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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


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.

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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.

March 2016: the Obamas react along with Cuban president Raúl Castro at an exhibition baseball game in Havana.

March 2016: the Obamas react along with the Cuban president Raul Castro at an exhibition baseball game in Havana: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The rapprochement with Cuba over the past year also represented the undoing of “stupid shit”, by ending a policy of isolation that had failed to meet its objective over more than a half-century.

But it was predictably a thin reed on which to build a doctrine. By the end of the Obama era the mantra had become a burden, thickening into a rationale for hesitancy and paralysis. Other governments and leaders did stupid things, acting out of hubris, ambition or weakness, making the rest of the world turn to Washington for a response. In such circumstances, inaction also counted as an action.

Obama fudged the response to the Libyan civil war, agreeing to intervene but “leading from behind”. Mindful of the mistakes in Iraq, the US went to the United Nations for backing for military action, but then – in Moscow’s eyes at least – abused the mandate by pursuing regime change. Qaddafi was toppled and then little was done to save Libya from a descent into turmoil.

The Libyan intervention further poisoned the relationship with Russia, helping produce deadlock in the UN security council over the biggest crisis of the Obama era: the Syrian conflict. The US dabbled ineffectually in helping the rebel cause, hobbled by uncertainty over the groups it was dealing with. Most fatefully, the president laid down a “red line” for the use of military force in the case of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and then did not deliver on the ultimatum when Bashar al-Assad poisoned his people in August 2013. The climbdown did lead to the removal of most of the Syrian chemical arsenal, but it left Assad emboldened and a vacuum for Vladimir Putin to fill, with murderous consequences for the Syrian people.

With a death toll approaching half a million, Syria overshadows Obama’s foreign policy legacy just as Iraq darkened George Bush’s. For a US president, the sins of omission can weigh as heavily as the sins of commission. Julian Borger

National security

May 2011: in the White House situation room receiving an update on the mission by Seal Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden.

May 2011: in the White House situation room receiving an update on the mission by Seal Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden. Photograph: Pete Souza/AP

Long after Obama leaves office, security scholars will debate whether the security apparatus captured his presidency or whether Obama’s agenda happened to align with their bureaucratic interests.

Obama won the White House with the most liberal national security agenda since Jimmy Carter. He campaigned on ending the Iraq war by a certain date, barring CIA torture, shuttering Guantánamo Bay and opening dialogue with traditional US adversaries. But at the same time, Obama promised an escalation of the Afghanistan war and violating Pakistani sovereignty to pursue Osama bin Laden. He voted for a massive surveillance expansion, while his closest counterterrorism adviser was John Brennan, a senior CIA official at the dawn of the torture program.

Obama effectively offered to trade an end to the Iraq war for continuation of the war on terrorism, something both his liberal supporters and conservative critics elided as it fit neither the picture of Obama the liberal savior or Obama the naive peacenik.

Early in his presidency, Obama established a shaky relationship with his generals, despite giving them more than he gained. He stalled the Iraq drawdown and ordered over 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. But he withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the same year he scheduled for the Afghan escalation to end. Obama left the experience frustrated with what he considered a military establishment willing to box him into its desired outcomes. And he had an alternative.

Against the ponderous ground wars Obama considered the military to favor, Obama turned to the CIA’s drones, the NSA’s global surveillance dragnet and the secretive but violent raids of the Joint Special Operations Command. Obama permitted them to operate with minimal restriction, proliferating the physical scope of the global war on terrorism to Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Mali and Niger and the digital scope around the world. While Obama proclaimed “the tide of war is receding”, he expanded it to further shores.

Not even the NSA disclosures of Edward Snowden nor the revelations that the drone strikes had killed a 16-year old American boy prompted much clawback. By the end of his term, Obama had blessed restrictions on the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records and placed modest constraints on drone strikes. With the CIA so critical to his strategy, Obama’s reluctance to prosecute its torturers shaded into a defense of covering up the torture program.

The intelligence agencies wanted even more leeway than Obama gave them, and Donald Trump is poised to provide it. On national security, Obama, with all his progressive promise, provided more of a bridge than a barricade between the Bush and Trump eras. Spencer Ackerman


President Obama will leave behind a distinctly patchy legacy on immigration, one that veers wildly from his reputation as “deporter-in-chief” to his determined efforts to secure legal status for millions of young undocumented immigrants and their parents.

