At the heart of any assessment of Barack Obama’s tenure as President of the United States of America are a mass of contradictions.
A man who during his election campaign and after becoming President was hailed as the first African-American in the Oval Office and yet during his second term presided over bitter racial conflict in the USA. A man who leaves office with a 57% approval rating, and yet during his tenure has seen the steady erosion of his party’s (the Democrats) political base. A president known for resorting to executive orders – effectively presidential decrees – in order to enact legislation due to an increasingly hostile Congress and yet in fact issued fewer than his two immediate predecessors.
Obama won a landslide presidential election victory in 2008 on a tidal wave of hope and optimism for better times. His campaign slogan of ‘Yes We Can’ (possibly pinched from Bob the Builder) evoked this spirit. Expectations then, were high.
Reality hit home as Obama discovered the extent of America’s economic turmoil during meetings with advisers while President-Elect. Social reforms were largely postponed to instead focus on the economy. What followed was his so-called ‘Stimulus Package’, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, injecting $800 billion into the US economy in the form of infrastructure investments, tax cuts and increased federal spending. This, combined with other measures, like financial intervention in Chrysler and General Motors to rescue the American automobile industry, eventually helped to kick-start the economy.
2010 mid-term elections complicated matters as Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives. From then on, Obama never enjoyed the fortune of a supportive Congress. This was possibly the result of the landmark legislation of his entire presidency, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – better known as Obamacare.
The act comprised a wide range of measures to improve health coverage, including preventing insurers from rejecting applicants with known health problems, public subsidies for those unable to afford insurance and an individual mandate for all citizens to sign up to insurance with those that did not qualify for government support required to pay in an online system. Since implementation, Obamacare has overseen a 6 point drop in the percentage of Americans without health insurance to around 9% of the total population. However, Republicans have bitterly opposed the law, mainly on the grounds of cost and the individual mandate rule. After having long talked of repealing it, they now seem to be in the process of doing so. Obamacare will not be an enduring legacy of the 44th President.
Two issues particularly dominated Obama’s second term in office: gun control and race relations. Following the horrific Sandy Hook school shootings in 2013, Obama’s administration pushed hard for legislation to tighten gun ownership rules, but were thwarted by the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Assocation (NRA). Obama issued limited executive orders, but it remained a great frustration of his. On race relations, Obama’s rendition of Amazing Grace at a memorial service to those killed in the Charleston church shootings in 2015 may have shown how much he felt the pain of this shocking racial attack, but evidence of white police brutality against African-Americans resulting in no convictions sparked outbreaks of violent protest across the country.
In foreign affairs, as Obama leaves office, relations between the USA and Russia are at a very low ebb and the Syrian Civil War continues. He was never to predict the Arab Spring, but his cautious approach has been criticized as undermining America’s and his, international authority, as when backtracking on his ‘red line’ for American military intervention in Syria of the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime.
On the other hand, a deal with Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme and rapprochement with Cuba has seen his administration bridge longstanding tensions and Osama Bin Laden was successfully hunted down. He was also at the forefront of pushing for worldwide action against climate change, resulting in the historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.
His record on the environment is strong indeed. Aside from Paris, he acted decisively to improve oil rig checks after the Gulf of Mexico spill, and using his executive authority designated 548 million acres of territory as protected habitat and vetoed the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps it is from here, with his general corralling of the rest of the world to take action on climate change and the 2010 ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal Act removing the law preventing openly gay men from serving in the American military, that a long-lasting political legacy will emerge.
There were certainly shortcomings throughout his presidency, such as failing to close the detention centre Guantanamo Bay. Yet, when gazing into the crystal ball to predict his long-term legacies, one cannot forget the orange-tanned spectre in the presidential car wing-mirror, fast approaching and threatening to rip up many of Obama’s accomplishments. Equally certain is the defining positive memory of Obama’s presidency: his and his family’s lack of any personal scandals and their grace and style – his own ‘Obama Out’ drop mic finish to his final White House Correspondents Dinner stands out particularly. When considering the incoming President’s general campaign behaviour and personal controversies, this may be the abiding memory of Obama’s presidency.