In Obama’s last few weeks of office, he pushed through several acts in what seemed to be a last ditch attempt to secure his legacy before Trump got into office. He protected funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, promised to allocate 500m in funding the UN Climate Change initiative and commuted the sentences of over 500 people. It seemed like a natural, if rushed, move, one that would ensure his legacy is stronger than ever,allow him to leave office in the good graces of the public and would put roadblocks in place for Trump’s policies when he took the White House.
However, for some, it was too little too late. They were seen as the type of actions that should have been done by Obama throughout his 8 years in office, not as last minute attempts to boost his exit approval ratings. Polls conducted by CNN, NBC and Gallup put Obama at a 53 – 60% approval rating leaving office, the highest it’s been since he first entered in 2009 and significantly higher than his predecessor George Bush’s 34% exit rate that same year. There’s no doubt that Obama was a popular president, but how well did he fare on completing his campaign promises? Were these last few weeks an attempt to disguise a Presidency of inaction or were they the cherry on top of a successful 8 years for Obama and the nation as a whole?
There’s no doubt that there were elements of his campaign platform that Obama did fail on. The Washington Post recently published an analysis of what promises were kept by the Obama administration and found that 17 promises were broken and 23 were kept or introduced at a compromise. The major areas Obama failed on were his attempts to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, closing Guantanamo Bay, closing special interest loopholes and ending the war in Afghanistan in 2014.
On paper these can be written down as failures of the Obama administration but as White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it to The New York Times, it was not ‘for a lack trying’ on the part of Obama and the Democrats. In a recent piece for The New Yorker, editor David Remnick described Obama as a man who insists on ‘a faith in institutions’. This is a faith that was challenged heavily throughout his presidency when he was rebuffed again and again by a Republican majority congress, particularly in 2013, when the United States federal government shutdown for 16 days over failures to reach a decision regarding the funding of the Affordable Care Act. From the Obamacare to his attempts at reforming the path to citizenship and nominating a Supreme Court Justice, Obama faced incredible opposition, particularly over his last four years.
It’s important to note that Obama did achieve a lot for the U.S. Economically, he helped stabilise, and eventually improve, the economy after one of the worst global recessions in history, cut the GDP deficit down to 3.2% and passed Wall Street Reform in 2010 to ensure tighter regulations on the financial industry. During his tenure in office, Obama pardoned or commuted 1715 people, more than the last three Presidents did combined. He eventually passed Obamacare and introduced affordable health care to millions of Americans. In terms of climate change, he entered a global Climate Agreement to reduce carbon emissions. He also repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military and supported the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation.
His military achievements are more complex in nature. He stuck to America’s policy of prioritising oil and resources in the Middle East and did not reduce the budget or overall influence of Central Command around the Persian Gulf. Although it’s doubtful that any President will attempt to do this in the near future when America has stuck to this bipartisan policy since the 80s. He did end the Iraq war and while he failed to end the war in Afghanistan, he did drastically reduce the number of troops there. He also oversaw the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which more than anything else, was a morale boost for the American people. While he did not close Guantanamo Bay, the number of detainees were reduced from 242 when he entered office to 41. America is still far too much of a military powerhouse, but at least under Obama, it became one that was less physically imposing on the global landscape.
It’s normal that Obama would want to leave a legacy. A man who was the first black President leaves an inherent legacy behind regardless of how successful he was, but a truly memorable leader will have accomplished innovative things that benefited the people. Obama will be remembered as an eloquent, scandal free, family first leader who knew what to say when America needed him most. He did achieve a lot throughout his tenure, definitely not as much as was hoped, but enough to ensure a positive legacy. With Trump in office, Obama’s legacy is at risk of being unravelled over the next four years, but for now, he can be confident that he did a good enough job to secure some landmark achievements and be remembered fondly. And in the grand scheme of Republicans versus Democrats, when incoming Presidents will always work to undo what the opposing party has done, that’s all he can really hope for.
-By Deirdre Leonard
Image from CBC