That less than flattering title has been bestowed on Obama by immigrant communities and civil rights groups dismayed by his record of removing more than 2.5 million people – more than any previous administration. The latest figures from the Pew Research Center show that in recent times the Obama administration consistently sustained rates of removals well above those effected under George W Bush.

In November 2014, Obama set out his vision for immigration authorities, pledging that federal powers would target serious criminals only. “Felons not families” was his catchy refrain. Yet the Pew figures suggest that this promise has not been kept. Throughout his years in the White House, the proportion of deportees with no criminal records has held fairly steady at about 60%.

November 2014: an audience listens to President Obama speak about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol high school in Las Vegas.

November 2014: an audience listens to President Obama speak about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol high school in Las Vegas. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama will be remembered more favorably among the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants for the rigorous efforts he made to provide many of them with legal status and work papers, even though Republican opposition in Congress prevented him from going all out for a pathway to citizenship. More than 700,000 “Dreamers” who were brought to the US as young children have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program that delays the threat of deportation for two years and allows them to come out and work in the open.

The scheme has encouraged a flourishing of political and cultural engagement among young, undocumented Hispanics, spawning a network of activism that could prove to be a crucial focal point of resistance to Trump and his hardline anti-immigrant ambitions. This aspect of Obama’s legacy is also not without its difficulties. A similar program to Daca for parents of Dreamers, Dapa (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), would have extended legal status to a further 5 million people, but it was stymied in the courts.

Obama introduced both schemes by executive order under his own presidential powers. That meant he could move swiftly and easily to secure rights for individuals who had previously been confined to the shadows, bypassing Congress. But it carries with it the seed of its own destruction. President-elect Trump will be able to undo the programs and cast them into the dustbin of history with equal speed and ease. Ed Pilkington

Crime and justice

Midway through his second term, on a sweltering July 2015 day in Philadelphia, President Obama declared his intention to make criminal justice reform a substantial part of his legacy to a crowd at the annual convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In the years since, the president has moved swiftly if subtly, sponsoring a bevy of White House forums, taskforces and initiatives aimed at changing the way the business of justice, from policing to prosecution to incarceration, gets done in the US.

Obama’s Department of Justice, under the direction of attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, has also reflected a fairly radical departure from its predecessors, pushing for the end of prison privatization in the federal system, relaxing the prosecution of drug crimes, and using its civil rights division to investigate potentially abusive police departments. It was announced, for example, last month that two of the law enforcement agencies in Kern County, California, labelled the deadliest police departments in America following a Guardian investigation, would be investigated by state authorities.

Many of Obama’s achievements in the realm of criminal justice reform owe to the fact that his presidency happened to coincide with a broad shift in national attitudes. The transpartisan consensus that began to coalesce on the problem of mass incarceration near the beginning of his presidency presented a powerful wind at Obama’s back. So, too, did the high visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement over Obama’s second term.

July 2016: demonstrators gather after marching at the Louisiana capitol to protest the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

July 2016: demonstrators gather after marching at the Louisiana capitol to protest the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Photograph: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Behind that momentum, Obama leaves office having overseen the first sustained reduction in the overall prison population in over a half-century, and has commuted more federal sentences than his last eight processors combined. Obama ended the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal facilities with an executive order, and made it illegal for most federal agencies to ask if a job applicant had been convicted of a crime as part of the broader “ban the box” movement.

On policing, the DoJ’s landmark Ferguson report following the unrest after Mike Brown was killed in August 2014 dramatically altered the scale and scope a police department investigation could be expected to have. Commentators inside and outside the DoJ have described the level of commitment in the pre-Obama and post-Obama civil rights division as “from another planet”.

Most of the criminal justice system lies squarely outside the federal scope, however. Many of Obama’s efforts in the realm functioned more to set an example for state and local government to follow than as real, concrete change. Ultimately the same diffusion of criminal justice control that limited the impact Obama could have from the White House will also limit how quickly an incoming Trump administration could slow that reform.

In elections across the country, more progressive district attorneys are increasingly winning elections, and a number of state legislatures have embraced “smart on crime” legislation that ween law enforcement off of incarceration as a typical answer to punishing non-violent offenses. Jamiles Lartey

Women, gender and LGBT rights

President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009, which opened the doors for women experiencing pay discrimination to seek legal redress. It was the first law Obama signed as president, an act of symbolism that wound up defining an important aspect of his next eight years in office. Obama repeatedly took action to level the playing field for people who have historically suffered from discrimination related to their sex or gender.

