Overall Grade C
Obama came to power with a historic opportunity in that he had strong political support to enact far-reaching social reforms with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives and Congress. However, Obama made the fateful error of ignoring and demobilizing his progressive political base and appointed Wall Street figures to head his economic policy team and conservative Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel who were hostile to progressive ideals. Obama's failings opened the door for the Tea Party movement and GOP while economic recovery from the 2008 financial crash was slow to materialize.
Obama is a charismatic speaker who led a scandal free administration. He faced a racist backlash and unprecedented efforts by a radicalized GOP to undermine his presidency. However, he himself was too vacillating, adopting a style as one critic put it in which he would "give away 90 percent of the ground before even starting to negotiate." He ceded too much on health care reform, deregulation, taxes and social security cuts and failed to use his bully pulpit to defend teachers and other public sector unions when they were being attacked as by the Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Obama meanwhile cracked down heavily on whistleblowers and critical journalists while remaining silent when police dismantled Occupy Wall Street encampments. His administration failed to prosecute Wall Street bankers who helped cause the economic crash, deported record numbers, extended National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and expanded executive powers through measures like the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 which gives the federal government the right to incarcerate United States citizens without recourse to any form of judicial process.
Pushing the privatization of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the landmark New Deal measure in his 2014 budget, Obama failed to uphold his campaign pledge of cancelling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which has cost an estimated 700,000 jobs since it was passed by Bill Clinton in 1994 and campaigned aggressively for the corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. African Americans ironically have fared poorly under America's first black president, experiencing an increase in the poverty rate and decline in median income while getting arrested and shot at by police in astonishing numbers.
Overall, while there were positive aspects of his presidency, Obama leaves at best a mixed political legacy. He has left a country in moral and political disarray, which has elected a mentally unstable leader in Donald Trump who has appointed a Cabinet filled with millionaires, billionaires, know-nothings and lunatics.
Assessment of Key Obama Policies:
Obama's seminal achievement, The Affordable Care Act, yields a mixed legacy. On one hand, the policy was an improvement over the previous system. It helped expand insurance coverage to an estimated 15 million of the former 50 million uninsured, who were provided subsidies and given high deductible, low coverage health insurance. As part of the deal, health insurance companies got tens of millions of new customers guaranteed by taxpayers and were able to secure vast new profits. Economist Jack Rasmus has pointed out in the December issue of Z Magazine that Obamacare in effect became less a health care system reform act than a health insurance subsidy act, and was a consequence of Obama's withdrawal from promoting the public option and Democrats refusal to even allow debate on extending Medicare for all through a Canadian style system.
Obama inherited a major economic crisis and has overseen a slow, gradual improvement in the economy, including an increase of 15.6 million private sector jobs since early 2010. The official unemployment rate fell to 4.5% from 4.9% as of December 2016, the lowest jobless rate since 2007, and wage growth is reported to be ahead of inflation. GDP growth has sat however at under 3 percent per year, an anemic level not seen since Herbert Hoover's presidency. The real unemployment rate including part time workers and those marginally attached to the work force is 9.5% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a figure that omits those who have given up searching for work and college graduates severely underemployed.
Besides jobs increases, Obama's major economic accomplishments are conservative - keeping inflation in check and cutting the federal deficit by two-thirds while expanding exports. Obama's labor policy promoted small improvements for workers that wouldn't offend his Wall Street backers too much. Obama pushed unsuccessfully for a raise in the abysmally low $7.25 per hour minimum wage and promoted laws mandating better safety conditions and wages for private companies working for the government and to expand overtime pay (which was blocked by a federal judge in Texas). The National Labor Relations Board under Obama passed a measure designed to hold companies accountable for labor abuses and Mr. Obama supported a "persuader rule" that forced companies to disclose when they hired anti-labor consultants.
As was evident in the election discourse, the Obama years were not on the whole very good for America's working class who continued to experience a hollowing out of America's manufacturing base as a result of automation and the promotion of free-trade deals along with excessive military spending, which for years has had a depleting economic effect (see Seymour Melman's classic study, Pentagon Capitalism).
Mr. Obama presided over the increasing concentration of the nation's wealth in the hands of the rich as indicated by the share of wealth held by the top 1%. Corporate and investor taxes under Obama since 2009 were cut by more than $6 trillion, as economist Jack Rasmus reports, thus extending the Bush tax cuts and then some. The share of wealth held by the bottom 50% of the U.S. population has remained stagnant and the poverty rate remains high at an estimated 14-15%. Of that total, twenty million people are estimated to live in extreme poverty, and over 500,000 were reported to be homeless in one single night in January 2015. While Obama quietly enacted anti-poverty measures designed to curb homelessness, fund child nutrition in low income districts, expand Medicaid coverage and reduce and promote energy efficiency homes, the plight of America's poor was worsened by legislation like the 2014 Farm Bill which included provisions to cut food stamps by $8.7 billion dollars over ten years; causing 850,000 households to lose $90 per month.
In July 2010, Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which was designed to prevent another financial collapse. Its provisions included the Volcker rule designed to limit the ability of federally insured banks to speculate on risky ventures, attempts to stamp out price manipulation of basic commodities through derivatives, an anti-bribery clause forcing fossil fuel companies to disclose cash payments made to foreign governments in return for drilling rights, and establishment of a consumer protection bureau to protect consumers from Wall Street deceptions including in mortgage lending.
Dodd-Frank's achilles heel however was that it left much of the work of writing regulations to federal agencies susceptible to influence by Wall Street lobbyists. The ability of lawyers to insert loopholes protecting their clients extraordinary profits led to "the miracle that was the making of Dodd-Frank - hailed as the most comprehensive financial reform since the 1930s," as The Nation Magazine put it, "becoming a slow moving horror movie called 'the unmaking of Dodd-Frank'- a perfect case study of the ways an industry can avoid a set of tough minded reforms it does not like."
The Obama administration's $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to break up the big banks, meanwhile, or arrest the outsourcing of industrial production by companies like General Motors. Managed by Wall Street executives, it led to the rewarding of corporate executives with fat bonuses while entry level wages were slashed and jobs cut after concessions were forced on union bosses. Though helping to stimulate job creation and infrastructural improvement, the ARRA "didn't [generally] fix the economy," investigative reporter Matt Taibbi wrote. Rather, it "committed American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, un-regulatable, hyper-concentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it."
Energy Policy and Environment
The Obama administration promoted new clean energy standards for automobiles and the regulation of carbon emissions from power plants in an amendment to the Clean Energy Act, as well as stricter ozone limits. Under Obama's oversight, the U.S. increased solar electricity generation by more than ten-fold, and tripled electricity production from wind power. The Department of the Interior (DOI) approved over 50 wind, solar, and geothermal utility-scale projects on public or tribal lands and Obama created the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which promotes technical innovations in clean energy. Obama also used the bully pulpit to speak eloquently about the dangers of global warming and took money from the space budget to fund scientific research into global warming, including climate modeling, weather prediction and natural hazard mitigation. Mr. Obama wavered on supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline after large-scale protests, and promoted the signing of the Paris Climate Accords calling for reductions in carbon emissions. Obama also proposed cutting $4 billion in tax breaks to the oil industry though this was blocked by the GOP-led Congress.
On the negative side, Obama's administration played the role of obstructionist at earlier climate summits, and squandered an opportunity to pass a Carbon Tax when the Democrats had the majority in both houses. While creating or expanding 23 new national monuments that helped conserve more than 265 million acres of land and water -- more than any other administration in history - Obama in September 2016 imposed rules expected to increase the difficulty of listing animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act, a change long on the oil and gas industry wish list.
Obama generally promoted an all-of the above energy strategy that ensured an 82 percent growth in oil production, the greatest oil boom in U.S. history. Obama permitted drilling in the Arctic Ocean over the objections of environmentalists, auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests and opened the door to a new generation of oil and gas drilling in Atlantic waters hugging the East Coast while opening up 119 million acres for offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama also signed a measure to lift a 40-year-old ban on the export of most U.S. crude and championed nuclear power with backing from the nuclear lobby.
Bill McKibbon, in an article in The Nation Magazine entitled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Chemistry" details how a decline in carbon emissions resulting from the closing of coal mines and new fuel efficient cars in the Obama years has been offset by huge methane leaks. These have been caused by the burning of natural gas and fracking (involving exploding subsurface geology so that gas can leak through newly opened pores) which Obama has invested heavily in with only limited efforts at regulation (that have in turn been blocked by the courts).
Food and Agriculture
Obama's administration was friendly to Monsanto and the biotech industry, appointing former Monsanto executives to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and abandoning a campaign pledge to promote the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In a stark demonstration of the power of the agro-chemical industry to dictate the terms of our nation's food safety system, President Obama ignored 250,000 petitioners and in 2016 signed into law Senate Bill 764, known to many as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act preventing Vermont from becoming the first state in the country to implement a mandatory GMO labeling on food packaging.
