Obama’s legacy has been a topic of discussion virtually since he took office, but as we enter the final year of his Presidency, it’s sure to come up more and more.
To that end, Politico has a new panegyric out, lavishing praise on the President and calling attention to some of his perhaps lesser-known victories.
Obamacare wasn’t really a government takeover, but the student loan overhaul actually was; it yanked the program away from Sallie Mae and other private lenders that had raked in enormous fees without taking much risk. The bill then diverted the budget savings into a $36 billion expansion of Pell Grants for low-income undergraduates, plus an unheralded but extraordinary student-debt relief effort that is now quietly transferring the burden of college loans from struggling borrowers to taxpayers. It all added up to a revolution in how America finances higher education, completely overshadowed by the health care hoopla and drama.
Over the past seven years, Americans have heard an awful lot about Barack Obama and his presidency, but the actual substance of his domestic policies and their impact on the country remain poorly understood. He has engineered quite a few quiet revolutions—and some of his louder revolutions are shaking up the status quo in quiet ways. Obama is often dinged for failing to deliver on the hope-and-change rhetoric that inspired so many voters during his ascent to the presidency. But a review of his record shows that the Obama era has produced much more sweeping change than most of his supporters or detractors realize.
It’s true that Obama failed to create the post-partisan political change he originally promised during his yes-we-can pursuit of the White House. Washington remains as hyperpartisan and broken as ever. But he also promised dramatic policy change, vowing to reinvent America’s approach to issues like health care, education, energy, climate and finance, and that promise he has kept. When you add up all the legislation from his frenetic first two years, when Democrats controlled Congress, and all the methodical executive actions from the past five years, after Republicans blocked his legislative path, this has been a BFD of a presidency, a profound course correction engineered by relentless government activism. As a candidate, Obama was often dismissed as a talker, a silver-tongued political savant with no real record of achievement. But ever since he took office during a raging economic crisis, he’s turned out to be much more of a doer, an action-oriented policy grind who has often failed to communicate what he’s done.
What he’s done is changing the way we produce and consume energy, the way doctors and hospitals treat us, the academic standards in our schools and the long-term fiscal trajectory of the nation. Gays can now serve openly in the military, insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, credit card companies can no longer impose hidden fees and markets no longer believe the biggest banks are too big to fail. Solar energy installations are up nearly 2,000 percent, and carbon emissions have dropped even though the economy is growing. Even Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who hope to succeed Obama and undo his achievements, have been complaining on the campaign trail that he’s accomplished most of his agenda.
It’s not that any of this is untrue, but it elides many of Obama’s darker legacies: a strengthened surveillance state, an oftentimes cruel policy on undocumented immigration, and stepped-up prosecution of the War on Terror that is almost guaranteed to come back to haunt us someday. Indeed, the conflicts he inherited from his predecessor–namely, Iraq and Afghanistan–have seen dramatic deterioration. ISIS looks to be here to stay. Our intervention in Libya–well-intended as it may have been–has proven to be yet another disaster and now serves as a likely fallback position for ISIS, should they lose their territories in Syria and Iraq. It has yet to be seen what effects the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have on our long-term economic prospects, though TransCanada’s lawsuit over the nixing of the Keystone XL pipeline under NAFTA terms that are very similar to terms in the TPP should give proponents serious pause.
Not all of these things are Obama’s fault, and indeed many of them were inherited with no palatable options available for a technocratic administration that favors efficient, cost-effective solutions reliant on expert knowledge. Obama has shown little taste for the messiness of international relations, of having to bridge cultural and philosophical gaps between leaders. It was once thought that Obama would rehabilitate the US’ image after George W Bush ran roughshod over the international community, including many of our allies. It is hard to imagine now that this is the same President Obama who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His Presidency has been marred by embarrassing spying scandals against our closest allies, not to mention bullying tactics instead of consensus-building. If I had to point out foreign policy achievements, I could name two big ones: warming of relations with Cuba, and the Iran nuclear deal, though in truth he can’t take full credit for the latter: the agreement was going to happen whether we wanted it to or not, and he could only choose whether the US would be party to it. But he did make the right choice, for what it’s worth.
Otherwise, Obama’s foreign policy record is a mixed bag, to say the least. Domestically, yes, he fares much better, as Politico makes quite clear. But put in a broader international context and placed back-to-back with the Bush administration, history may not look kindly on the man who shed tears over senseless gun violence on American soil while routinely authorizing targeted killings abroad which inevitably slaughtered innocent men, women, and children. For them, there are no tears or outrage from the President who OKed their deaths. They are relegated to historical footnotes. Obama, for his part, can at least rest easy in the knowledge that he and his administration won’t be.
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