In just a few short weeks, the 44th president will look around the White House for the last time, step outside, and close the door on an entire era. For some of you reading this, Obama will be the only president you’ve ever been politically aware of. For others, he’ll just be the latest in a long line that stretches back through the decades. The only thing for certain is that America’s first black president will doubtless leave an enduring legacy.
It’s a legacy that some will call ‘great’ and others ‘terrible’. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. In his 8 years as Commander in Chief, Obama has done some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff, and some stuff where no-one can quite figure out if it’s good or bad. In this article, we’re gonna be weighing the opinions of historians, pundits and journalists to get a flavor of what goes where. In cases where opinion is split, we’ve gone with the majority, but hey, feel free to argue it in the comments. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll get cracking…
10. Good: Getting Bin Laden
On May 2, 2011, justice finally caught up with the most-wanted man on the planet. Nearly a decade after he’d orchestrated the murders of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Osama Bin Laden was shot dead by Navy Seals who stormed his Pakistani compound. He’d evaded the Bush administration and spent nearly 4 years giving the Obama White House the run-around. But he couldn’t run forever. And, on April 29, 2011, President Obama gave the order for his compound to be raided.
There were some negative sides to the killing of Bin Laden. US intelligence posed as aid workers to verify the compound’s location, something that’s ethically dubious as it can lead to real aid workers being murdered. There’s also a good argument that Bin Laden should have been captured and made to stand trial.
But, c’mon. This was one of the most-callous mass-murderers to have ever lived. Men, women, and children all died during 9/11. Al-Qaeda killed thousands more in the decades since. ISIS are a direct result of Al-Qaeda, and even-more vicious. All those deaths are on Bin Laden’s shoulders. Everyone, no matter if they’re Democrat or Republican or Independent, can probably agree his death was one of Obama’s high points.
9. Bad: Letting Libya Implode
Only a few months after Bin Laden caught a bullet, another enemy of America died. Muammar Gaddafi was dragged into the streets and killed by his own people after an American-led NATO intervention toppled his regime. But this time there was no happy ending. Thanks to a lack of forward planning, Libya soon descended into chaos.
There are really no excuses here. Obama was elected partly on a platform of not engaging in any more Bush-style military adventurism. Libya was a slap in the face to that promise. The initial goal of saving civilian lives was noble, but everyone had already seen what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan with no plan for reconstruction. That intervention went ahead in Libya regardless should be to Obama’s eternal shame. Even the president himself calls the situation there “a sh*t show.”
Fast forward four years, and Libya has become as dangerous and as screwed up as Somalia. Millions of refugees flee for Europe’s shores, with hundreds drowning en-route. ISIS have established a foothold there. American diplomats have been killed in Benghazi. Obama wanted to save lives. Instead, he created one of the most failed states on Earth.
8. Good: Unemployment Below 5%
When Obama first stepped into the White House, the Great Recession was making mincemeat of America. Unemployment stood at over 8%. By the end of the year, it’d top 10%. At the start of his second term, it was stubbornly stuck between 7-8%. When Mitt Romney promised to bring unemployment under 5% in the 2012 election, he was derided for wishful thinking.
Well, Obama actually managed it. In January 2016, the unemployment rate fell below 5% for the first time since 2008. Since then it’s stayed around 4.9%, but that’s still one heck of an achievement. That it happened at all is thanks to some sound decisions on Obama’s part during the financial crisis, such as expanding George W. Bush’s bailout of the auto industry. Couple that with a sustained program targeting unemployment throughout his 8 years in the presidency, and you wind up where we are today: at a level of unemployment not seen since the heady days of pre-crisis 2008.
That’s not to say the economy is perfect. Wage growth is sluggish and some parts of the country are still feeling the effects of the recession. But Obama inherited a catastrophic mess. In the circumstances, putting people back in work while staving off a depression is a win.
7. Bad: The War on Whistleblowers
Every so often, a government or corporation does something so flagrantly unethical that someone on the inside just has to blow the whistle. As a result, abuses are revealed and the public are informed about what’s happening in their name. That hasn’t been true of the Obama administration. During his 8 years, Obama has prosecuted more whistleblowers than every single previous president combined.
The most high-profile case has been the unofficial exiling of Edward Snowden to Russia. But there are many others under the radar that are even worse. Ex-CIA agent John Kiriakou was imprisoned for revealing the Obama administration approved the use of torture. FBI agent Sibel Edmonds was forced from her job for revealing security breaches that could have resulted in terror attacks. State Department official Stephen Kim was charged with espionage for sharing his opinions on North Korea with a reporter. This last case is especially egregious, as Kim wasn’t even whistleblowing. He was giving his own opinion to someone who asked.
There is an argument to be made that leakers and whistleblowers are undermining government and making us all less-safe. Yet the clear consensus is that even government needs checks to ensure it doesn’t abuse its power. Obama tried his best to get rid of those checks, and in doing so violated his own oath to build a transparent government.
6. Jury’s Out: Obamacare
Everyone and their dog has an opinion on Obamacare. People on the right will call it the worst thing ever. Those on the left will say it’s Obama’s greatest achievement. So we’re gonna make everyone mad by placing it firmly in the middle.
First, the good. In 2010, when the Affordable Care Act (to give it its official name) was signed into law, 16 percent of the population had no health insurance whatsoever. In history, the uninsured rate had never fallen below 9 percent. Fast forward to today, and the uninsured rate stands at 8.6 percent. Those newly-insured people are mostly happy with their insurance, and their premiums are about 20 percent lower than if Obamacare had not passed. That’s not something to be sniffed at.
Now the bad. Obamacare forced millions of people off plans they had and already liked, despite Obama’s insistence that wouldn’t happen. Big insurers are pulling out the system’s marketplace. Insurers who stay are barely breaking even. It has patently failed to replicate the universal Swiss or German-style system Obama envisaged.
