It’s way too early of course to assess Obama’s legacy. He still even has a few days left in office, as it were. I’ve just seen a lot of people providing their own assessments of his presidency so I figured I’d join in too. Unsurprisingly, he’s a very polarizing figure. My liberal friends adore him, my conservative friends loathe him, and it seems there are very few people in the middle. We’ll have to look back 20 years from now to be able to fully assess the impact of his policies, but I think it’s fair to give out at least a preliminary grade now.
I’m not going to talk about every single policy or issue related to his presidency, but I would like to point out a few key issues that I think are very important but don’t often get talked about.
Ok, first and foremost, social justice progress and that he was the first president in modern history to pass healthcare reform. He also has made great progress on criminal justice reform in a number of ways, including ushering in the beginning of the end of War on Drugs and commuting/pardoning federally imprisoned inmates facing lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. Edit 1/17/17: The commutation of the majority of Chelsea Manning’s sentence is a shining example of this.
Importantly, during his administration, we saw the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide. This was not Obama’s decision of course, but his administration did openly adopt a pro same-sex marriage position and submitted amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court factors in such briefs when writing their opinions and decision, and presidential support for an issue is not something they take lightly. This is how a president is able to use his office to enact policy is a constitutional way.
On the touchy subject of race, I often see critics on the right trying to blame Obama for all the racial tension in the country. I don’t understand how that’s possible, but that is our current political climate. What I think Obama has inadvertently done though is exposed how much of problem racism still is in America. It’s under the surface now, but it is definitely still there. Racism is of course not a “good” thing, but bringing the problem to the surface is somewhat of a good thing because it allows for the problem to begin to be addressed. It’s a problem well beyond any one person’s ability to solve of course, but I think helping to bring it to forefront is very important.
I think it’s also important to point out how much of an improvement he was over George Bush. I know people on the left might say my 6.5/10 is too low, but given that Bush was like a 1/10 I think a 6.5 is pretty good in comparison. Obama’s eloquence, intelligence, and charisma all very much work in his favor. I think also the fact that he always seems to come across as level-headed and calm in the face of terrible news re-assures a lot of people that even in the worst circumstances (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, etc), he’s in control of the situation. Even if he has no control over what’s happening, he is good at projecting an image like everything will eventually be fine.
These are not all the good things the Obama administration has done, but they are the important ones for me. If I ask myself if I am better off now than I was in 2008, then the answer is yes. I think America is also better off than it was, on the whole. Could it be better? Yes, but it’s also better than it was.
There’s a lot to be criticized of course, even in the “good” section, but hear me out on healthcare for a second. If it weren’t for the Affordable Care Act, which allowed me to remain on my mom’s insurance until age 26, I’d be several thousand dollars in medical debt. Because I was able to use her insurance, I got the treatment I needed and didn’t have to pay an excessive amount for it. Now I know the ACA has it’s a large number of flaws and that it’s nowhere near perfect, but that was how it benefited me personally.
On the other hand, I think the biggest issue with the ACA is that it mandated that everyone get medical insurance, not mandated healthcare. True reform would have been some form of universal healthcare, not simply requiring everyone to have health insurance. The ACA may have slowed down the rising cost of healthcare for at least a bit, and certain provisions of it benefited people such as myself, but overall it was a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery. It was written by lobbyists, lobbyists who represent health insurance companies. There was never going to be any way that they would lose money in the long run because of this legislation. Obama still signed it and it hasn’t solved the problem, so that’s why the ACA is in the “meh” section. Helped me out a lot, but it didn’t really fix the problem overall.
And I think that the whole healthcare issue is a microcosm of a much bigger issue, and its why the “meh” section would be the longest section of this post if I listed everything that belongs in it. Obama was not the best at compromising, but it must be said that he dealt with one of the most obstructionist Congresses in all of American history. Even when the Dems had a majority early on in his presidency, the GOP worked as a block of voters to hinder and delay every single piece of legislation the Dems tried to pass. When they became the majority in both houses, it got even worse. Certain GOP politicians even went as far as to say that their goal was to deny Obama a second term. They failed to do that, but they did succeed in basically refusing to govern the country. They decided to work on trying to repeal the ACA 50 times instead of passing gun control reform or immigration reform.
I know Obama tried to close Guantanamo, but he was hindered by Congress. I know he always publicly pleaded for gun control reform, but he was hindered by willful inaction from Congress. I don’t know what kind of negotiations strategies Obama employed or what kind of responses he was getting from the GOP in private conversations, but when the GOP party leader in the Senate comes out and refuses to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court, I’m not sure what more Obama could do. It’s fine to criticize Obama, but if you are also not criticizing Congress simultaneously then you will lose credibility quickly.
