Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Episode #10 of the course Greatest US presidents by Patrick Allitt
Barack Obama’s greatest legislative achievements came in the first two years of his presidency, 2009 and 2010, when he had congressional majorities. But the entire span of his presidency, all eight years, were heavy with symbolic significance. Above all, Obama was important as the first African-American president.
The long and painful history of black Americans was a burden about which, by the 21st century, the rest of the nation had good cause to feel ashamed. The legacy of slavery and segregation, combined with continuing economic disadvantage, made the emergence of black leaders a welcome sign that such weighty obstacles could now be overcome. Obama’s education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, his work as a University of Chicago law professor, and his early rise to prominence in Illinois politics gave promise of better things to come.
As a first-term US senator, his speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 brought Obama a national audience. In the primaries of 2008, he displaced Hillary Clinton and went on to win first the Democratic nomination and then the election. An almost millennial wave of expectation swept across the nation, well-expressed by the single word, “Hope,” on a popular poster designed by Shepard Fairey. Almost at once, Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize, indicating that the euphoria at his success was shared on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among the dogged stereotypes about African-Americans were claims that they were lazy, irresponsible, and promiscuous. Obama’s White House contradicted all of them, being decorous, dedicated, and proactive. Not a breath of sexual or financial scandal tarnished the administration, even though Obama’s Republican critics sought hungrily for signs of misconduct. Bare-faced racism in politics was no longer permissible, though some critics tried to discredit Obama obliquely by claiming that he had not actually been born in the United States and was ineligible for office. His birth certificate contradicted the allegation.
The administration’s biggest legislative achievement was the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Despite America’s wealth, millions of its citizens had inadequate healthcare, with the result that infant mortality and an array of chronic but remediable conditions were more widespread in the USA than in the other industrial democracies. Life expectancy was also lower. The Act, soon nicknamed “Obamacare,” prohibited discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions and spread the burden of payment across the entire population. As soon as it went into operation, it diminished the number of unprotected citizens and showed promise of reducing costs, proving very popular.
Equally important was Obama’s work on recovering from the severe economic recession of the years preceding his election. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress in 2009, pumped over $830 billion into the economy to help spur recovery and economic expansion. The money was spent on infrastructure, job training, education, and renewable energy resources. Scorned by Republicans as a sign of Democratic profligacy and deplored for not being much bigger by many Democrats, it nevertheless played a key role in revitalizing the economy: Such was the conclusion of the nonpartisan Office of Management and Budget.
A severe defeat for the Democrats in the midterm elections of 2010 created Republican majorities for the rest of Obama’s presidency. He found it correspondingly difficult to advance other parts of his agenda and was often obliged to rely on executive orders instead of legislation. The increasing polarization of the two parties also made bipartisan agreements on any legislation more difficult than hitherto.
In foreign policy, President Obama tried to extricate the US from Iraq but was forced to return when the group, “Islamic State,” or ISIS, upset the fragile balance of forces there. Chronic low-level warfare continued in Afghanistan, where successive American administrations found it impossible to impose their will. Obama’s greatest foreign policy coup came in 2011 when Navy Seals entered the compound in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden was hiding, and assassinated him. Bin Laden, founder of Al Qaeda, had been sought for ten years since the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Barack Obama, leaving the White House early in 2017, left behind a legacy of earnest good conduct, a breakthrough in improved American health, and indisputable evidence that race was no longer a bar to the most important job in the world.
Congratulations on completing this course. I expect you that agreed with some of my choices and disagreed with others, depending on your own political views. Either way, best of luck in your further presidential studies.
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
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