Barack Obama ends his two terms in the White House on January 20. Here are 11 takes on his legacy, ranging from health care reform to climate change, immigration to his effect on women and families and beyond.The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.
Julian Zelizer: Obama’s tenuous ‘transformational’ legacy
When Barack Obama won his primary contest against Hillary Clinton in 2008, he summed up his quest for the presidency in a speech in St. Paul, Minnesota:
“If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.”
Elected as a transformational figure, the first African-American president soon had to face the reality of partisanship in Washington and of the limits of presidential power. And as he ends his final term in office, Obama’s legacy hangs in the balance. While Obama wasn’t able to achieve many of the promises — such as ending the bitter partisanship of Capitol Hill — from the perspective of 2017, he leaves behind a significant record of progress on many of the causes he described in that St. Paul speech.
He helped to bring back the nation from a severe economic and financial crisis, while moving forward with a bold domestic agenda that vastly expanded the role of government in health care and financial regulation.
For all the talk about President-elect Trump theoretically saving 750 Carrier jobs, Obama’s economic stimulus program, including the auto bailout, actually revived the entire economy and put it back on a pattern of growth. Even when congressional Republicans obstructed everything after 2010, Obama used executive power to make some progress on issues like climate change.
Despite many problems overseas — the chaos in Syria and the rise of ISIS — Obama pushed against the muscular approach to foreign policy embraced by his predecessor George W. Bush, exhibiting a more restrained and cautious approach to intervention overseas, with varying results (something that our writers here will explore). He put into place a historic nuclear arms agreement with Iran, and participated in the Paris Climate Agreement.
We don’t know what this will all look like even within a year.
Some of the threat that this legacy faces is a product of Obama’s own failure as a party builder. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who left behind a robust New Deal coalition that could protect and expand his programs once he was gone from office, Obama ends his term with Democrats in much worse shape than they were when he started. Republicans now control the governor’s house or the state legislative chamber in 44 states, with full control in 25 states. Nebraska is the exception because its legislature is nonpartisan.
If Democrats want to make sure that his legacy does not fall apart, they will have to undertake some very serious party-rebuilding efforts from day one. That will be a priority, if they are to fight back as the GOP tries to dismantle the record that Obama has left behind.
Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He also is the co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.”
Sabrina Corlette: He brought health care to 20 million
As a US Senator, Barack Obama would have found it hard to imagine health reform as a signature domestic policy of an Obama presidency to come. Indeed, when the 2008 financial meltdown hit, health care understandably took a back seat to jobs and the economy.
But President Obama couldn’t get away from health reform. Mounting evidence that the US health care system was on an unsustainable track forced his administration to make health reform its first major domestic policy initiative.
The facts were unavoidable: insurance was largely inaccessible to millions of people with pre-existing health conditions, one-in-seven Americans were uninsured, medical debt was a chief cause of personal bankruptcy, and a highly inefficient health care system was swallowing an ever-growing proportion of the US economy – over 17% at the time President Obama took office. Reforming health care became not just a priority but an economic imperative.
Obama put his presidency on the line to achieve it. When, in the midst of an exhausting and politically divisive legislative debate, senior advisors urged the President to cut a deal and walk away, he refused. Ultimately he signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, now called “Obamacare,” into law on March 23, 2010. It was, by any measure, an historic accomplishment.
US presidents since Harry Truman had attempted and failed to pass comprehensive health reform, but Obama did it. In spite of a rocky start and unmitigated opposition from Congressional leaders, the law has ended discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, expanded coverage to 20 million mostly working class Americans, slowed the growth of health care costs, and created new incentives for providers to deliver higher quality care at a lower cost.
Even with this progress, the law remains controversial. Many provisions are unpopular, particularly the penalty for people who don’t maintain health coverage. Insurers have struggled financially in the law’s new marketplaces, leading some to leave and many of those remaining to raise premiums. The law may be repealed. However, our nation’s new leaders may find it harder than they think to unravel President Obama’s namesake law and take coverage away from 20 million people.
Final grade: A, for effort; B for execution
Sabrina Corlette is a research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. Follow her on Twitter.
Ana Navarro: What Democrats and Republicans can agree on
What is President Obama’s legacy on immigration? A mixed bag, at best. A huge disappointment, at worst.
Candidate Barack Obama promised in 2008 that he would pass immigration reform in the first six months of his first term. His supporters will tell you he was overwhelmed with the economic crisis and had to spend his chits on passing healthcare reform instead. His opponents will tell you he made a campaign promise to the Latino community and didn’t keep his word. Bottom line, after two terms and eight years, there was no legislative immigration reform.
