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