The election of Barack Obama as the first black US president excited Americans and people around the world like only few of his predecessors in history, probably only matched by Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. As the first president of his generation that came of age post-Vietnam and post-Watergate, Obama carried the hopes to end wars, restore economic stability, expand equality, improve health care and bring about change.
After eight years, what did he achieve, what were his accomplishments, what were his challenges? Not every expectation was met, not every promise fulfilled. Yet when Obama passes the baton on to his elected successor next Friday, he leaves offices as one of the most popular president in post-war history. Below is our Obama report card:
Economy – There is always the tricky question of how much credit can a president claim (or refuse to accept) for economic developments that would or would not have happened anyway. In a liberal market economy, the government does not interfere with economic decisions. It does, though, help to create the fiscal, regulatory and social environment in which economic activity thrives.
Looking at the Obama years, the US economy has been producing mixed results, yet the administration had to deal with a severe recession from Day One. Growth remained sluggish since 2009, but the United States came out of the recession in better shape than most other western economies.
On the plus side: After a hard-fought bailout in Congress, the US automotive industry was roaring back from the brink of collapse and seems healthier today than ever before. The labor market has been booming, too. 75 consecutive months of job creation, 11 million new jobs to this day, to be exact, with the unemployment rate plummeting from double digits to five percent.
Some economists argue, though, that many new jobs are part-time or sub-standard and that many employment seekers dropped out of the labor force because they felt discouraged.
Wage growth has been up, reaching 2.9 percent in December. The three-moth average hourly wage growth since the recession went from 1.6 percent at the end of 2009 to almost four percent today. Wall Street was jumping from record high to record high, despite major financial reform legislation derided by Republicans. And, yes, the federal deficit has been cut in half as well.
Final grade: 8 out of 10
Healthcare – US presidents, mostly Democrats, since Harry Truman in the 1940s have attempted and failed to pass comprehensive health reform. The most recent, highly mediatized efforts before Obama were under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, spearheaded by First Lady Hillary Clinton, but her task force eventually collapsed under constant Congressional fire.
Obama did it – despite of a rocky start and unmitigated opposition from Republicans in Congress. In 2010, he signed the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law. “Tens of millions of Americans have coverage or significantly better coverage because of reforms enacted under this administration,” the Council of Economic Advisors wrote in its latest report.
“Because of the ACA, an additional 20 million adults now have health insurance. On top of that, more than 3 million children have gained coverage since 2008 due largely to the ACA’s reforms and improvements to the Children’s Health Insurance Program enacted in February 2009.”
In addition, the law ended discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, slowed the growth of health care costs, and created new incentives for providers to deliver higher quality care at a lower cost.
Yet critics have been unmoved. Republicans in Congress attempted more than 60 times to repeal Obamacare, pointing to higher premiums, higher deductibles and penalties for people who don’t maintain health insurance among other unpopular provisions.
Donald Trump’s desire to repeal the law immediately may face an unfriendly reality: Health care is complicated. No one among familiar with the issue thinks Republicans can replace Obamacare in the next month. Consequently, the future of health care in America is uncertain.
Final grade: 7 out of 10
Immigration – When it comes to immigration, the president’s ambition did not live up to political reality. Right from the start, then-senator Obama promised the Latino community that comprehensive immigration reform, backed by both parties, would be a top priority during his first term.
But all efforts died in Congress, especially after Republicans gained full control of the legislative in 2010. Even western and southern Republican lawmakers from states with a sizable and growing Latino population were unable to bring their fellow members on board.
As a result, Obama signed a series of executive orders that were partially stopped in federal court, after some Republican governors had sued. Nonetheless, Obama succeeded in exempting roughly 40 percent of the eleven million undocumented immigrants from deportation to their countries of origin, matching the numbers under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
One program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), granted temporary status to undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as minors. More than half a million young people are benefiting from DACA. But it can be revoked by President Trump as soon as Day One of his administration.
“As a result, these people are living in fear and in limbo. They do not know if they will be able to continue living and studying and working legally in the country they consider their own. They do not know if the rug will be pulled from under them by a new president. They do not know if they will ever be US citizens, or if they will deported to countries that many of them barely know”, says Ana Navarro, a Nicaraguan-born Republican strategist and political commentator.
Final grade: 5 out of 10
Race/LGBT/gender equality – A vast topic! When it comes to these social and minority issues, America has evolved tremendously during the Obama years, though not gradually and not with the same speed. The election of the first African American president in 2008 raised a lot of hopes, some of which were fulfilled, some were disappointed.
One of the disappointments is race relations. Obama’s election did not lead to a major closing of education and employment gaps between African-Americans and whites. Racism did not end. Hate crimes sadly were a regular feature throughout the Obama years.
Events like the death of unarmed black teens such as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Renesha McBride have entered the national consciousness. It is on that social and economic landscape that names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown have become known.
Even if most African Americans feel immensely proud of Obama, the first black president, an inspiring and transcendent political leader, was unable to turn his own hopes of racial equality and justice into reality.
Regarding same-sex marriage, Obama was on a learning curve. Initially Obama was a believer in marriage as a contract between a man and a woman. But then he changed his mind. He “evolved,” as he put it.
Eventually he announced his opposition to discrimination in all forms: in the armed forces and in the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” that had passed overwhelming in the 1990s. His Justice Department went into court calling such measures unconstitutional.
In short order, the mood of the country changed, and the courts handed the Lesbian and gay community victory after victory. The widely anticipated public backlash against such rulings never materialized. Now persons in every state may marry the person they love, regardless of gender.
Obama’s efforts on behalf of equal pay for women will also have a lasting impact. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ended the practice of not compensating women for pay discrimination unless they filed suit within 180 days of when the discrimination began. Even with a veto-proof Congress, Trump would have a hard time reversing this.
Final grade: 7 out of 10
Foreign Policy – The general consensus among foreign policy experts is that Obama will leave behind a mixed record of accomplishments. True, he came to office when the US had become almost a pariah nation following George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama’s administration made a lot of efforts to restore trust in American diplomacy and to improve America’s image in the world. But critics claim that his strategy of “leading from behind” went too far in reversing the Bush foreign policy.
Obama wound down US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, withdrew most of the American troops, but kept focusing on hunting down al-Qaeda terrorists. In 2010, Obama ordered a Navy SEAL raid into bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader and obtaining troves of valuable intelligence on the terror network. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican veteran top official of several administrations, called Obama’s decision to get bin Laden “one of the most courageous calls I’ve ever seen a president make.”
Widely praised for the successful bin Laden operation, Obama got worse grades for his policy in Libya and Syria. In Libya, Washington pulled together an international coalition to help the rebels overthrow the Qaddafi regime. But afterwards, Libya was left to its own devices, as neither the Europeans, nor the Americans were ready to dispatch a stabilizing force that could have avoided Libya plunging into chaos.
By also abstaining from intervening in Syria and supporting the pro-democracy forces early on, Obama opted to stay on the sidelines in this conflict. Many experts and the Republican opposition heavily criticized Obama for this, accusing him of displaying US weakness and of facilitating the rise of ISIL.
The Syrian civil war later escalated and brought in Russia as a major player. Yet Obama never wavered and considered the US military absence in Syria as his best foreign policy decision.
While he did not get anywhere with an Israeli-Palestinian settlement or Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, Obama’s reopening relations with Cuba, recent deal on Iranian nuclear weapons and backing of a global climate change accord underscore that he believes in diplomacy, not just using military force.
Final grade: 7 out of 10