He did do some things. He deported a heck of a lot of people. One of his allies, Janet Murguia, head of National Council of La Raza, referred to him as the “Deporter-in-Chief.” He also signed some significant executive orders. One gave us DACA, which granted temporary status to undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. And another gave us DAPA, allowing temporary status for their parents. The latter was found unconstitutional and never implemented. The former went into effect.
About 665,000 young people are benefiting from DACA. But, and this is a big but, it can be revoked by President Donald Trump as soon as Day 1 of his administration. As a result, these people are living in fear and in limbo. They do not know if they will be able to continue living and studying and working legally in the country they consider their own. They do not know if the rug will be pulled from under them by a new president. They do not know if they will ever be US citizens, or if they will deported to countries that many of them barely know.
So what’s Obama’s legacy on immigration? The DACA kids don’t know, their friends and loved ones don’t know. None of us know.
Final grade on immigration: C
Since in my view, immigration is not much of an Obama legacy, which makes me sad, let’s talk about his biggest legacy – the indisputable thing we can all agree on: He was the first black president of the United States.
Folks, regardless of your political affiliation or gender or race or creed or age, the fact that Barack Obama was the first African-American elected to lead our nation is historically significant to our country. It is also personally significant to many of us.
Did Obama’s election usher in a post-racial era in America? No. It did not. There are still huge education and employment gaps between African-Americans and whites in the United States. Did it mean racism has ended? No, it did not. We’ve all seen shocking, racially motivated hate crimes – whites against blacks, blacks against whites, and between every other color and ethnicity – caught on camera in the last eight years.
But yes, President Obama’s election was hugely symbolic. It meant so much to African-American boys and girls – like 5 year-old Jacob Philadelphia, who wanted to know if President Obama’s hair was like his – to see someone that looked like them in the White House. They now know that one day they can grow up to be president.
It meant so much to 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin, born in the segregated South. She thought she would never live to see a black president. But she got to dance with a black president in the White House.
It meant so much to the young men participating in President Obama’s initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which offers opportunities to boys and young men of color who want to get ahead.
It meant so much to African-American mothers and fathers to hear a president talk about the realities, the fears, the challenges of growing up black in America.
And it meant so much to many of us non-black Americans who acknowledge that there’s is much work left to be done but hope President Obama’s election was one more little step towards us being a more united nation and a better community.
Ana Navarro is a Republican strategist and commentator. Follow her on Twitter.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin: Where’s the economic growth?
The Obama legacy is poor growth – poor macroeconomic growth, poor productivity growth, and especially poor wage growth. Inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings have grown at a minuscule annual rate of 0.25% since the recovery began in June 2009. The failure to deliver a rising return to work has stressed American families and fed the populist political uprising. It is his most significant economic failure.
That is certainly not how Obama wants to be remembered. His advocates repeatedly stress the deep recession he inherited, the recovery actions, and the average of nearly 160,000 jobs created each month that drove the unemployment rate below 5%. But the attempt to tie the recovery to Barack Obama misses two key points.
First, any president would have acted. It is inconceivable that in circumstances that dire a new president would have sat idly by. Second, the economy was going to recover at some point; all any president’s policies can do is speed things up. Thus, the issue is the quality of the recovery policies; not a case the Obama advocates can successfully make.
The legacy is not the 5% of the labor force that finally found jobs. The legacy is the 90% of the labor force that had a job, still has a job, and continues to wait for a raise.
Final grade: C-
Douglas Holtz-Eakin is the president of the American Action Forum. He is a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and former chief economist of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.
Dorothy A. Brown: The exceptionalism of Obama’s presidency
Symbols are important. Let’s talk about the exceptionalism of President Barack Obama. The Latin term sui generis comes to mind. He is not like anything else. First, his name: Barack Hussein Obama. If a writer gave that name to a character in a political novel, readers might bristle at its implausibility.
But beyond his name, so much of Obama’s life veers away from the experiences of most black Americans. He is the son of an African man, from Kenya, and was raised by a white Kansan mother and white grandparents in Hawaii – one of the most non-black places in America. (According to the 2010 Census, its population is 1.6% black.)
He attended an elite college preparatory high school, Punahou, in Honolulu, very selective colleges and then an even more selective law school. He was the first black editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. He married a black woman who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In 1993 he became a homeowner. Though he and his wife had $120,000 of student debt, he was able to pay off their student loans with proceeds from a book advance. He became a millionaire as a result of his best-selling books. His taxable income in 2005 was roughly $1.5 million.
