Obama’s legacy: the promises, shortcomings and fights to come

A verdict on the president’s major achievements across eight pivotal years in the White House, from a panel of Guardian US writers

by Oliver Milman, Spencer Ackerman, Ed Pilkington, Lois Beckett, Dominic Rushe, Molly Redden, Jamiles Lartey, Julian Borger and Jessica Glenza


In Chicago’s Grant Park, after winning the presidential election on 4 November 2008, Barack Obama looked out at the faces of some of the estimated 240,000 people who had come in person to hail his historic night.

Millions around the world meanwhile watched on television – many, to varying degrees, caught up in the excitement of “yes we can” and in sharing his message of hope that, while perhaps bound to ultimately fall short of expectations, was strong enough to win a second term in 2012.

As Donald Trump prepares to succeed him as US president later in January – a turn of events few could have predicted on that heady night in Chicago – we asked Guardian US specialist news writers to weigh up the Obama presidency: what did he achieve in various key areas of policy? And will it endure?

The economy

Eight years after President Obama’s inauguration, stock markets are at record highs; the unemployment rate, at 4.6%, is the lowest it has been in a decade; and house prices have risen 23%, recovering from their biggest crash in living memory.

By those measures, the US should be celebrating the economic record of the man who inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression. And yet his successor, Trump, was elected on a wave of economic populism and a promise to “Make America Great Again” that suggests large numbers of people are not feeling a change they can believe in despite all these rosy numbers.

When Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, unemployment stood at 7.6%. As the recession swept people out of jobs across the country that number rose, reaching 10% in October 2009.

But while Obama can rightly champion the 11m jobs created under his leadership, other statistics point to one reason why people wanted change: the labor force participation rate – the number of people in work or actively looking for it – has reached a low unseen since the 1970s. Why fewer people are looking for work is a subject of much debate. It may be demographics, or baby boomers ageing out of the workforce; or it may be people simply giving up on finding suitable work. Much of the recovery in jobs has been in the service industry or healthcare; manufacturing jobs are still disappearing overseas or making way for robots. As a result, wage growth has been flat throughout Obama’s presidency.

September 2014: protesters demanding higher wages and unionization for fast food workers block traffic in New York City.

September 2014: protestors demanding higher wages and unionization for fast food workers block traffic in New York City.  Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The US economy has avoided yet another cycle of boom and bust under Obama, but growth has been anemic. That said, the economy bounced back from the recession stronger and faster than its counterparts in Europe, after avoiding the austerity measures initially so popular across that continent. Obama also saw off the possibility of another major crisis in the financial sector with tough new rules on Wall Street in the Dodd-Frank Act.

But for all its laudable achievements, Obama’s economic legacy has left too many people feeling underpaid and insecure. Now that Trump is promising to free the forces of capitalism once more – axing Dodd-Frank and cutting regulations – faster times may be ahead. But we all know what follows boom. Perhaps history will be kinder to Obama’s economic legacy than US voters. Dominic Rushe


Climate change

Barack Obama has been alluded to as America’s “first climate president”, but it is a mantle he only seemed to hunger for in the final stage of his presidency. His two election campaigns made scant mention of climate change, and yet he leaves the White House insisting the world faces no greater threat than it. The dying embers of Obama’s presidency have been used to make up for lost time.

The final flurry of action was significant. The Paris climate accord, the first comprehensive deal to lower emissions across 196 nations, was made possible through Obama’s cajoling of China to come on board. The deal, while still imperfect, was signed and ratified within a year. The task remains daunting but the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen have been banished.

April 2015: visiting Everglades national park on Earth Day to discuss climate change.

April 2015: visiting Everglades national park on Earth Day to discuss climate change. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Domestically, Obama tried and failed to implement a cap-and-trade system to lower emissions and instead turned to direct regulation of coal-fired power plants. While the plan is tangled in the courts, other executive actions to limit methane leaks, improve vehicle fuel efficiency and get the vast federal bureaucracy to take climate change seriously have proved effective. Ultimately, market forces have helped him – the plunging cost of solar, wind and gas has helped hasten the demise of coal.

He also, just before Christmas, moved to permanently ban new oil and gas drilling in most US-owned waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, a last-ditch effort to lock in environmental protections before he hands over to Donald Trump.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt Photograph: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Obama only half-joked that he, not Teddy Roosevelt, should be known as the conservationist president. He protected more than 265m acres of land and water, more than any other commander-in-chief, including what was the world’s largest marine reserve off Hawaii.