That’s really the best way to summarize the “meh” section. Obama tried to do many more positive things, but he either couldn’t negotiate for what he wanted or more likely the GOP refused to even engage in discussions on the issues.
I’m going to focus on stuff here that is at the sole discretion of the Obama administration. He can justifiably blame Congress for some of his shortcomings, but certainly not all of them.
Ok, first and foremost, the drone program and our foreign policy overall. Sure, citizens of certain Western nations might like Obama, but I think you’ll find that the opinion of him among the common people in countries like Yemen or Pakistan might not be so positive. I think the drone program and Obama’s continuance of Bush’s “do whatever we want and not think of the consequences” foreign policy is nothing but harmful. Sure, he’s largely avoided putting new boots on the ground in the Middle East (aside from a few in Syria), but the war has gone automated. Drones can kill anyone in the world, and they can be controlled from anywhere in the world. I simply do not think the president, any president, should have the authority to kill people extra-judicially who have not even been charged with a crime. If someone is even suspected of being a terrorist, Obama has shown no hesitancy to pull the figurative trigger on them.
This creates a litany of problems, the most obvious of which is the flagrant human rights violations created by drone strikes. Even if you want to call the killing of someone merely suspected of being a terrorist “justified”, a drone strike usually kills more people than just the suspected terrorist. Usually, innocent people such as children are in the vicinity of the missile strike and are killed as well. This is all assuming the intelligence on the suspected terrorist was even valid in the first place. Obama’s drones have hit completely innocent events, such as weddings and other kinds of normal gatherings.
Not only are there human rights issues created by the drone program, it’s also a terrible idea as a matter of policy. Arbitrarily causing civilian casualties is not a good method of rooting out terrorism in the Middle East. Even if you kill one person who actually had terrorist intentions, you radicalize the family members of the civilians you also kill in the process. They know that America is responsible for the death of their mother/sister/father/brother/other relation, and they have very negative feelings towards America because of it. This issue is the main reason why I can’t give Obama anything higher than a 6.5/10. We are killing innocent people for no reason and it bothers me a great deal.
Did you forget about this issue? I think a lot of people did. Edward Snowden leaked to us that the Obama administration (and the Bush administration previously) were recording the metadata on people’s cell phones. He also made it very clear that if the government wished to listen in on all your phone calls and read all your emails, it would be quite easy for them to do so. Not only would it be easy, there would be very little penalty on them for doing so. This sort of data collection, although it pissed us off for a little bit, never actually stopped and is still going on.
Obama came out and said that the NSA wasn’t listening in on anyone’s calls without search warrants, but even the mere recording of the metadata is on the fringes of legality. There is also little oversight into what their capabilities are and how routinely they engage in wiretapping. I also believe there are elements of the NSA that do not necessarily follow all presidential directives. I think Obama, if he really was against the metadata collection, would/should have stepped in and handled the matter personally. From what I can see, he did not. I highly value my right to privacy as outlined in Constitutional case law, and it bothers me that a former professor of Constitutional law has been so reckless with the 4th Amendment.
Although Obama attempted to grant a degree of amnesty to about 4 million undocumented immigrants, his record on immigration is still pretty bad. That “executive action” he took has been held up by lawsuit in federal court, but that’s not the worst thing about his enforcement of immigration laws.
Obama has deported more than 2.5 million people since he took office in 2009. That is more than any other president in our history. Some people applaud this fact, but I find it disturbing. Deportations tend to break up families. Deportations create poverty. Further, and perhaps worst of all, the current deportation policy frequently targets the wrong people.
Obama said in 2008 he was only going to deport criminals, and on the surface that sounds fine. Being undocumented is one thing, but if you are going to commit crimes here then you don’t get to stay. However, when this is tied in with aggressive enforcement of laws by the police and racial profiling, it often leads to good people being given overly harsh punishment. We also need to re-examine which kind of crimes we want people to be deported over.
Sure the immigration laws are a mess, but Obama could instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (an executive-branch agency) to enforce the laws differently. He has ways to affect how we go after people, but he seems to have used a sledgehammer when a scalpel was required.
I could go on and on here, but I never intended to include every issue that I like or don’t like. I could go on about the lack of prosecutions for Wall Street bankers or how we are going about dealing with ISIS, but I feel the issues I presented in depth are the ones that I feel most passionately about.
Was he better than Bush? Yes. Will Trump be better than him? Doubtful. I think overall Obama was a modest step in the right direction for America, but I worry about the presidential powers he has further expanded that he is now handing over to a man with the temperament of a 5 year-old. That may be one of the more important aspects of his legacy going forward, but only time will tell.