As the midterm elections approach in the US, most people have grown accustomed to President Trump. It is now possible then, to look back at Barack Obama’s presidency. Campaigning for ‘change’ and a vision of a brighter future, Obama became a symbol of hope for many. But this begs the question, how hopeful is Obama’s legacy now that he has left office?
Regardless of anyone’s personal opinions regarding his policies, Obama’s victory in 2008 will stand a historical landmark in American politics. For a country like America, where race relations have been a historical political issue, the importance of America’s first non-white president cannot be understated. For older African Americans, Obama represented the end of a long struggle, from being second-class citizens to one of their own sitting in the Oval Office. For the youth, he became a beacon to show what could be accomplished. Unfortunately, Obama’s presence on the world stage also highlighted the deep racial tensions that exist in the US. Nevertheless, Obama’s legacy as a symbol for equality in America is significant.
Yet to what extend did Obama keep his promises? According to PolitiFact, between the2008 and 2012 election campaigns, Obama made 533 campaign pledges, of which he ultimately kept 258 (48.4%), compromised on 146 (27.4%) and broke 129 (24.2%); with a 9/8/8 split on his 25 ‘top promises’. Obama seemingly tried to keep many of his promises, as this is not an awful record. However, neither is it an exceptional one. Perhaps then we can examine a few key policies.
Obama’s signature domestic policy was the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010 and came to be nicknamed ‘Obamacare’. The full details of the act as too intiricate to cover in detail in this article, but in short the bill aimed to provide health insurance coverage for all US citizens, regardless of any other factors, primarily income. As a result, millions of Americans have benefitted from better healthcare, especially those from poorer, often minority, backgrounds.
However, Republicans have vehemently opposed the act for various reasons. For example, some Americans are worse off since the act came in, and some Republicans worry about the rise of ‘big government’ or the toll it may take on the economy. Republicans have therefore tried to alter or overturn the act in various ways, but none have succeeded so far. Today, Obamacare remains a divisive issue, but public support for it has risen. Republicans continue to fight against Obamacare, although as time goes on, they seem to be losing traction to overturn the act entirely, and may resort to removing or altering small sections of it. Time will tell as to how Obamacare weathers the Republican storm, but in the meantime, it has radically improved the lives of many Americans.
How about his record regarding security? Obama’s supporters point out that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but that decision remains a controversial one. Whereas most winners have achieved great feats or faced great struggles or sacrifice, sometimes over decades, Obama was awarded the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, after one year in office and no major achievements to his name. Even Obama himself has joked that he does not know why he won. It appears that he instead won the award as a “call to action”, in hopes that it would inspire future achievements. However, this seemingly failed to materialise, as even the then-Nobel Secretary now regrets the decision. Obama’s Peace Prize is particularly problematic given Obama’s security record.
Obama is widely credited with withdrawing most of America’s troops from Iraq; however, this policy was initiated by President Bush in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. In fact, Obama tried pushing for US forces to stay longer in Iraq. Then, as combat troops withdrew from the Middle East, Obama rapidly increased American use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), known colloquially as ‘drones’. The success and accuracy rates of drone strikes have been questioned publicly, as independent organisations find they produce high civilian fatality rates. In response, the Obama administration released official statistics. However, upon review these were found to be vague, with a suspiciously low number of civilian casualties. One reliable source puts the civilian death toll at 6 times the government figures. A government seemingly obscuring reports of civilian casualties should always be viewed with scepticism.
Perhaps most memorably, Obama never closed the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a keystone pledge when he first won office. Admittedly, many inmates were transferred or released, and conditions were improved, but the notorious camp remains open today, with President Trump keeping it Guantanamo and planning to increase its usage. There is a certain irony then, that the ‘Peace President’ has a rather non-peaceful security stance staining his legacy.
Obama’s presidency has resulted in other problematic issues. For instance, Obama was praised by many for his dedication to environmental issues, such as pushing for the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, due to the nature of America’s political system, in which only two parties dominate, as soon as one party adopts a tentpole policy, the other will try to knock it down. As a result, Obama’s determination to combat climate change has inadvertently turned it into a partisan issue. This is clearly the case, as many Republicans publicly voiced concern for climate change during George W. Bush’s presidency, but during Obama’s presidency switched to openly denying climate change so as to be seen opposing Democrat policy. While this is not Obama’s fault, he has unwittingly created new problem subjects for American politics going forwards.
It is certainly easy to understand the hopeful atmosphere around Obama when he first entered office. He followed a once-wildly popular president whose disapproval rating had soared due to America’s economic woes and the ongoing and highly unpopular Iraq War. Pledging to withdraw troops from Iraq and create progress domestically, the charismatic Obama therefore seemed a symbol of great change for America. It is also easy to understand why many who loathe President Trump remember Obama fondly – the two men could hardly be less alike. However, people should be cautious that they don’t end up looking at history through rose-tinted glasses.
As is the case with most world leaders, Obama’s supporters will remember him as a great President, and his critics will remember him in a negative light. The truth is likely to lie somewhere in between. In some respects then, Obama will leave a legacy of hope, but perhaps too much was hoped of him.