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.