You have heard an awful lot about the President of the United States over the past eight years, but the substance of his policies remains badly misunderstood both at home and abroad. Barack Obama is often criticised for failing to deliver on the hope-and-change rhetoric that inspired so many voters in 2008. Indeed, his policies have been less glamorous than Donald Trump’s plan for a wall along the Mexican border or Bernie Sanders’ promise of free college for all. Yet, the reality is that Barack Obama has engineered a series of changes that have profoundly affected the US and the world we live in.
When he was elected in 2008 there was a lot of healing to do: the US had lost one war in the Gulf and was losing another in Afghanistan. In a poll of 19 countries, two thirds had a negative view of America. Back at home, the financial system was on the brink of collapse and the labour market was on free fall, with unemployment at 7.8% and rising.
Upon taking his seat in the White House, Obama pushed through and signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He guided the massive TARP financial and banking rescue plan to force financial organizations to pay back virtually all bailout money and rescued the car manufacturing sector. Unemployment today is 4.9% and falling, just like the federal deficit, which has been reduced from 9.8% of GDP in 2009 under Bush, to 2.5% of GDP in 2015. After having secured the economy, Obama relaxed relations with Cuba, executed Osama bin Laden, reached a nuclear deal with Iran and vastly improved America’s standing in the world. Ten million adults now have health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act and although 13.9% of Americans remain uninsured, this is still a drop from 18.9% in 2013. Obama indefinitely deferred the deportation of the parents of children who are either US citizens or legal residents, and expanded that protection to children who entered the country illegally with their parents (the Dream Act). He eventually spoke out forcefully for gun control and appointed two women to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina. Meanwhile, Janet Yellen is now the first woman to preside over the Federal Reserve. In the field of energy resources, wind and solar power are set to triple.
There are, of course, other facts to contend with. Immigration and citizenship have not been reformed. In foreign policy, US troops are still in Afghanistan, while there has been a 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan (not to mention Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere) and Guantanamo Bay remains operative. Obama’s dithering in Libya and Syria did not do much to stop chaos and terror, which then spilled over into Iraq. After the Wikileaks scandal, Obama used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more than twice as many whistleblowers as all previous presidents combined and he deported more people than any president in US history. Importantly, wealth inequality and income inequality are massively on the rise, while corporate profits keep rocketing. A lot of work remains to be done.
In spite of these setbacks, Obama has produced a quiet revolution, changing the way Americans live. Gay soldiers can now serve openly in the military, insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, markets no longer believe the biggest banks are too big to fail, solar energy installations are up, carbon emissions have dropped, and so have unemployment and the federal deficit. These are only some of the many accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s policies. The quiet change he delivered is enormous.
When thinking of this legacy, however, we should not forget about the fundamental political revolution that Obama brought about. This is something that has been already noticed by David Brooks and duly reported on this blog. In Obama, and in his egregious family and staff, we are losing someone who took public service both seriously and gracefully. January will be the end of the line for a leader who believed that facts mattered and that politics can be done with a ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance.