Monday, 10 October 2016

Has Barack Obama’s Presidency Been a Failure?

by Gemma Webb

In the twilight years of his presidency, one is now in a position to make some preliminary judgements on the much hyped presidency of Barack Hussein Obama II. He promised America change, hope and progress, and though these are hardly novel declarations on the modern campaign trail, the efficacy of his slogans, the colour of his skin, and the very public failures of a Republican administration encouraged high hopes for the Democratic candidate. No modern president has ever truly fulfilled his campaign promises, as a result not only of a restrictive political system designed by those who feared great men, but also of the overly ambitious nature of these promises as a result of the competitive atmosphere of the presidential race. It is particularly unfair to judge Obama based on the unreasonably high expectations for the first black president of the United States. The intention of this essay is to evaluate Obama’s time in office, taking into account his successes and failures in the different aspects of race relations, gun control, partisanship, foreign policy, health care, economic policy and LGBT rights, with a particular focus on the deep and lasting changes he has made to the fabric of American society. Has ‘Yes We Can’ become ‘Yes We Did’?

Obama’s presidency was shackled to the issue of race relations from the moment he announced his candidacy. In terms of race, Obama’s election was in itself a success, raising hopes of a new post-racial style of politics, but the rise in racial tensions over the past eight years is viewed by many as one of the greatest failures of his administration. Despite all efforts to centre his campaign rhetoric around unity and race neutrality, a large proportion of American society appeared to be far more interested in the colour of his skin than the nature of his policies, interpreting ‘change’, ‘progress’ and a Martin Luther King bust as assurances of black prosperity. Whilst this assumption may have won him the election, it also panicked the conservative right.

Ignoring his cries that the colour of his skin did not define him, Republican media outlets have consistently hounded Obama regarding his ‘aggrieved black activist’ stance, sparking a bizarre wave of ‘anti-anti-racism’ based on the concept that Obama’s public acknowledgement of racial discrimination has ‘set back American race relations by 50 years’, in the words of City Journal’s Myron Magnet. Returning to the other side of the political spectrum, this acknowledgement was considered by liberals to be a crucial first step, but was criticised for being superficial and not having inspired any real government action. Thus Obama has found himself in a political straitjacket, which manifested itself in the racially neutral policies of his administration.

However, these supposedly ‘neutral’ policies, for example the Race To the Top education program, have been criticised for not taking into account the economic handicaps of racial minorities. From 2010 to 2013, as white household wealth increased by 2.4%, the median Hispanic household was 14% worse off financially, whilst their black counterparts were 34% worse off. Defenders of Obama have argued that these discrepancies are due to the employment structure of the US and the fact that a larger proportion of non-whites are employed by industries which are more susceptible to changes in the national and global economy. But if such statistics are so conscious of race then why could the Obama administration not follow suit and enact policies that acknowledge and subsidise the obvious disadvantages of a non-white upbringing?

Obama deserves credit for his public acknowledgement of racial discrimination and for his attempts to combat it, most notably with the Fair Sentencing Act. He cannot be blamed for the rise in tensions between the police and the black community, which remains a state or county based matter despite having been brought to the national stage by the rise of social media. But ultimately he has failed to live up to the public expectations formed during his campaign and, particularly in light of the proactive attempts at race reconciliation made by his white Democratic predecessor, his presidency may be considered a failure in this respect.

In contrast, the topic of gun control legislation was rarely mentioned on the campaign trail, but various events have resulted in it now being one of the most prominent debates in US politics. In an interview with the BBC last year President Obama admitted that one of the biggest frustrations of his presidency had been his inability to implement common-sense gun safety laws to combat the rise in gun violence in the US. The Sandy Hook Massacre of 2012 managed to sway both public and presidential opinion in favour of tighter gun control laws, but as of yet the tragedy does not seem to have had the Dunblane-esque effect the world expected. Both houses have consistently voted against proposals to extend background checks for private sales (which are supported by 92% of the US public), to prevent those on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun (supported by 85%), and to ban the manufacture and sale of semi-automatic assault rifles (supported by 54%). Obama has managed to make incremental changes to the legislation through executive orders, but without Congressional co-operation the President has had very little transformative power.
There are two main reasons for this lack of co-operation. The first is the $36 million spent by the National Rifle Association in exchange for the seemingly blind obedience of the Republican party. The NRA’s power and influence has significantly increased over the course of Obama’s presidency, echoing a similar rise in the association’s popularity following Bill Clinton’s Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the passage of the Brady Bill. Clinton managed to pass this initial legislation, but the subsequent ousting of his supporters in the midterm elections, largely due to the NRA-Republican alliance, appears to have been enough to deter several members of the Obama administration from taking a stand for tighter gun control.

The second cause of this Congressional obstruction is the lack of public support. The overwhelmingly positive response for the reform proposals simply has not translated into the mass protest needed to influence US politics. If directly asked, the majority of the population supports tighter legislation, but they evidently do not care enough to lobby their local political representatives about it: in a recent Gallup poll, gun control was voted only the 9th most important problem facing America today. These representatives are also very aware that a vote against gun control legislation is unlikely to lose them many votes in the next election, whereas a negative advertisement campaign by the NRA just might.

Obama could have and should have recognised these obstructions to his agenda far earlier and then either committed to a fight against the NRA or given in to public opinion and focused his attention on the eight other more important issues. His public stance served only to highlight the magnitude of his failure, and future presidents will have their work cut out to bring about any effective gun control reform after the incompetence of his administration.

In a similar way, the President’s public stance against the partisanship of Washington has only emphasised his failure to eradicate it. In his announcement speech in 2007, Obama cited the ‘smallness of our politics’ as the principal cause of America’s problems. He criticised Washington’s ‘chronic avoidance of tough decisions’ and its ‘preference for scoring cheap political points’, claiming that his presidency would ‘turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington’. But as he stood on the same stage almost a decade later, the President was forced to accept his ‘inability to reduce the polarisation and meanness in our politics’.

The Obama administration has been rife with partisanship since the President’s inauguration. The Democratic supermajority, which in reality lasted for only six months due to the delayed swearing in of Al Franken and the death of Ted Kennedy, provoked an aggressive fortification of Republican party loyalty. This was clearly illustrated in January 2010, when the senate voted on a resolution to create a deficit-reduction task force in order to fast-track proceedings on one of the most pressing issues in US politics. Co-authored by Democrat Kent Conrad and Republican Judd Gregg, the proposal had garnered substantial bipartisan support, including from leading Republican John McCain. But the proposal ended up being blocked by the Senate, managing to assemble just 53 of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. McCain and six fellow Republican co-sponsors had voted to sustain the filibuster and kill their own idea, an unprecedented manoeuvre for a bill of this scale. All that had changed was that Obama now supported the resolution, and could gain political credit from its passage.

Of course partisanship is hardly a novelty in US politics. Whether in debating the morality of slavery or the terms of Obamacare, differences of opinion are the foundations of the American political system. Many of Obama’s predecessors have tried and failed to achieve George Washington’s bipartisan utopia: time and time again presidential candidates promise the reformation of Washington that the previous administration did not quite manage. Those who pine for the masterful mitigation of Roosevelt or even Lincoln forget that their presidencies coincided with times of crisis when obstructionism was considered treason rather than courage of conviction. One could also argue that bipartisanship has become not just impossible but inadvisable as the infamous Tea Party movement pulls the Republican Party further towards its ideological pole to become an insurgent outlier. Obama’s attempts to reach across the aisle have forced him to adopt a centrist stance, allowing the Republicans to maintain the same ideological gap as they move further right.

Obama’s defenders have also cited the rise of social media and society’s rapidly shortening attention span as the source of mounting political partisanship. Just as the Clinton administration battled with the introduction of the Internet and talk radio, the Obama administration has struggled to stay afloat in a rapidly rising tide of political dissent in the form of tweets. The Twitter feeds of influential politicians are used primarily for bragging or blaming, and the 140 character limit leaves just enough room to score cheap political points with catchy and hard-hitting insults such as ‘elitist’, ‘hack’ or ‘RINO’, but not to explain complex bipartisan decisions. Donald Trump owes a significant proportion of his success to his public relations team, who have masterfully navigated the world of social media and eradicated any glimpse of competition through the cunning use of nicknames. The President of the United States’ Twitter account has over 1 million fewer followers than Mr. Trump’s, raising the question of whether the public’s preference of controversy over policies is to blame for the current political divide.

Whatever the reason for the divide, its presence is undeniable and should be of great concern to the federal government. Obama’s failure to live up to his promises of a post-partisan era has fostered a culture of cynicism and anti-government sentiment, with his presidency having seen the lowest Congressional approval ratings since records began. The polarisation of US politics has resulted in a presidential election that will arguably be predominantly based on who poses the lesser threat to society, ‘Crooked Hillary’ or ‘Dangerous Donald’.
 These two candidates have been particularly vocal in their criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy. His successes in this area have been largely overshadowed by his very public failures, and after eight years of his presidency, America’s global reputation is not markedly better than it was under Bush. The President has admitted that Libya is ‘a mess’ after the US-led military operation to dismantle Gaddafi’s dictatorship, and the vacuum left by Obama’s failure to build up ‘a credible fighting force of the people’ after the Arab Spring has been filled by Islamic extremist groups such as the infamous ISIL, who have actively cultivated anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. Their recent terror attacks in Europe and the United States have elevated them into one of the greatest perceived threats to the Western world, and one of Obama’s greatest failures has been his inability to prevent the rise of Islamophobia in the US as a result of this ‘threat’. Despite all efforts, he has not been able to establish a clear distinction between Islam and extremism in the minds of the American people, 41.5% of whom have now turned to the xenophobic rantings of a certain Republican presidential candidate for guidance. The culture of hatred and violence that has spread so rapidly through the country over recent years has seriously damaged America’s reputation as an international peacekeeper, and the election of Donald Trump, though now an increasingly unlikely prospect, could still result in a vicious uprooting of any diplomatic legacy Obama had hoped to leave behind. Hillary Clinton has also won a good deal of support through her ‘muscular’ proposals for the Middle East, which again have the potential to reverse much of the diplomatic progress Obama has made. The President’s hesitation over the infamous red-line incident with Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad may have ultimately been the right decision, particularly after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov managed to engineer the removal of most of Assad’s chemical arsenal diplomatically within weeks of the event, but his handling of the Arab Spring and the escalating conflict in the Middle East was naïve at best, and his attempts to improve America’s global image and encourage other nations to share some of the international-peacekeeping load have failed dismally, causing America’s faith in diplomacy to dwindle. 
In other areas, however, Obama’s focus on diplomacy has experienced a degree of success. The Ebola epidemic has been contained by a US-led effort; an alliance with the Kurdish Peshmerga has helped drive back ISIL forces; diplomatic relations with Cuba have been restored; and a nuclear trade deal has effectively frozen Iran’s nuclear ambitions for the next 10 to 15 years. History should not allow Obama’s presidency to be overshadowed by his foreign policy as Bush’s was: Obama inherited an impossible task and has attempted to deal with it in a more cautious and far-sighted manner than his predecessor. The President has learned from his mistakes, as illustrated by the delay of the troop removal deadline for Afghanistan after special forces had to return to Iraq. His presidency has not fostered any radical changes to American foreign policy, but his focus was always going to be on solutions to the mess left by Bush as opposed to any drastic philosophical transformations. These solutions achieved limited success, most notably in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but unfortunately Obama’s foreign policy will ultimately be viewed as a failure after his inability to deal with the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of radical Islam.
Moving closer to home, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, colloquially known as Obamacare, is often considered one of Obama’s greatest successes. The act represented the most significant regulatory overhaul of the US healthcare system since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, fulfilling the President’s campaign promises in the way Bill Clinton never could. Eligibility for Medicaid has been expanded to include households with incomes of up to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level (and those with incomes up to 400% of this level are eligible for income-based tax credits); the ‘Doughnut Hole’ in the Medicare prescription drug program is on track to close by 2020; insurance companies are no longer allowed to deny coverage to the 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions; large companies now face fines for not contributing to the national health plan; and insurance exchange programs have been set up to ensure the American people are covered by insurance that is right for them.
Despite this, Obamacare remains largely unloved by the public, and whilst one could argue that this lack of affection is due to rising premium rates and the large proportion of the population that still remains uninsured, the problem is in fact far more fundamental: communication. For a man heralded as one of the greatest orators in living memory, Obama seems to have trouble communicating his successes. He has tried to allow the policies to speak for themselves, forgetting that the majority of Americans do not speak fluent politics. But if one takes the time to translate, the results are astounding: the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 20 million more people had health insurance in early 2016 thanks to Obamacare, and that 87 000 lives and $20 billion have been saved after a 17% drop in ‘hospital-acquired conditions’ due to the increased efficiency encouraged by incentive programs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the net effect of the ACA and the subsequent Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act will be a $124 billion reduction in the federal deficit from 2010-2019 due to savings in health care. Whilst Obamacare may not be perfect, as the 26% of Americans still struggling to pay medical bills will attest, the President's health care reforms marked a huge step towards transforming a fundamentally broken system, and have lain foundations on which subsequent presidents can build and improve.
In a similar vein to his foreign policies, one would assume Obama’s economic policies were his single greatest failure given the ferocity of Republican rhetoric. Former Speaker John Boehner went as far as to physically throw the President’s $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on the ground as he denounced the bill as ‘nothing more than spending, spending and more spending’. In reality, though the President’s preference for stimulus over austerity has inevitably caused a rise in federal debt, Obama’s economic policies have experienced undeniable success. Unemployment rates have fallen from 10% at the height of the recession to just 5%, the trade deficit has shrunk by 24%, and real median hourly wages have risen 7%. Considering that at the time of his inauguration the economy was in the grip of the Great Recession and bleeding 800 000 jobs a month, these are some impressive statistics.
In order to prevent the repetition of such a crisis, Obama has overseen the most significant financial regulation reform since the introduction of the New Deal. The Dodd-Frank Act marked a huge step in improving the accountability and transparency of Wall Street, enforcing closer scrutiny and tighter regulation of banks whose reckless behaviour could threaten the national economy, and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to shield the American people from predatory lending. The administration’s error was to compare the reforms to those of the 1930s, as this comparison brought with it expectations of similar results despite there being vast disparities between the two situations, particularly in the lack of political obstruction experienced by Roosevelt in comparison to Obama. Whether they believe in austerity or stimulation, economists around the world can agree that the key to economic recovery is a commitment to one or the other, as opposed to the ineffective compromise that was reached by the US government after the Republican victory in the 2010 midterm elections and the subsequent game of hostage taking that threatened a government shutdown and public default. Despite this, however, the economic policies of Obama’s presidency should be viewed as a success in terms of the short term catastrophe that was averted and the long term transformations that were made to ensure that no future president inherits a similar problem.
Another of the bigger successes celebrated by the Obama administration has been the legislative and cultural progress made on behalf of the LGBT community. Whether the cynics are right and Obama did only change his position on gay marriage in order to win the 2012 election is almost irrelevant: the President realised he was on the wrong side of history and changed his views to reflect those of his people. Obama’s presidency has witnessed historic LGBT Supreme Court cases such Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marriage. The administration has also been instrumental in its efforts to dismantle the systemic sexual discrimination that has plagued the US, most famously in allowing gays to serve openly in the military through the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don't Tell. The past eight years have seen the passing of historic hate crime legislation such as the Matthew Shepard Act, the end of the legal defence of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the development of a national HIV/AIDS strategy. The implementation of these changes has been slow, but arguably too radical a change would have sparked a vicious backlash, threatening to reverse the progress made. Critics of Obama have argued that he did not actively campaign on behalf of the LGBT community and merely hopped on the bandwagon with his support during his second term, but a more proactive strategy would have lost Obama too much political credit with the conservative right in control of Congress. Whilst the recent shootings in Orlando indicate that the LGBT community still has a long fight ahead of them, Obama’s presidency has celebrated several landmark LGBT achievements and has successfully transformed the federal agenda on LGBT issues, establishing a clear blueprint for future presidents to follow.
In answering the title question, one must be aware that many of the judgements made about Obama’s legacy are necessarily provisional, and historians’ verdicts, particularly on US presidents, often alter over time. Harry Truman was poorly regarded in the immediate aftermath of his period in office, but is now considered one of the great American presidents, whereas the venerated Ronald Reagan is increasingly negatively viewed with the benefit of hindsight. The American people seem to expect their president to miraculously solve their every problem, regardless of the constraints of the US political system. Obama has not produced the post-racial utopia many expected him to, but this was arguably an impossible task that the President never promised to take on; he has not transformed gun control laws or the partisanship of US politics, but these issues are too ingrained in American society to be changed within a single presidency, and Obama’s success in bringing these issues to the public eye was all we could have realistically hoped for. It is possible that his foreign policies may have aided the rise of extremism in the Arab world, but his insistence on diplomacy has produced positive results in terms of global humanitarian efforts and the re-establishment of long-severed ties. More importantly, the US economy has recovered after one of the worst economic depressions since the 1930s, a broken healthcare system has been fundamentally reformed, and discrimination based on sexuality is on the decline. Ultimately the failures of his presidency are outweighed by both his short-term successes and the deep and lasting changes that Obama has made to American society. By that measure, two cheers for Obama.

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