Glaring problems remain. The Flint water crisis is just the thin edge of tolerated environmental pollution that has been allowed to fester due to years of neglect. American towns and cities are increasingly lashed by storms and floods and baked by drought due to climate change, yet there lacks a bipartisan plan to prepare the country or even admit the problem. Only so much of this can be laid at Obama’s door, although the rampant financing of overseas fossil fuel projects via the Export-Import Bank could and should have been curbed

These achievements, and faults, will find stark contrast with Trump’s administration; certainly Trump’s nominations for key positions in his cabinet that relate to climate change have prompted alarm by experts and campaigners. The president-elect has threatened to tear down almost all of Obama’s climate action, which now appears vulnerable. How far Trump, and his fellow Republicans, follow through with this remains to be seen, but climate change is undoubtably one area where Obama won’t relish being able to say “I told you so.” Oliver Milman


June 2015: the supreme court upholds Obama’s healthcare reforms.

June 2015: the supreme court upholds Obama’s healthcare reforms. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Healthcare, and Americans’ lack of it, was a defining issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. Because there was no government-run health plan in America, people without commercial health insurance were at the mercy of the world’s most expensive health system.

Health issues caused roughly half of bankruptcy filings. Cancer patients were dropped from insurance because of lifetime benefit caps. People were locked out of the market because of “pre-existing conditions” such as acne. Catastrophic insurance seemed not to cover catastrophes. Financial ruin, for many, was one diagnosis away.

Obama campaigned on a platform of “universal” health insurance in hopes of passing a single-payer option, like other programs in Europe. What Congress instead approved was a compromise between government and industry: Americans would be required to buy health insurance, delivering new and healthy customers to the industry. But the industry had to drop some of its most hated practices such as lifetime benefit caps, denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and selling shoddy insurance for catastrophic accidents.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, was shepherded through a Democrat-controlled Congress in the first half of Obama’s term. It was the first social safety net created in more than 50 years. The law was a legacy-maker. Or a “big fucking deal”, as Vice-President Joe Biden was overheard describing it.


Joe Biden’s comments to Obama as they announced Obamacare

The ACA expanded Medicaid, the government’s health insurance for the poor. Taxes on the rich improved Medicare, the government-run program for the elderly. And federally subsidized state marketplaces provided a transparency for individuals and small businesses to compare insurance, and purchase it at subsidized rates. Together, the changes provided health insurance to 22 million Americans.

To pay for popular provisions, the law requires Americans to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty, and controversially expanded contraception coverage for women. All this, plus pushing the bill through a Democrat-controlled Congress, outraged Republicans.

Congressional opponents attempted to dismantle the law in the US supreme court, and passed dozens of repeal laws. But at no time have threats to the law been greater than now. Trump campaigned to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, and his party now controls Congress and the White House. His pick for secretary of health, Tom Price, ardently opposed the ACA when in Congress.

As Obama leaves office, new data shows that people are signing up for insurancemore than ever before, though the health system he helped create is still imperfect. An opioid epidemic leaves more than 30,000 dead each year; the public is outraged at prescription drug price hikes; and companies can still shift thousands of dollars onto consumers in the forms of co-payments and deductibles.

But if Republicans make good on promises to repeal the ACA, Americans could be in for a fast, painful, health policy education. Jessica Glenza

Foreign policy

Obama’s foreign policy was sanctified before it had properly begun. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize nine months into his presidency, at a time when his main achievements had been aspirational speeches about the Middle East and nuclear proliferation. It was hard to escape the suspicion the new president was made a premature Nobel laureate chiefly for not being George W Bush.

Obama reflects on Syria at farewell press conference: ‘I always feel responsible’ READ MORE

Obama’s attitude to dealing with the rest of the world was conceived as the antithesis of what had come before. It drew heavily on a lesson of the Iraq invasion – that US military interventions, fuelled by hubris and ignorance, can make fraught situations abroad far worse.

If the Obama Doctrine had a subtitle, it was: “Don’t Do Stupid Shit”. He had his officials repeat the phrase in scores of briefings and on at least one occasion, on a foreign trip in 2014, the president is said to have got the White House press corps to repeat the words after him, like pupils in a particularly sluggish elementary school class.

After the Bush years it had a reassuring ring to it, and as a doctrine it had its successes.

The decision to treat Iran not as a monolithic embodiment of evil but as a complex society with a strong pragmatic bent led ultimately to the July 2015 agreement in Vienna, by which Tehran accepted strict limits on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. It was helped by some lucky timing – the election of President Hassan Rouhani in July 2015 – and it has weaknesses and critics, but it remains one of the most significant diplomatic achievements of a generation.