I could go on, but this is enough to contrast President and Mrs. Obama with their black peers.
Most blacks do not attend college preparatory schools. Only 7% of students enrolled in selective colleges are black and of those with advanced degrees just 8.2% are black. A recent Brookings study showed that black college graduates owe more in student loans than whites and that gap increases over time.
The unemployment rate for black college graduates is twice the rate of white college graduates. The majority of blacks are renters and not homeowners. White women are more than twice as likely to marry someone with equal or greater education as black women. Median household income for college educated blacks is $82,300 compared with $106,600 for whites.
Most blacks do not have President Obama’s story, which is why the symbolism of his achievement is so significant.
Symbols are important. In 2008, America elected our first black President. No matter what Republicans try to do, they will never be able to take that away from him – or us. His biography will always include the words 44th President of the United States of America. Immediately after the election, however, we started hearing commentators discussing our entry into a post-racial era. Because a black man had been elected president, they argued that racism was a thing of the past.
Except John McCain got 55% of the white vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney got 59% in 2012. The majority of white voters each time voted for the white guy. How can racism be over when most white voters rejected the black guy? We were not then nor have we ever been post-racial.
Nevertheless, the majority of whites think racial discrimination is not the reason blacks do not get ahead. As a result, they see the election of a black president as support for their views. I suspect some whites who hold this view never voted for him and fail to see any irony in that.
Symbolism, it turned out, was a bad thing for addressing anti-black racism in America. The symbolism of a black President prevented America from grappling with the reality of how exceptional his victory and his story really was.
Final grade: A+ on symbolism; C for real change
Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University.
Jennifer Morgan: A game-changing leader on climate change
President Barack Obama moved climate change from a supposed fringe “environmental” issue into the heart of economic, energy and foreign policy, right where it belongs. As he understood the risks and opportunities more, he integrated it more, working with people across the country and globally to put in place national and international rules, regulations and agreements to tackle the problem.
Whether it was his time in Alaska speaking with communities that were losing their homes from climate change or his visits to solar plants in the Midwest, where new jobs were created, Obama worked to make the issue real for people – something that has been lacking in the debate. He took foreign leaders by surprise by placing climate change at the top of his diplomatic agenda, working to create an effective international pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
The Paris Agreement was only possible because of the multiple decisions Obama made to modernize the US economy away from coal to renewable energy, and to keep fossil fuels in the ground — most recently by banning drilling in places like the Atlantic and the Arctic. He brought a new positive dynamic to the international climate debate. That momentum is deep and will not be easily turned back, a lasting legacy from Obama’s time in office.
But beyond the impact of his actions and the international treaties, President Obama showed his understanding of what it means to connect the head and the heart. He often talked about what the world would be like for his daughters, and other young people, if his generation did not act to change this course of history.
There is still so much more to do in so little time to change course, but moving climate change from fringe to center stage has transformed the way the issue is understood by people, including corporate and local and national leaders. From there, there is no turning back.
Final grade: B+
Jennifer Morgan is the Executive Director of Greenpeace International. Follow her on Twitter.
Ted Olson: New dignity for gays and lesbians
Amid all the talk about President Obama’s legacy, something remarkable has been largely overlooked.
On November 8, 2008, just as voters throughout the United States were electing the nation’s first African-American president, voters in liberal California were approving Proposition 8. Like scores of similar measures adopted in other states, it banned marriage except between a man and a woman.
As a result, gays and lesbians were walled off from what the Supreme Court has repeatedly described as the most important relationship in life. The public overwhelmingly approved measures like Prop 8, denying loving same-sex couples the right to be married.
At the time, Obama said that he, too, disapproved of same-sex marriage. Indeed, the issue was so toxic that George W. Bush had leveraged it to assist his 2004 reelection.
But then President Obama changed his mind.
He “evolved,” as he put it. He announced his opposition to discrimination in all forms: in the armed forces, in the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” that had passed overwhelming during the Clinton administration and was signed by President Clinton, and in Proposition 8 and similar measures. His Justice Department went into court calling such measures unconstitutional.
In short order, the mood of the country changed, and the courts repeatedly held that laws such as Proposition 8 violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the US Constitution. The widely anticipated public backlash against such rulings never materialized. Now persons in every state may marry the person they love, regardless of gender.
