Unfinished Ambition: The Obama Legacy at Home

By Jono Davis 
Undergraduate International Relations Student

Barack Obama: the 44th President of the United States, the fifteenth Democratic president and most markedly the first African-American president, but also a name that can create emotions of both elatedness and utter disgust. Whilst all presidents create and command their own unique versions of America, Obama’s tenure has been somewhat more exceptional than others; rarely if ever has the opposition to a president been so uncompromising, and so unwilling to debate. Vitriol in the Republican party after Obama’s 2008 election and its shadowy donors led to the creation of the tactic of non-compliance, whereby issues, be it healthcare and 2nd amendment reform, or annual budget legislation, would be met with a bulwark of “that’s unconstitutional” or just simply “no”. There were notable examples of compromise between the two parties on certain issues, mostly within Obama’s first three years in office, but it is fair to say much of his presidency was marred by an unwillingness to govern on behalf of the Republican Party.

But what are we to make of the Obama years? What will his legacy be, and how effectively will history remember the man and not just the turbulent times he oversaw? To answer this crucial question, we will need to look back and take a wider angle on the relentless minute-by-minute coverage that has defined the last eight years.

Whilst all presidents create and command their own unique versions of America, Obama’s tenure has been somewhat more exceptional than others; rarely if ever has the opposition to a president been so uncompromising, and so unwilling to debate.

When several pundits refer to Obama’s first two years as his “golden years” (it is unfortunate that they are wrong – Obama never had any golden years, no president ever does, they merely have more productive days than others), it is often avoided mention that Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, may be almost solely responsible for this success; an unpopular war that saw soldiers dying in a nation that appeared to contain no threat to the United States, as well as a surprising expansion of government – what would turn out to be the largest increase in government spending in history – meant Republican voters were either dissuaded from voting or voted Democrat in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be George Bush, leading to a Democrat majority in both houses of Congress, in which led to most productive congress since President Lyndon B Johnson was in office.

The 111th Congress will be remembered by Democrats and Republicans alike as a significant and historic Congress, if for entirely juxtaposed reasons. It was productive, and included massive initiatives, including an $814 billion economic stimulus package and a monumental healthcare overhaul. Between January and December 2009, Obama had managed to pass fifteen pieces of major legislation, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the expansion of State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

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Obama Delivering the State of the Union to the 111th Congress, Jan. 25th 2010

The $814 billion stimulus package, which was given the sexy title of “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”, was Obama’s answer to people’s panic after the economic collapse, with the purpose of creating immediate stimulus with jobs, but also stagnated improvements to infrastructure and the welfare system over the course of ten years. Without delving too much into the economic discrepancies of the bill, in both 2012 and 2014 IGM Forum found that 82% of leading economists found that unemployment was lower in 2010 than it otherwise would have been without the bill. In the House, only eleven Democrats voted against the Bill, and in the Senate this number became zero, with only three Republicans breaking party line to vote in favour of the bill – one of whom, Arlen Specter, became a Democrat later in 2009 (interestingly he was initially a Democrat between the years 1951-65). Partisanship was rife, but it didn’t matter to Obama, so long as bills were being passed and Congress could do their job. Of course this would all change as the Republican Party would, in the face of being lurched to the Right by the Tea Party wing, go from the Party of Lincoln to the “Party of no”, with the Healthcare Bill being the GOP’s moment to transform itself into the nightmare that would haunt Obama for the rest of his presidency.

Healthcare in the United States has been an issue for President’s as early as the 1800s, with Franklin Pierce vetoing a bill in 1854 that would have established asylums for the indigent insane, whilst the blind and the deaf would be given what is essentially State aid. In the 20th century, when European countries were beginning to create their own government healthcare reforms as early as 1911 – such as the National Insurance Act in the UK – it would take until 1965 for president Lyndon Johnson to pass the first major healthcare reform act that would pay for healthcare for those over 65. However, as was the case in 1965 and as is the case with Obama’s attempted healthcare reform, opposition forces, led by special interest groups and insurance companies, prevented the vision from being realised in its truest form.

When Obama announced his plans for a “Medicare for all”, a policy born out of a state level bill that passed in Massachusetts – of which future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was Governor of at the time – it was clear that this would not be a bill that would merely walk through Congress. In reality it is not particularly surprising that Republicans expressed opposition: it would involve but not be limited to requiring insurance companies to accept all applicants and charge a flat rate, regardless of sex or pre-existing medical conditions. Few could imagine however, the sheer effort that would be exerted by both the proponents and opponents of the bill, including 60-hour Senate negotiations and millions of dollars in advertisements.