Criminal Justice Policy:
The Obama administration continued with his predecessors in providing block grants to the states that often incentivized increasing arrest rates and re-instituted asset forfeiture laws that enable police to seize personal property related to criminal activity which has the same effect and can fuel police corruption.
Mr. Obama's administration spent over $9 billion per year on narcotic law enforcement, tripling the total spent under War on Drugs guru, Ronald Reagan. While implementing a few progressive measures such as expanding access to drug treatment through the Affordable Care Act, and lessening (though not abolishing) sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine and other minor drug violations, the Obama administration authorized hundreds of raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. In 2010, there were 750,000 arrests across the U.S. for marijuana possession, contributing to the scourge of mass incarceration. In 2013, 88 percent of the Department of Justice's wiretap warrants were for narcotics. Chris Soghorian of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that "the war on drugs and the surveillance state are joined at the hip."
Mr. Obama furthered the militarization of domestic law enforcement by expanding the Pentagon's 1033 program providing military equipment to local police forces to levels that eclipsed the peak totals of the Bush administration by 14 percent. In 2013 alone, local law enforcement received a half billion dollars under the premise that if they are fighting a war on drugs, they should be outfitted like warriors. Military giveaways reached half a billion again in 2016 despite an executive decree freezing certain equipment after the Ferguson, Mo riots, which police expert Peter Kraska referred to as a "publicity stunt" designed to prevent more riots.
As many were being locked up, Mr. Obama used his bully pulpit to lecture black males about taking personal responsibility as fathers (something nobody would ever do to white men) while promoting his My Brother's Keeper Initiative which raises huge sums of money from the private sector to create opportunities for black inner city youth, and other neighborhood revitalization initiatives.
The latter programs have had a positive impact, though the Obama administration did too little overall to rectify the deep rooted social problems in the inner cities breeding high levels of gang violence, including underfunded public schools and community programs, poor job prospects, geographic isolation caused by inadequate public transportation, easy access to drugs and guns and family breakup caused by high incarceration levels. Obama's promotion of drone strikes and a violent foreign policy sent a bad message to young people who subconsciously emulate the violence of the culture at large.
Towards the end of his tenure, Mr. Obama began speaking out more against mass incarceration and introduced reforms like sentence commutations and the banning of solitary confinement practices for juveniles and prisoners who commit "low level infractions" while limiting first time offenders to 60 days (from 365 - Obama at the same time was completing construction of a Super-max facility in Illinois). Obama also took measures to gradually eliminate private for profit prisons, restore ex-convicts' eligibility for financial aid to attend college after release, and set up a commission for reviewing police conduct and acquisition procedures. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder directed his prosecutors to stop bringing charges that would impose harsh mandatory minimum sentences except in the most egregious cases. These measures are all good but only a drop in the bucket in the face of a wide-scale societal crisis which is likely to intensify under a Trump presidency. The limited effect of Obama's reforms is evident in that from 2013 to the present, the number of prisoners in federal custody shrank from nearly 210,000 to approximately 190,000 - small potatoes given that in 1980, there were only 25,000 federal prisoners.
Immigration and Border Policy:
Obama's immigration plan which was blocked by the Supreme Court was designed to shield five million out of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and allow many to work legally while improving efficiency in the visa processing system and expanding the number of refugees let in. Between 2009 and 2015 the Obama administration however removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, a record of all presidents. In 2015, it charged 70,000 people for border crossing, which has become the most prosecuted category of federal crime.
Through a $600 million supplement to a border security bill, the Obama administration expanded Bush II's militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border, contracting with Elbit Systems of America to build a "virtual wall" in Arizona and deploying surveillance balloons with high-powered cameras that floated over desert-camouflaged vehicles and long range radar and tower mounted surveillance systems developed for tracking insurgents in Afghanistan.
During its first term, Obama's administration supported a federal program called "Secure Communities," under which local police send the fingerprints of every person they arrest to the Department of Homeland Security. Those suspected of being undocumented were transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers which exposés like the PBS film Lost in Detention revealed to be filled with brutality. Some are run by private companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, which the Obama administration gave a $1 billion no bid contract to for running a facility for Central American migrants seeking asylum (many from a repressive post-coup government in Honduras the Obama administration backed).
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. had become the largest surveillance state in history under President Obama. The Washington Post following a two-year investigation found 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on counter-terrorism, homeland security and intelligence at about 10,000 locations across the U.S. Every single day the NSA intercepts and stores more than 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other forms of communications. Its gargantuan budget was kept secret from the U.S. public synonymous with a lack of transparency in the Obama administration on issues of "national security." (We know from Mr. Snowden that in 2013 the CIA and the NSA were awarded $52.6 billion in funding, not including another $23 billion for military intelligence programs).
