Obama′s record is a legacy under threat

Barack Obama's record is a legacy under threat


'At last'

The day Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th US president was a historic occasion for the United States. On January 20, 2009, more than 230 years after its foundation, the country had its first non-white commander in chief. "At Last," pop icon Beyonce sang at the inaugural ball as the president and his wife, Michelle, had their first dance as POTUS and FLOTUS.


A country in crisis

Obama began his first term amid one of the most severe economic crises since the Great Depression. The US real estate bubble had just collapsed after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, triggering a worldwide economic recession. Only days after he was sworn in, Obama signed a stimulus bill into law, including tax reductions and infrastructure investments worth almost $800 billion.


Health insurance for 20 million Americans

In March 2010, Obama fulfilled one of his central campaign promises: He signed the Affordable Care Act. It provides some 20 million Americans with health care coverage, according to the Department of Health. A controversial piece of legislation, "Obamacare" faced several legal challenges and Obama's successor, Donald Trump, vowed to gut the law he's called a burden for Americans.


Nobel Peace Prize amid wars and drone strikes

After less than a year in office, the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Criticism was widespread of granting the accolade to a sitting president conducting two wars and an expanded drone program that led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians.


Death of an old enemy and birth of new ones

After a decade of hunting, Osama Bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks, was killed by US military in Pakistan in May 2011. Obama announced this to the world in a televised address. But bin Laden's death did not remove the specter of terrorism from his presidency. In 2014, the US started a campaign of airstrikes against the "Islamic State."


From 'reset' to tense ties

Obama started his presidency with a promise to "reset" US-Russian relations, even taking then-President Dmitry Medvedev out for burgers in 2010. But the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow's military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and accusations of Russians hacking the US election led to a strained relationship between the two nuclear powers.


Executive action on immigration

In June 2012, Obama signed an executive order allowing young, undocumented immigrants studying in the US or who had served in the military to stay in the country. Four years later, the Supreme Court blocked the order with a 4-4 vote. Facing a Republican-led, confrontational Congress, Obama often turned to executive orders to push his policy agenda.


Four more years

In November 2012, Obama celebrated another electoral victory - though he won by a narrower margin against Mitt Romney than he had against John McCain in 2008. In his second inaugural address, he set goals for his administration that included promoting LGBT rights, protecting the environment, immigration reform and gun control.


The rainbow president

Obama was the first US president to endorse same-sex marriage. While he had previously favored civil unions, he first spoke out in favor of gay marriage during his 2012 campaign. When the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage should be legal in June 2015, the White House was lit in rainbow colors in solidarity with the LGBT pride movement.


Bienvenido a Cuba

Obama revived the United States' relationship with its long-embargoed neighbor Cuba. When he visited the island in March 2016, he became the first president to set food in Cuba in 88 years. In late 2014, Cuban President Raul Castro and Obama had announced that they would re-establish diplomatic ties. Obama lifted travel restrictions and reopened the US embassy in Havana.


Stealing the show

Whether he "slow jammed the news" with late night TV host Jimmy Fallon or sat "Between Two Ferns" with Zach Galifianakis, the president - a skilled speaker with impeccable timing - continuously stole the show from comedians. His White House Correspondents' Dinner speeches often had the room roaring with laughter - like when his "anger translator" joined him on stage in 2015 (pictured).


First Latina on the Supreme Court

Obama appointed two women to serve on the US Supreme Court - Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. The latter (pictured) was the first Hispanic to sit on the country's highest court. This brought the number of female justices to a record three out of the nine. Obama saw his third pick for the court held up when the Senate refused to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland.


Far from a post-racial USA

Obama's election was often referred to as the beginning of a "post-racial" America, but Obama's initial hesitancy to address racial tension left many disappointed. In March 2015, he spoke in Selma, Alabama, commemorating progress made there 50 years earlier when police beat peaceful protesters, but also admitting the march for equal rights had not ended.


Gitmo's still open doors

Despite an executive order signed on his second day as president, Obama was unable to keep promises to close the US military prison located at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The site of torture and detainment without trial for over a decade, Obama said the US compromised its most precious values at Gitmo. In the waning days of his presidency, further inmates were released, but several dozen still remain.

Many of President Barack Obama's key achievements, like health care reform or the Iran deal, could be diluted or erased by the new Trump administration. But there are at least two historic successes that won't go away.

Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. While only eight years away, it seems for many now, when looking back at that time, as if the world has gone mad or on steroids - or both - since then.

But a look back at the starting point of the Obama administration is not only necessary to judge his record; it also reveals that the global environment he faced as the beginning of his first term, while very different in many respects, was arguably no less daunting than the global environment Obama's successor faces when he takes office in 2017.