President Obama’s intervention was a watershed. He helped return equality and equal dignity to gays and lesbians throughout the nation. This is a permanent and transformative part of his legacy.
Final grade: B+
Theodore B. Olson is a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s Washington, D.C. office and served as US Solicitor General during the presidency of George W. Bush. He has argued 62 cases in the United States Supreme Court, including Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case upholding the overturning of California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages.
Stephanie Coontz: A commitment to equality and families
The legacy President Obama leaves for American families was shaped by legislation and by powerful example. For eight years the first family has been a living refutation of the negative stereotypes about black families that so often dominate cultural debates.
Obama’s efforts on behalf of equal pay for women will also have a lasting impact on families. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ended the practice of not compensating women for pay discrimination unless they filed suit within 180 days of when the discrimination began. Even with a veto-proof Congress, Donald Trump would have a hard time reversing this.
Republicans seem determined to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict access to contraception and overturn legal abortion. And it’s doubtful that Trump and his misogynistic chief strategist will continue Obama’s efforts to combat sexual assault on campus and in the military. If the new administration underestimates the strong public support for reproductive choice and for victims of sexual violence, part of Obama’s legacy might be a new groundswell of activism on these issues.
Republicans have vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which gave 20 million Americans new access to health insurance. But one legacy of Obamacare, even among its opponents, is a heightened sense that affordable health insurance is a right. If insurers go back to denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or to young adults who rely on their parents’ policies, a strong backlash is likely.
Obama inherited a severe recession, precipitated by a decade of financial deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, outsourcing of jobs, union-busting, and under-investment in infrastructure. At the depth of the recession in 2010, the unemployment rate hit 10%. By Obama’s final month in office, the jobless rate had been halved and more than 14 million new jobs had been produced.
But Obama’s recovery program was extremely deferential to Republican financial priorities. This may have created the biggest threat to his legacy. Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, who responded to his era’s foreclosure crisis by having the government buy failing mortgages and restructure them so households could make their payments, Obama chose to bail out banks rather than their victims. His stimulus package incorporated Republican demands for tax cuts while rejecting calls by liberal Democrats for criminal sanctions against misbehaving banks and for greater investment in jobs programs.
In the absence of initiatives to bolster workers’ bargaining power, the recovery failed to halt the declines in social mobility over the past 40 years. In 1980, some 80% of people aged 30 earned more than their parents had earned at the same age. Today half of Americans in their mid-30s make less than their parents did at the same age, even while the highest earners make (or inherit) much, much more.
Chronic economic uncertainty makes it hard for people to sustain or even enter stable relationships. And growing economic inequality has greatly increased the educational advantage of high-income children.
By failing to address the persistence of the economic insecurity that had built up well before his watch and the frustration of many blue-collar workers about lost jobs and stagnant wages, Obama may have inadvertently hurt his party in the industrial states that helped secure Trump’s electoral victory.
Obama might have better protected his legacy – or ensured the election of a successor who would do so – if he had pushed earlier to change a system that really was, as Trump insisted during the campaign, rigged against working families. We’ll never know. But we do know that Trump’s incoming Cabinet of plutocrats is unlikely to leave a legacy that benefits most American families.
Final grade: A+ for his commitment to promoting gender equality and the well-being of families; B for his success in achieving those goals
Stephanie Coontz is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her most recent book is “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.” She is also the author of “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”
Jeffrey Toobin: A bolstered liberal judiciary, for now
President Obama’s record on the judiciary looks very different now that Donald Trump has been elected to succeed him. If Hillary Clinton had won, the nation could have looked forward to a new liberal era on the Supreme Court – with secure protections for abortion rights, gay rights, and the rights of racial minorities.
But with Trump now to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, and perhaps the departure of other aging justices, conservatives again can look with confidence to the courts to vindicate their agenda.
Obama appointed more than 300 federal judges, roughly the same number as his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. All federal judges serve for life, and so their influence extends long after presidents leave office.
Obama’s choices were notable for their diversity. He appointed record numbers of women and minorities to the bench, as well as several openly gay jurists. He appointed Sonia Sotomayor (the first Hispanic) and Elena Kagan (the fourth woman) to the Supreme Court, and they have been strong liberal voices there.
But if their liberal colleagues Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 83) and Stephen Breyer (78), as well as the moderate Anthony Kennedy (80), leave during Trump’s presidency, the Court will take a conservative turn for at least a generation. That, depending on one’s perspective, is a cause for terror or celebration.
Final grade: B+
Jeffrey Toobin is CNN’s senior legal analyst and author of “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court.”
