Snap quiz. Who does President Barack Obama think of as one of the most consequential presidents of the 20th century? Kennedy for sure, but you’d be surprised at the other. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama told the New York Times.
Reagan? Mr trickle-down-economy? The guy who failed to act against AIDS? Iran-Contra Reagan? That guy?
“[Reagan] put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people just tapped into — he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing,” Obama told the Times.
He may as well have been speaking about Donald Trump, but there’s a reason Obama is such a Reagan fan. He defines presidential success as the trajectory an American president puts his country. Obama, like Martin Luther King and Theodore Parker before him, is a believer that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
So let’s use President Obama’s own benchmark to assess the trajectory of our nation, as he leaves office.
The Affordable Care Act is a singular achievement. Many have tried, none before him have succeeded. Repeal, Replace or Improve, no-one is seriously considering taking back health coverage from the 20 Million people who gained it under Obamacare. In fact, President-elect Trump is even talking about extending it to everyone – hardly a GOP policy. If anything can be viewed as trajectory-changing achievement, this is it.
Race and Consequence
It’s difficult to measure the state of race relations because of the unevenness of the progress across the US but as Obama leaves office, he does so with a 54% approval rating. His very success as President is a trajectory-changer. Never again, can young African-Americans be denied access to the American dream that you can be anything you want to be, if you set your mind to it and work hard to achieve it.
He told Americans, Trayvon Martin could have been “his own son,” led mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” after the church massacre in Charleston and convened a White House beer summit when his friend’s Henry Louis Gates was arrested. President Obama bravely opened up the conversation on race – from teachable moments to sermons – he was teacher, consoler and mediator in one.
He remains a shining light for the world on American equality.
After the Storm
Many have argued that Obama’s foreign policy was too soft, naive and coddling but let’s remind ourselves of the world he inherited. A world at war, a world with broad animosity towards Americans, a world where Iran was building a nuclear arsenal.
In the face of that, he gave the world room to embrace freedom – even if it didn’t always work. From the Arab Spring to popular revolutions in Europe, Syria and Ukraine – even the Occupy Wall Street movement – are all hallmarks of Obama’s roots as a community organizer. He brought “hope” to the highest office and from there, to the world. His singular success with the Iran arms control treaty removed a bad player from the world stage, without a shot being fired.
But let’s be clear, he was not soft when it counted. He took out Osama Bin Laden, destroyed al-Qaida, ended two wars and maintained a counter-terrorism operation which kept America safe from any significant terror attack at home.
His legacy will be haunted by the rise of Isis and the failure to act meaningfully in Syria which left 500,000 people dead. He also failed to build consensus on a two-state solution in Israel and didn’t live up to his promise of closing Guantanamo Bay.
He deserves points for bending the arc of the world towards justice and freedom but history isn’t ready to call his foreign policy a success. Time will tell.
Mass shootings became a hallmark of the Obama years. From Gabby Giffords to Sandy Hook, and from a Charleston church to a Orlando nightclub, the President has too often consoled a nation afflicted by mass shootings. In 2014, there were 275. In 2016, 385 – up 40%. Despite a pervasive problem and a commitment to change from the White House, the President has been unable to build a coalition to successfully tackle this crisis. The trend-lines do not offer much hope, and the new US president’s alliance with the NRA may do little to change that.
A Silent Killer
President Obama failed to tackle America’s biggest killer. There were 55,403 lethal drug overdoses in 2015, up from 39,000 in 2010 – almost two-thirds involving prescription or illegal opioids. Deaths from synthetic opioids, including Fentanyl rose 73% to 9,580 in 2015. More people die from drugs than from car crashes (38,000) and guns (36,000). Coupled with a high rate of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses – currently around 460,000 – a comprehensive approach to reverse these trends was not in the success column for the 44th president.
It’s The Economy
As President Obama took office, the economy was in tatters. Obama not only saved the country from cataclysm, he reformed the system. The Obama administration enacted Dodd-Frank in order to ensure a similar collapse never happens again. This recovery did not come cheaply, US debt under President Obama has mushroomed from $10.1 trillion in 2008 to $17.4 trillion in 2016. The budget deficit has grown from $464 billion to $552 billion over the same period, but is down considerably from the $1.4 trillion in 2009, during the economic collapse.
Consequently, the Great Recession did not become a depression. The unemployment rate peaked in 2009 at 10% and dropped to 4.7% in December of 2016. These numbers don’t reflect the full picture, the labor participation rate has dropped from 66% in 2008 to 62% in 2016, largely due to increased longevity but there’s no doubt that some frustrated Americans have just given up looking for work. Among 25-54 year olds, employment has edged up from the 2008 collapse but is still hovering at around 76%. As automation replaces even more humans in the workforce, the issue of jobs will remain a high priority for future leaders.
President Obama saved the economy, lowered the unemployment rate and saved the US auto industry. He also created the framework to prevent another disaster from ever happening again. There is no doubt, his handling of the Great Recession and the economy has put the future trajectory of the nation’s economic health in good stead.
All People Created Equal
Unquestionably, President Obama ushered in a period of LGBTQ equality which no-one is daring to challenge. From the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, equality for Federal workers, appointing Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan and of course, marriage equality, Obama will be remembered as the first gay president, as Newsweek dubbed him. There is much work be done, but this trajectory is set in motion and we have a transformational leader to thank for it.
Obama’s diverse cabinet, which included a record number of women, his battle with the Catholic Church on reproductive health coverage and his outspoken support and consistent respect for women is a testament to the new normal. As he leaves office, women earn 83% of what men earn up from the 80% they earned in 2008. While there are fewer women CEO’s now than there were in 2014, in 2015 there were record numbers of women in the US Senate, the House, State Legislatures, Fortune 500 boards and among college presidents. This success will largely continue, with the notable exception of the incoming cabinet.
A More Perfect Union
Has President Obama lived up to his Reagan standard of changing the trajectory of the United States? Unquestionably, yes. From race relations to human rights; from extending the ideals of freedom across the globe to an arms deal with Iran; from job creation to Obamacare and because of his grace, authenticity and eloquence at every moment, President Barack Hussein Obama will go down as one of the greats. He remains optimistic about state of our union. As he reminded Americans in his farewell address:
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can.”