"He took office probably at the most difficult time of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt," said Iwan Morgan, professor of US studies at University College London. "The United States was facing the worst recession since the Great Depression and was engaged in two foreign wars. It was a very difficult inheritance."

To compound his challenges, Obama also had to deal with a country whose political polarization had reached a peak, leaving him to work with a Republican Party whose key political goal was simple: to block or unseat him.     

Economic policy

That Obama managed to keep the US from sliding into another Great Depression after the financial meltdown of 2008 is one of his signature, if nowadays often overlooked, achievements, said Desmond King, who teaches American Government at the University of Oxford. In response to the immediate repercussions of the financial crisis, Obama managed not only to get the biggest financial stimulus package in US history through Congress, but he also signed the Dodd-Frank financial regulation, intended to prevent a similar disaster in the future.

While much of Obama's legacy is in danger of being overturned by Trump, "what Obama did do that will remain in place is to have turned the country away from disasters," noted David Sylvan, professor of international relations at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, via email. One such disaster was the economic meltdown, said Sylvan, and Obama's achievement was having orchestrated "the recovery of the US from the economic crisis of 2007-08."

ARCHIVBILD Zentrale von Lehman Brothers

Lehman Brothers, one of the largest US investment banks, collapsed weeks before Obama was elected

Domestic policy

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is Obama's key domestic policy achievement. "That is a signature legacy for him," said King. "He achieved universal health care for all Americans. That is something three of four of his predecessors tried and failed to do."

The Affordable Care Act extended health insurance protection to millions of Americans who did not have access to it before. "It is the most significant new entitlement program since the 1960s," said Morgan.

But it is also likely to be one of the first casualties of the new Trump administration and the Republican Congress: Both have vowed to repeal and replace Obama's single most important domestic policy project, against which they have railed from the start. 

"I would say that domestically the great failure of the Obama presidency - and structurally I think it was almost impossible to turn this around in two terms - is the growing inequality of wealth," said Morgan. While Obama recognized the problem, he said, he couldn't solve it, which ultimately contributed to the rise of Trump.

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Anti Obamacare Demonstration in Washington

Tea Party protesters demonstrated against Obamacare in front of the US Supreme Court

Foreign policy

While the nuclear agreement with Iran is cited by all scholars as a key foreign policy achievement for Obama, it is also considered to be very vulnerable to being tampered with by the Trump administration.    

That's why, for the Graduate Institute's Sylvan, Obama's "refusal to intervene militarily in Syria" stands out as one of his two lasting achievements, one that even a new Trump administration is unlikely to undo, for "very few people have any taste for intervening now in Syria."

"Not going to war" is the pithy way Sylvan's Oxford colleague King summed up Obama's foreign policy legacy, "because America has been to war for a long time, and being egged on to go to war and resisting that is a huge achievement."

"I can see that lots of people see this as a failure," King added, but pointed out that for the first time in a long while, Obama managed to interrupt the steady line of large numbers of young US military members dying abroad.

The key philosophical pillars underpinning Obama's foreign policy were a recognition of the limits of American power, and the planned shift of US priorities from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, also called the Asia pivot, noted UCL's Morgan, who then offered a pessimistic assessment of Obama's foreign policy record.  

"With the first, Trump is very likely to take a very different tack than Obama, and with the second [Obama] simply did not have substantive achievements to his name with the pivot to Asia," he said. "I would say we will look back at the Obama presidency's foreign policy as not laying very deep foundations in legacy terms."

Specifically, Obama's refusal to do more in Syria, said Morgan, allowed Russia to fill the vacuum there, with the result that Moscow has managed to re-establish itself as a major player in the region for the first time since the 1970s.

Mexiko G20 Gipfel Wladimir Putin und Barack Obama

Obama kept the US out of wars, but his reluctance to intervene in Syria emboldened a resurgent Russia

Race relations

Regardless of what Trump and Congressional Republicans do to his policy legacy, Obama has already secured a special place in history as the first African-American president of the United States. That fact in itself was still important to reiterate, noted King, and it could not have happened without the changes achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Race relations in the US, however, have not improved, but actually worsened during Obama's tenure, argued the experts, because the election of the country's first African-American president triggered a racially tinged political backlash.

"Within months of his being in office, a powerful grassroots white American movement, a nationalist movement, began against him, the Tea Party," said King. "At the same time there was the "birther" movement, which challenged his legal status to be president. So there was this white anti-black culture and movement against Obama from the early days of his presidency."

This, said Morgan, also had a profound impact on the 2016 presidential election. "In my opinion, the sort of cultural inferiority felt by many white Americans as result of a black man in the White House compounded Hillary Clinton's problems. The first African-American president being followed by the first female president was too much for many Americans who decided to vote for Trump in 2016."