Obama did well under such conditions. But it is not just a matter of how he did when he was president but whether what he did will continue to stand. And Obama’s legacy now stands to come under severe threat due to the rise of Donald Trump. The very fact that Donald Trump became the Republican frontrunner and then the nominee in the 2016 election and his popularity is an indicator of Obama failing in many aspects. Donald Trump and his crowd stand for the opposite of everything Obama stood for. Most of all, they seem to be a repudiation of Obama’s commitment to tolerance and diversity. The failures of Obama in uplifting the country may have driven so many to support Trump, who supports a new kind of change. Too much of the people of America have rejected Obama in the highest way possible.
And where Obama did succeed, it is all likely to be undone. During his campaign, Trump wanted to repeal Obamacare right away. He opposed belief in global warming and wanted to repeal the Clean Power Act and withdraw from the Paris Agreement. He went far in the other direction on illegal immigrants, saying all illegal immigrants would be deported immediately. He supported gun rights. All this was while the Republican Party (which Trump has little controversy with beyond old Access Hollywood tapes) retain their dominance in the legislative branch. The America Obama built seems set to be destroyed.
But when Trump won the election, things started to change. He declared that there was “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change and that he had an “open mind” towards the Paris Agreement. He said that he would only repeal some parts of Obamacare. He toned down his anti-immigrant stance. It appears that Donald Trump is backtracking on his promises. He would not be the first politician to do so, but from Obama’s point of view, it would be a very positive thing. Trump, like him, may not end up being as complete a force for change as promised and he may also have entered a more tolerant phase that is reconciliatory of Obama’s legacy. And when a president has ruled for eight years, reversing everything he has done cannot be easy, especially if done immediately.
Obama’s legacy is of a man who tried. And it is a legacy which has a very uncertain future.