Obamacare prohibited insurers from charging women more for insurance and at the same time vastly expanded the methods of contraception available at no extra cost to millions of US women. His administration struck back at states attempting to defund Planned Parenthood. It charged the Department of Education with forcing universities to take seriously the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses, and with outlining how school districts should treat transgender students. His Department of Justice helped take on same-sex marriage bans and onerous abortion restrictions in front of the US supreme court. Obama himself became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage after he “evolved” on the topic.

June 2015: the White House marks the supreme court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

June 2015: the White House marks the supreme court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Which of these accomplishments will survive the Trump presidency? Trump has implied that he considers same-sex marriage to be settled law. But that’s about it. Republicans in Congress support legislation that would allow employers and business owners to discriminate against LGBT people, and they are preparing an unprecedented slate of anti-abortion legislation. The fate of Obamacare is uncertain, but Republicans’ blueprints for a replacement don’t preserve its anti-discrimination provisions for women or transgender people. Campus activists are fearful progress in cracking down on sexual assault could be lost. And Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, has signaled that the administration will cease to require the nation’s schools to accommodate transgender students and employers to cover contraception in their healthcare plans. Asked about the transgender restroom row issue in October, Pence said issues like it were “best resolved at the state level by the people of communities, by the standards they want to set”.

In the end, what will remain of Obama’s accomplishments might be the major cultural shifts he stood behind or helped effect. Obama used his office to burnish the legitimacy of campus activists who sought accountability for high rates of sexual violence against women and the gay- and trans-rights movements. He signed a repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell”, and under his administration the Pentagon ended the ban on women in combat positions and set out rules for allowing transgender people to serve in the military.

As Mara Keisling, the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, recently argued to the Guardian, the cultural shifts that made those milestones possible don’t simply reverse because someone new is in the White House.

“Trans people have spent decades educating their classmates and their families and their co-workers and the people they worship with about who they are,” she said. “The government can maybe take back some of the policy advancements we’ve had. But they can’t take away the dignity we’ve created for ourselves.” Molly Redden

Gun control

Obama called the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school “the worst day of my presidency”.

Before the December 2012 massacre that left 20 first-graders gunned down in their classrooms, Obama had done almost nothing on gun control. Early in his tenure, when Obama’s attorney general publicly mentioned an assault weapon ban, his chief of staff sent a blunt message: “shut the fuck up” about guns.

January 2016: wiping away tears during an event held to announce new gun control measures.

January 2016: wiping away tears during an event held to announce new gun control measures. Photgraph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuter

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama became a passionate advocate for stricter gun control laws. He used his presidential bully pulpit to help elevate gun control from a fringe issue to a central policy priority for the Democratic party. Family members of mass shooting victims said his commitment to the cause seemed personal as well as political – not just as president, but also as a father who once wept while talking about Sandy Hook at a press conference.

But Obama’s attempts to bring substantive change to America’s gun laws failed. Despite a major push from the White House in early 2013, Congress rejected even a modest attempt to expand federal requirements for background checks on gun sales, as well as a renewed ban on assault weapons. New efforts to consider gun control legislation were swiftly rejected after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016.

“President Obama did everything he could, but his Congress was kind of incapable,” said Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son, Daniel, was killed at Sandy Hook.

In the face of congressional inaction, Obama’s attempts to tighten gun regulations through executive action were often more symbolic than substantive. Even the National Rifle Association, which typically frames any gun control effort in apocalyptic terms, was sometimes underwhelmed. “This is it, really?” a NRA spokeswoman said in January 2016, when Obama tried to improve gun background checks by publicizing a new government pamphlet explaining how citizens should comply with the current law. “They’re not really doing anything.”

Obama’s last two years in offices included not only the highest-casualty mass shooting in recent American history, but also, after years of declining violence, an uptick in gun murders nationwide in 2015. Gun murders spiked to historic highs in Baltimore in 2015, then in Chicago, Obama’s hometown, which saw a 50% increase in murders and shooting incidents in 2016. The increase in the number of people murdered in Chicago last year is about equal to the toll of seven Orlando massacres.

Obama has promised to continue to work with organizations across the country on gun violence prevention after he leaves office.  Lois Beckett Contribute with guardian witness



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