As we write this, some are predicting Obamacare will collapse in the near future (particularly with Donald Trump set to take office). Others that it will transit into being a kind of improved Medicaid for the poor. Time will tell. As we say, the jury’s out.
5. Good: Record-Breaking Conservation Efforts
At the dawn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt used his executive powers to preserve vast tracts of American wilderness. In doing so, he earned himself the nickname “the conservation president”. Fast forward around 100 years, and Obama may have just usurped Teddy’s title.
The 44th President’s 2nd term has been a masterclass in how to conserve like Mother Nature’s personal bodyguard. In 2014, he used his executive powers to create the largest marine national park on Earth, designating some 490,000 square miles of Pacific ocean, protecting coral reefs, ocean trenches, and unique ecosystems. If it were a state, this new national park would be bigger than any except Alaska. Since then, the president has also created the Atlantic’s first national marine park, not to mention turning Maine’s North Woods into what may be the last, large new national park the East Coast will ever see.
Overall, Obama has created or expanded 19 national monuments over two terms, more than any other president bar Roosevelt (for comparison, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton combined only managed four). While some still regard this as overreaching by the federal government, it’s hard to argue that such dedicated conservation efforts are a bad thing. They’re also lasting. Obamacare may yet disappear into history. Chances are, though, that our great, great-grandkids will still be visiting Obama’s new parks over 100 years from now.
4. Bad: The Dead TPP Deal
The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (TPP) is a zombie that won’t die. After every report of thousands protesting in Japan or Malaysia or Washington or New Zealand, another pops up about Obama trying his hardest to push the deal through. And he may yet make it. But don’t count on it. Whatever its relative merits, TPP is most-likely dead in the water.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton oppose TPP, as do many politicians in the 11 other countries the deal was meant to unite. Bernie Sanders turned it into an article of faith among left wingers to oppose the deal. The right are just as against it. Major magazines such as Time have said it threatens American workers. Never mind that some argue it will boost American incomes, extend American influence and lift developing nations like Vietnam further out of poverty, TPP is today considered politically toxic.
Make no mistake, this is one of Obama’s biggest policy failures. Alongside Obamacare and gay marriage, TPP and its European equivalent TTIP were meant to be the 44th president’s lasting contributions to American life. Now it looks like neither will ever pass.
3. Good: Reopening Ties With Cuba
On October 19, 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in response to the Communist Castro dictatorship. Born of the Cold War, the embargo (the Cubans call it a ‘blockade’) outlasted the collapse of the Soviet Union, the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and the first decade of the 21st century. For over 50 years, a country nearly within swimming distance of Florida remained almost completely cut-off from the USA.
Until 2015. That was the year Obama unveiled what the New Republic has called his finest foreign policy achievement: the re-establishment of relations with Cuba. For the first time nearly in living memory, a sitting US President visited Cuba, spoke with its leader, and encouraged American businesses to invest there. In its own way, the moment was almost as historic as Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
There are some caveats here. Congress still has yet to vote to lift the Cuba embargo, and significant portions of the Cuba-American community are angry at Obama establishing links with what is still a dictatorship. However you cut it, though, Obama’s actions here are historic.
2. Bad: Failing to Close Guantanamo Bay
“As president, Barack Obama will close the detention facility at Guantanamo.”
Those words were plastered across Obama’s official 2008 election website. The closing of Gitmo was one of the key pledges of the 44th president’s first administration. People waited expectantly… and it didn’t happen.
‘Oh well, it’s not his fault,’ was the constant refrain, ‘Republicans were obstructing congress. Next term for sure.’ Sure enough, in 2012, Obama again promised to close the detention facility. Yet here we are, in the last days of the Obama presidency, and Guantanamo remains stubbornly open, home to nearly 100 people, some of whom have been held there without trial for years. Human rights organizations continue to describe it as a black hole where rights are discarded and abuse remains rife.
To be fair to Obama, he has faced obstructionism from Congress on this issue. Yet at other times, it has appeared to vanish off his radar altogether. Executive powers mean he could choose to transfer the prisoners to normal detention facilities in other countries, should he wish to. Or he could’ve pushed the bill through in 2009, when Democrats still controlled Congress. That he didn’t shows a stunning lack of leadership.
1. Jury’s Out: the Iran Nuclear Deal
There are a couple of signature Obama policies we could have flagged for our last ‘jury’s out’ entry. There’s gay marriage, for one, or Obama’s commitment to clean energy and signing climate accords. But perhaps no policy is as deserving of this space as the Iran nuclear deal.
In 2015, the US – along with Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany in an observer role – made a deal with the reformist president Hassan Rouhani to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Was it a historic peacemaking achievement, or handy cover for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions? It depends who you ask.
First, the argument for. Supporters say the deal will stop Iran clandestinely acquiring the bomb, while allowing the Islamic Republic access to nuclear energy. In return, millions of Iranians will be lifted out of devastating poverty, the economy will be liberalized, and Tehran will be handed a financial incentive to not initiate war with its neighbors (particularly Israel). Some also think a US pivot in the Middle East towards Shia Iran makes sense in light of Saudi Arabia’s funding of Sunni terrorists (allegedly including ISIS).
Now, the argument against. Iran has already violated the spirit of the deal by testing ballistic missiles. Tehran has accepted piles of money from the Whitehouse with little evidence that it has changed its tone. Many believe the deal was just a feint to get breathing space to develop nukes. Look at the mid-’90s North Korea nuclear deal. By 2006, the hermit kingdom had exploded its first nuclear bomb. It has since tested four more.
In ten years’ time, we’ll know for certain how the Iran deal turned out. It could be Obama’s greatest mistake, or his biggest achievement. Until then, though, the jury remains out.