Debate: Was the Obama administration successful?

Theo Davies-Lewis and Felix Pope debate whether the Obama administration was ultimately successful

Yes:

Obama succeeded on most fronts and Americans will miss him with Trump as president

Theo Davies-Lewis

They say a picture speaks a thousand words.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” asserted White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The crowd of people that actually turned out for Trump’s inauguration was nowhere near the numbers that Barack Obama amassed for his inauguration back in 2009. Clearly, not all Americans—particularly the political establishment in Washington—are pleased with their new Commander-in- Chief.

But Obama himself is often derided by the public, and Trump has even called him “the worst president, maybe in the history of our country.” This is simply not the case. During his honeymoon period after the inauguration, Republicans were worried about whether they would ever be able to stop Obama’s Democrats. By the end of his tenure as president, they certainly had done that, and much more.

Obama’s legacy is already being dismantled by Trump’s administration. His accomplishments in job growth, offering affordable healthcare, attempting to administer gun control, combating climate change and tackling terrorism must not be underestimated. Obama was not only a good president, he was a great one.

The best place to begin when assessing Obama’s legacy is what most presidents are remembered for: jobs. Bill Clinton created 23 million, while Ronald Reagan added 16 million jobs to the American market. For Obama, it wasn’t as easy to stimulate job growth. He took office during the most difficult economic period since the Great Depression. With that considered, Obama’s record is staggering. Since employment bottomed in 2010, almost 16 million jobs have been added to the economy. December 2016 also marked the 75th straight month of payroll gains—an all-time record.

The unemployment rate was 10 per cent in 2009, and has since fallen to 4.7 per cent: an unbelievable achievement. The grand total for Obama’s two terms, after figuring in the severe job losses of 2009 is 10.5 million jobs. Even Obama’s critics acknowledge that wages are rising, and Obama’s economic competence is responsible.

On the other hand, one of Trump’s biggest strengths during the presidential campaign was attacking Obama’s record on violence and law and order. Yet, do not be too quick to place the blame entirely on Obama for the social problems in the country. Congress and the Senate have been against him, and even then, he has been able to make some positive steps in implementing background checks for gun ownership.

In addition, Obamacare is also set to be dismantled by Trump. ObamaCare offers subsidies to low and middle income Americans to aid them in obtaining affordable quality health insurance and also does things like expand Medicaid to almost 20 million more Americans. How can we write this off? In the UK, we may take our NHS for granted, but Obama has made significant strides to alter how the health system works in the US as a whole, and emphasise the importance of affordable care for all.

While it may not be a large concern to many of Trump’s administration, Obama has also succeeded in combating climate change. During his time in office, Obama preserved 260 million acres for future generations (more than any of his predecessors), signed the Paris Agreement alongside 195 nations to reduce climate pollution, and his Clean Power Plan was the first ever national limit on carbon pollution from its largest source. In essence, Obama has led the way in fighting climate change, which is quickly becoming a non-issue in Trump’s America.

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Whatever Americans think of Obama, he has certainly improved their relations with the world. Before his inauguration, the US had lost one war in the Gulf and was losing another in Afghanistan. In a poll of 19 countries, two thirds had a negative view of America. Obama dealt with bin Laden, the world’s most dangerous terrorist. He has withdrawn troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, we are facing huge problems with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, but Obama can hardly be blamed for the failures of the Bush and Blair years.

Overall, Obama’s record is admirable. He has, like any president, not achieved all that he wanted to. Like many leaders, perhaps history will be far kinder to him. We will see how Trump will attempt to essentially destroy his achievements. Issues like climate change and affordable healthcare are of no importance to him, and the US will soon be left wishing that presidents were not restricted to two terms, so that they really could Make America Great Again.

No: 

The reality of President Trump has created a myth about the administration of President Obama

Felix Pope

Obama’s presidency, bookended by the neoconservatism of Bush and the neofascism of Trump, was always destined to be viewed through decidedly rose-tinted glasses. Young and charismatic, he was the harbinger of a new post-racial America, one in which hope would replace fear, love would trump hate, and changing demographics would forever consign the GOP to history.

To read the glowing hagiographies churned out in the last few weeks by liberals on both sides of the Atlantic you might even think that he’d succeeded. He expanded the healthcare rolls, supported gay marriage, and prevented the economy from total collapse in the wake of ‘08.

But the fact that these were his greatest achievements is, in fact, his worst condemnation. His victories were modest, technocratic and limited in scope and vision, at a moment when seismic change was possible. The popular support and emotion the Obama campaign had generated was immense—if there was ever a moment to reshape American society, to disavow militarism, overturn unrestrained free market capitalism, and to genuinely achieve ‘change we can believe in’ it was then.

But the moment was lost, in part thanks to unprecedented Republican obstructionism, in part thanks to the fallout from the global economic crisis, but more so because of Obama’s own choices. The rightward shift was evident early, as Rahm Emanuel was appointed Chief of Staff. Emanuel, an ex-investment banker and political hack, would later repeatedly attempt to convince the President to massively scale down Obamacare.

His Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, was an ex corporate exec seeking to slash government debt. He kept Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who pushed for the surge in troop numbers in Afghanistan, a policy directly contrary to Obama’s pledges on the campaign trail. At every level the Obama administration was staffed by the representatives of corporate America, Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. The policies they helped enact varied from those that were a moderate betrayal of Obama’s promises to those that were distinctly right wing.

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Witness the unparalleled expansion of drone warfare and the security state. The CIA now has the ability to strike and kill anyone on the planet at any time, largely with legal immunity and largely classified and therefore hidden from public view. The unrelenting attacks and inevitable civilian casualties have only served to further radicalise the Middle East, turning those who ought to be our allies against us. These powers will now be handed over to President Trump.

Having argued passionately against the Patriot Act and in favour of civil liberties during his campaign, one might have expected Obama to restrain the NSA’s intrusion into our communications data. In reality, he only sought to extend it. His administration expanded the NSA’s power to share data with other agencies, granted immunity to telecommunications companies that aided Bush in spying on Americans, and by 2010 was collecting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other communications.

Ironically, a volume of data that great would most likely have hindered the intelligence agencies by increasing the haystack in which they searched for a needle. Left-wingers are rightly outraged by Trump’s promise to deport three million undocumented immigrants, but seem to forget that Obama deported 2.4 million himself from 2009 to 2014.

He opposed gay marriage until it became politically expedient to support it. He intervened in Libya without committing to any program of nation building afterward, turning it into a failed state and a breeding ground for ISIS. He backed TPP and TTIP, two free trade treaties that would have driven down standards on worker’s rights and further eroded America’s manufacturing base. Even his much vaunted health care reforms were based upon plans drawn up by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, and had previously been implemented by Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts.

The inescapable truth is that for all the rhetoric, for all the campaign trail pledges, Obama is little more than a moderate Republican, and would be seen as such had the right in America not veered so sharply away from the main- stream. After eight years of electoral failures under Obama’s leadership, the Presidency, the Senate, the House, 70 per cent of state legislatures, more than 60 per cent of state governors, and (soon enough) the Supreme Court will be in Republican hands.

In the coming weeks and months the small good Obama has achieved will be dismantled, piece by piece, by Donald Trump, and little will remain of his legacy other than the bitter reminder that even the most inspiring of politicians can fail. Judged by the standards set out in his initial Presidential run, by the heady optimism of 2008, Obama has utterly and comprehensively failed in his quest for change.