Frida Ghitis: On foreign policy, good intentions, but a disappointment
Barack Obama took office at a time of global crises and international disdain for what many perceived as an overly aggressive US foreign policy under George W. Bush. He set out to reverse many of his predecessor’s policies, but in his eagerness at restraint he pulled back too far. Under Obama, the US came to be seen as a country that speaks strongly and doesn’t want to use a stick.
To be sure, Obama’s oratorical gifts, when he used them in defense of American principles of equality, justice and freedom, are among the elements of US foreign policy we will sorely miss during the next administration. His Nobel Peace Prize lecture, including his explanation of why sometimes fighting is necessary, was one of his finest moments, even if the award itself remains puzzling.
Above all, Obama was reluctant to use force, as all presidents should be, and he leaned heavily on diplomacy – the correct order of priorities but one that might have ended up weakening his negotiating effectiveness. In a world where the ability to use force can translate into diplomatic muscle, America proved a weak negotiator and a poor strategic player.
It happened with Iran, with whom the idea of making a deal was never wrong. But Iran outplayed the US and the allies who relied on Washington to lead them. And it happened in talks over Syria after Obama backed down from the threat of force after drawing a “red line.”
Similarly, negotiations with Cuba were the right idea, poorly executed. The US gave the Castro regime an enormous gift, a lifeline, and secured almost no concessions – such as demanding more personal freedoms for Cubans – in return.
On Israelis and Palestinians, once again, Obama misplayed what could have been a strong hand. By placing new demands on Israelis and essentially none on Palestinians, he made Israelis feel they couldn’t trust him. He unwittingly helped strengthen the Israeli right and Palestinian intransigence, further distancing the two sides.
America’s Arab friends in the Middle East were also thrown off by Obama’s diplomacy, wondering if Washington was confusing friends and foes.
Obama might have salvaged his foreign policy legacy were it not for Syria, which history will judge his and the world’s greatest failure. If the US had given strong support to pro-democracy forces early in the conflict, the history of the last few years would have been completely different.
Assad might have negotiated his resignation; millions of refugees might not have flooded out and destabilized the Middle East and even Europe; ISIS might not have created havoc, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians who died in the war might be alive today.
His foreign policy legacy is one good intentions and disappointing results.
Final grade: C+
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent.
Raul A. Reyes: The faded promise of immigration reform
We are no closer to solving our undocumented immigration problem now than we were eight years ago. If anything, the country seems more polarized around this issue than ever before. Yet it is unfair to blame President Obama for the failure of comprehensive reform. Immigration policy is the job of Congress.
The President clearly recognized the contributions of immigrants and pushed Congress to enact reform that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented. We could have had immigration reform in 2013, after the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” passed its landmark immigration bill. Its failure rests with House Republicans, who refused to even allow a vote on the measure.
To his credit, in 2012 Obama provided deportation relief to more than 740,000 young people through his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He attempted to grant similar relief to a larger class of undocumented immigrants through executive action in 2014, which failed due to legal challenges brought by Republican governors.
Had he succeeded in expanding DACA and implementing the proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), Obama could have provided deportation relief and work permits to nearly half of our undocumented population. However, these were stopgap measures, and temporary.
Meanwhile, Obama’s record deportations were unceasing and permanent. Multiply his 2.5 million removals – more than any other president – by a factor of all the families separated, communities disrupted, and due process denied to get a true sense of the devastation that his aggressive immigration enforcement policies have had on the Latino and immigrant populations.
The Obama administration also took a confounding, deterrence-focused approach towards Central American asylum seekers and refugees, treating them as illegal entrants when many were fleeing for their lives.
Conservative critics like to claim that he could have made immigration reform happen at the beginning of his first term, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. This overlooks that, at the time, the President was fully occupied with righting our economy, which was on the brink of collapse, and moving his signature healthcare bill forward. It would have been unrealistic for the president, at such a critical juncture, to prioritize the needs of our undocumented population over American citizens.
The sad irony is that he seems to have paid a price for acting in good faith. He apparently believed that if he ramped up immigration enforcement, then Republicans would trust him and come onboard for comprehensive reform. So Obama did his part, zealously enforcing immigration law – to the point where he was tagged the “Deporter-in-chief” – and yet Republicans refused to work with him anyway. The President now owns a complicated immigration legacy, one that has no doubt left him as frustrated as many of his Latino and immigrant allies.
Final grade: B
Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of USA Today’s board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.