Thursday, 12 January 2017

U.S.: Obama's Accomplishments

It has been en eventful eight years. Back in November 2008, on a cool, gray evening in Chicago, people in the crowd (including myself) cried and even journalists shed tears when Obama took the stage following his election victory. It was a touching moment, (the best political moment of my life), or perhaps kitschy, depending on how unemotionally you choose to view the world. 

A young Obama, with his campaign slogan ''Yes We Can'' and rousing speeches, managed to beat out the Democratic field, led by favorite Hillary Clinton, and then defeat Republican candidate John Mccain. He came to the victory party in Hyde Park with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha in tow--and even cynics were aware at the time that it was an historic moment: the first black president of the Unites States. 

His tenure did not begin with the same energy as his campaign and there have been several phases of weakness during his eight years in the White House. He announced his intention to close Guantanamo prison, but then did little to deliver on that pledge. He also drew a red line in Syria, warning President Bashar Assad not to use chemical  weapons against his own populace. But when Assad did just that, the US shied away from intervention, partly because Obama thought the rebels would topple Assad anyway.

But he became more resolute after his re-election and knew that once his second term began, so too did the countdown. If he wanted to take action, he had to do it soon-and he made his move. The treaties with Iran and Cuba changed the geopolitical map. Obama also became tired of a Congress that sought to block his every move, and of the racism harbored by a significant group of Americans who never wanted to accept him as president. So he began issuing ''Executive Orders'' ( 147 of them, fewer than George W Bush and Bill Clinton) and stopped wasting time.

What though, will remain of this president? Obama's legacy seems all the more respectable in light of Donald Trump's victory. For now, at least.

Economic Legacy

Obama inherited a country sliding into economic recession, engaged in two major military conflicts, and with the costliest healthcare system in the world. He had some significant ideas for reform and campaigned on a promise of hope for a better future, bridging the partisan divide, and bringing the country together. It is remarkable what Obama was able to accomplish despite Republican opposition.

When Obama entered office, the US was on the brink of economic disaster. The causes of this downturn are a complicated myriad of financial mechanisms designed to maximize profit without ethical guideline. The history of the modern American banking system which allowed those mechanisms to flourish, however can be explained succinctly.

Shortly after entering office, US President Franklin Roosevelt passed the US Banking Act of 1933. Included in it, was the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking, among other provisions. In short, it prohibited Wall Street investment bankers from gambling their depositors' money if it was held in commercial banks. In 1999, US President Bill Clinton passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which repealed Glass-Steagall, allowing the merging of investment firms, commercial banks, and insurance companies. 

As a result, the culture of investment banks was conveyed to commercial banks and everyone got involved in the high-risk gambling mentality.This included credit default and predatory mortgages which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and global recession. 

To combat this, Obama passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Through these pieces of legislation, the US government re-regulated the banks, restructured the banking and auto industries, and lowered interest rates to zero. 

As a result, the US economy is much stronger. In 2009, the US unemployment rate was 10 percent and it is now 4 percent and consumer spending is up and rising at the fastest pace since April 2009. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created and due to its efforts over $11 billion has been returned to more than 25 million families who were defrauded by financial companies.

Race-Relations Legacy

Perhaps Obama's least heralded achievement was his effort to prepare the country for its future as a genuinely multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. African American will soon outnumber white Americans, religious diversity continues to grow, and differences in sexual orientation are increasingly accepted. Obama's presidency may gone one day be seen as a watershed in the construction of genuinely ''rainbow'' America.

Here is one historic trend-break that has occurred during Obama's administration that has major significance for the well-being of African American: the beginnings of a decline in the national prison population, after decades of expansion. The Obama's administration deserves a fair share of credit. 

In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing prison time for convictions involving crack, cocaine. Under Attorney General Eric Holder, sentencing guidelines were made retroactive, leading to the release of thousands. To date, the reductions have been small compared to the total incarcerated population, but the reversal is historic, and its disproportionate significance for African American is evident.

Climate Change

Obama's Climate policy, which had been a linchpin on his campaign, disappeared from his agenda for a few years only to make late reappearance, just barely in time for the 2015 Paris Agreement.

However, President Obama's actions suggest that he was truly passionate about climate change in a way that we have not fully grasped. Clearly he has not done enough. But it is important to consider how little political incentive Obama has had to do anything. Obama could have easily gotten away with talking soberly about the issue but never really doing anything about it. 

Instead, he's done a lot: tough EPA constraints on coal, a meaningful accord with China to cut emissions, serious stimulus spending on clean energy, new emissions standards for cars and trucks. History may well reveal that Obama showed more personal courage on this issue than any other.

Furthermore, the enormously significant announcement of China-US cooperation on global warming and  2015 Paris Agreement, are an indication of how Obama's climate policy has born results.

Healthcare Legacy

Obamacare is easily the signal accomplishment of his presidency, assuming current efforts to unravel it will be defeated. It is an achievement that will put Obama in the ranks of FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare) because of its enduring impact on the average American's well being. He won't need bridges and airports named after him since opponents already did him the favor of naming it: ''Obamacare''.

By introducing health insurance available to all, he brought a sense of warmth to an America that often seems cold and hard, a project that Democrats have been trying in vain to implement since Harry Truman's times. 

Foreign Policy Legacy

A good foreign policy legacy does not only depend to what political figures actively accomplish--wars won, legislation passed---but to what they prevent from happening, a negative but real accomplishment. By this measure, Barack Obama accomplished a lot. Foreign policy, says Obama, must reflect America's highest ideals and convictions. 

The ''Obama Doctrine'', a doctrine in which the use of force is an exception, the last resort--against terrorists, revised the image of a bellicose, imperialistic America that George W Bush had left behind. Obama's major foreign policy achievement will be the recovery of a bilateral approach to foreign policy after the Bush-Cheney years of unilateralism, the improvement of America's relationship with Western allies, the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the toning down of the fear-based hysteria about terrorism.

Under 8 years of Obama, we have seen how Obama moved the US into a post-imperial foreign policy, which involves a willingness to talk to partners and enemies like. The right wanted to keep military force in Iraq and demanded boots on the ground in Ukraine and Syria. Instead we have seen Obama do a jujitsu with Iraq internal politics, turning lemon into power sharing lemonade, and work with the Europeans behind the scenes. 

I have not heard anyone talk about China's move toward soft power, and what a vital pivot away from aggressive military brinkmanship this represents. But it is entirely to Obama's credit. Obama has forged military and economic alliances with China's neighbors even as he has continued to engage the Chinese leadership, telling them the U.S. supports China's peaceful rise. 

Leaving office without any substantial US military engagement in the Middle East is Obama greatest foreign policy legacy. Obama will be remembered as the president who finally realized that 70 year engagement has encouraged tyranny, cripples Arab societies, and exposed the US to profound new threats. Breaking the cycle of intervening, withdrawing, and then returning to clean up the mess is epochal.


President Obama passed bills with benchmarks to reign in the big banks and restructure the floundering auto industry. He green -lighted the US Navy Seal team which killed Osama Bin Laden and made serious progress in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the military situation shifted due to IS. He created a national healthcare system, signed landmark drug and crime legislation, passed a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, ended ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' in the army, and reestablished relations with Cuba, among other accomplishments. 

Whether or not you agree with his policies, Obama fought hard to fulfill his campaign promises and succeeded far beyond what the opposition predicted, or is willing to admit.. He has been, indeed, a better president than John Mccain or Mitt Romney might have been.

By Prof: Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Political Analyst/Author

Photo-Credit: AFP-archives photo of US President Barack Obama

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