Obama's FBI has included a network of 15,000 paid informants, who have a record of spying on mosques and activists according to The Intercept. FBI agents intensively monitored and infiltrated the Occupy Wall Street Movement whose camps were destroyed by local police with nary a whisper from Mr. Obama.
In May 2011, Obama approved a Congressional four year extension of controversial parts of the Patriot Act allowing for secret courts, seizure of records without an owner's knowledge, and secret surveillance and roving wiretaps.
Obama also backed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which permits the military to detain those suspected of aiding terrorists indefinitely without due process. Whole categories of Americans including political activists or minority groups could potentially be seized under this law. Journalist Chris Hedges sued the Obama administration, but the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. (see Chris Hedges, The Post-Constitutional Era - http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_post-constitutional_era_20140504)
In February 2012, Obama signed into law a Federal Aviation Funding bill that will open American skies to hundreds - likely thousands of unmanned aircraft, to the delight of the drone lobby that has generously supported Obama and admirers of the political system described in George Orwell's book 1984.
Mr. Obama has been a strong proponent of charter schools which operate without accountability to the public and rob traditional schools of resources they need to educate the neediest students (which charters don't enroll in the same percentages). The Obama administration and its Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted common core testing, providing $360 million to develop new standardized tests that encourage rote learning rather than critical thinking, while working to tie teacher evaluation to standardized testing scores. The Education Department's ties to the Gates Foundation, which funded the creation and implementation of the core, have sparked criticism that the administration was too close to wealthy philanthropists who were intent on driving their own personal vision of school reform.
For higher education, the Obama administration increased Pell Grants, lowered interest payments for student loans, increased spending on scientific research and tightened regulation of for-profit colleges that were bilking students. In January 2015, Mr. Obama announced a partnership with the states to make two years of community college free, leading to the launching of over 36 free community college initiatives.
These measures are all positive, however, the Obama administration failed to enact more far-reaching reforms that would curtail the growing "corporatization of the university" characterized by obscenely high costs, top-down administrative management, less full-time faculty positions, poorly paid employees and the focus on students as customers which degrades the quality of education. (see https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-corporatization-of-higher-education). There is also the problem of the increasing militarization of higher education degrading the spirit of independent inquiry, which Obama's perchance for militarism has only intensified.
Obama's administration was free from any sex scandals, and compared to his successor, Mr. Obama is a model gentleman. Mr. Obama furthered women's rights through the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay act which overturned the Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), restricting the time period for filing complaints of employment discrimination concerning compensation. (The bill was named after Lilly Ledbetter who worked at Goodyear's Gadsden Alabama plant from 1979 until her retirement in 1998 as an area manager, where she was paid $3,727 per month while the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month). Obama further reauthorized the Violence Against Women act and established the White House Council on Women and Girls which pushed for female equality and empowerment. Obama additionally promoted same-sex marriage, defended Planned Parenthood from right wing conservative attacks and stood up for abortion rights, though failed to help pass the Freedom of Choice Act codifying Roe V. Wade.
For civil rights, the Obama administration strengthened civil rights era fair housing laws designed to limit segregation in housing and his Justice Department vigorously pursued hate crimes.
Native American Policy
The Obama administration provided $3.3 billion in lawsuit settlements to American Indian tribes for past federal mismanagement of their funds and lands, resolving more than 100 tribal claims. Obama also created a White House council to maintain communication with tribal leaders, established a buyback program to help tribes regain scattered lands, expanded the jurisdiction of tribal courts, included native women under the Violence Against Women law and increased funding for food assistance, education and health care. Russell Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation was quoted in The New York Times saying that "reaching out to Indian nations has been one of the hallmarks" of the Obama administration, though neoliberal economic policies have intensified the dire conditions on reservations noted for high alcoholism and suicide rates.
Overall Obama did many positive things in his presidency but was too cozy with corporate interests who financed his election campaigns and could have fought back harder against the GOP if he had mobilized the population on behalf of progressive principles as he had during his historic 2008 campaign. Much more could have been done to fight poverty and address other domestic social ills if money was taken from the enormous military budget. Obama institutionalized Bush administration policies that have contributed to America becoming more of an unequal, militarized, corporate-dominated surveillance and police state. The centrist wing of the Democratic Party has failed many working class and young Americans as well as minority groups over years, and the party has suffered consequently at the polls.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa currently and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012) and The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009).