All things considered, it was an incredible display of American politics in action with a bitter-sweet result: cheap insurance became available, but at roughly a 49% mark-up over what was planned. It was a landmark bill, and would allow for roughly 94% of non-elderly to be covered by insurance, but it came at a heavy price: throughout negotiation, the Republican party began to amass behind the Minority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who would create a unified Republican party around the notion of blocking and filibustering the Healthcare bill at any costs. This idea of blocking bills instead of compromising would eventually snowball and extend to encompass the Republican party’s tactics for the rest of the Obama administration; an approach that McConnell himself has paid dearly for: he is currently the most unpopular representative in the Senate.

All things considered,  it was an incredible display of American politics in action with a bitter-sweet result

The 112th Congress would mark the beginning of “No” politics, with debt ceiling, government shut-down and fiscal cliff crises hallmarking the new and improved (sarcasm) style of American Politics; Democrats propose a notion of increase to some form of government purview, be it greater spending or security, Republicans rebut with “no”. The Republicans weren’t wholly unjustified however, as increased government spending was in 2011 reaching worrying levels, and healthy compromises to R&D spending was actually reached amongst the chaos of fiscal cliffs and partisan politics. The most significant event of the 112th Congress’s tenure however would come in the form of a School Shooting in Connecticut, where twenty school children aged between six and seven would be gunned down by Adam Lanza, who would shoot himself on scene. The tragedy reduced Obama to physical tears, and sparked a debate that is now at the forefront of American politics: the 2nd Amendment’s “Right to Bear Arms”.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting (and the subsequent multiple others that followed), the GOP would take a backseat as the NRA became the new opposition on these matters. Their Vice-President, Wayne LaPierre, would lead the defence against Obama’s attempted reforms, citing violent media as the reasons behind shootings, as they ‘portray life as a joke and they play murder — portray murder as a way of life’. The Republicans would become the NRA’s legislative wing, blocking all attempts for reform. In fact, the last meaningful gun legislation in the United States was in 2005 with the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which would protect gun manufacturers for being held liable for negligence – nothing significant to the movement towards a safer country.

This is all too revealing of American traditional Constitutional obstinacy gone wrong, and how money can truly buy political favour in politics; the NRA today have effectively managed to become a political party, using both potential future donations as leverage to twist the knife into Republican moderates whilst also creating numerous advertisements against Obama and gun legislation to drum up “grassroots support”.

On the topic of grassroots and money, it seems only fair to mention the Tea Party, a quintessential thorn to the Obama Presidency that can’t be ignored. Responsible for giving Obama hell from the Healthcare negotiations right up to the present day where moderate Republicans are drowning in a sea of vehement disgust for high taxes and government intervention, the Tea Party have turned traditional American politics upside down.

Movements such as the Tea Party and the NRA are explicitly linked by the concept of “astroturfing”, where an initially appearing grassroots movement is in actuality an organisation shadow funded by ex-GOP donors distraught at the Democrats and seemingly Obama’s very existence. The Carthage Foundation, set up by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and modelled after the Hannibal’s siege of Rome that failed after the aristocrats of Carthage failed to support him fully (the allusion is all too obvious) – aided by Charles Koch, poured millions into the Tea Party. This, combined with an unpopular congress and a huge national debt that made up about 70% of GDP by 2009 has made them not only an extremely potent opposition, but also a very easy one to swallow as well.

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A Tea Party Protest in Hartford, CT

Despite this negativity however, positives of Obama’s second term are numerous, including the repeal of many laws infringing on civil Rights, such as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act” and the “Defense of Marriage Act”, as well as ending his tenure with unemployment at 4.9%, which in 2009 was more than double that figure. These are all incredible achievements, and illustrate a potential for real progress in amongst the quagmire of the US political system in its current state. But therein lies the overarching shadowy behemoth behind these achievements; Obama leaves office haunted by the knowledge that he could not fulfil his promises for real Change, and if anything, politics in his tenure (but not necessarily on his watch) has taken major steps back in the compromise and discussion department. Looking at the current presidential candidates, this becomes all too clear; a demagogue not fit to lead, and an unpopular senator associated with everything wrong with American politics.

As with every President, Obama has spent eight years attempting to produce a vision of the United States into a reality. It has been an administration characterised by landmark bills and a step towards a more progressive America.  Yet, it will also a be an administration plagued with frustration that it could not get more done, and although opposition will always be able to score easier victories than those in power, it is fair to say Obama did not and could not prepare for the sheer size and tenacity of his enemies, who in many cases out-played him, in part thanks to Obama being unable or unwilling to tackle them head on. Leaving office with a 58% approval rating, extremely high given his eight-year tenure and the partisanship that has followed, the true impact of his Presidency will, like a good wine, mature with age.


Featured image courtesy of: Pete Souza (White House)
Second image courtesy of: Pete Souza (White House)
Third image courtesy of: Sage Ross

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