President Barack Obama wrote Webster University a congratulatory letter on their centennial.
President Obama’s legacy remains unclear
In 2008, Obama was elected President in a landslide victory. It signaled change and drew comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. While Obama leaves as one of the more popular two-term presidents, his legacy includes both success and failure.
Obama overcame the odds to win the presidency with little national attention prior to becoming a U.S. Senator in 2004. While Obama became the first African American president, his election did not move us towards a post-racial nation. Structural poverty and racial animosity remains after his term ends. The euphoria of the Obama victory soon gave way to a massive set of challenges facing the country.
The Obama administration inherited a failing economy on the verge of depression. The public was rightly upset with Wall Street for crashing the economy and desperately hoped for the change Obama campaigned.
Instead, Obama picked Cabinet members sympathetic to the financial industry, such as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder. His administration not only continued the second half of the bailout, but failed to prosecute Wall Street executives.
President Obama’s team decided to actively involve the federal government to help fix the economy. Obama lobbied Congress to pass a $1 trillion Stimulus package, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and health care reform. He was able to get the Stimulus passed quickly, but faced resistance on health care.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama campaigned against the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, torture, indefinite detention and the expanded powers of George W. Bush’s administration. The Iraq War had lowered Bush’s popularity to a 25 percent Gallup approval poll rating. Obama’s decrying of a “dumb war” helped him defeat Hillary Clinton in the primary and John McCain in the general election.
Obama modeled his cabinet after Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” This meant the more “hawkish” Clinton as Secretary of State and Bush holdover, Robert Gates, at Defense. Obama also added several “hawkish” advisers such as General David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, and Samantha Power. Vice President Joe Biden was the closest skeptic of militarism in Obama’s inner circle.
The president achieved a major victory in 2011 after a successful raid by Navy Seals on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The wars, however, did not end after Bin Laden’s death. Obama greatly increased the drone strike program, with the New York Times reporting Obama ordered over 500 strikes as of early 2016, compared to 50 by Bush his entire term. The Intercept reported the president directly approved the strikes, which have taken place in seven different countries.
Obama first pushed for regime change in Syria during his first term and reluctantly began a program to arm rebel groups. In 2013, Obama nearly bombed Syrian regime targets until public opinion forced him to reconsider. Obama failed to learn the lesson that regime change leads to chaos, much like his predecessor in office. The Arab Spring rebellions enabled other terrorists groups to rise and led to refugee crisis.
Obama sent troops back to Iraq and broke his promise by not withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He would strike targets in Syria, Libya and Yemen in his last two years in office. Tensions with Russia also increased during Obama’s second term over disagreements on Syria and Ukraine.
On the positive side, Obama was able to achieve three foreign policy achievements during his last two years in office. The seven party Iran deal was completed to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for inspections and limits on their nuclear program. Relations with Cuba were normalized. The U.S. also signed the Paris Agreement on climate change action, which included major polluters such as India and China.
The fate of Obama’s legacy now lies in the hands of newly-appointed President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress. His signature health care bill is almost certain to be reformed and possibly gutted. While more Americans are covered, there are structural problems that led to widespread premium increases. However, Trump has signaled he would keep popular aspects of Obamacare, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents plan until age 26.
There are worries that the new president will roll back social progress. One thing to consider is some of the social changes that happened during the Obama years had nothing to do with the executive branch. The Supreme Court ruled marriage equality is the law of the land, and many states have decided to change their drug laws.
Obama did more for criminal justice reform than his recent predecessors. The White House states he commuted the sentence of nearly 1,200 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. He signed the Lilly w Act, which made it easier for women to obtain equal pay. He defended marriage equality, birth control and Planned Parenthood from Republican attacks.
Obama will always be remembered as a trailblazer, the Jackie Robinson of American politics. Barack and Michelle Obama avoided major scandals and generally represented the nation with dignity. The country avoided a great depression, but the national debt doubled during Obama’s presidency. The gap between rich and poor still remains wide. Obama also hands his successor more military conflicts than when Bush left office. While Obama has been a consequential President, he did not follow through on much of the hope and change he promised.