We’re already caught up in how terrible the Trump presidency is, but over the next four years, it will be important to remember just how bad the Obama presidency was. When overcome with frustration at the current administration, I would urge readers to come back to this post and remember that the last president was also quite terrible. In his farewell speech, Obama tried to make the argument for his presidency’s accomplishments, but many of them were simply court cases that were decided while he was president, or decisions that were nice but had little real policy impact.
There have been plenty of reflections on the Obama presidency, but I think a high level overview of everything Obama did would put in perspective just how awful he’s been, especially as we experience the incompetency and horrible policy decisions of the current administration. I’ve done this by letter grades A through F.
Iran Nuclear Deal
So…there was only one thing I could give an A to. Even this A is very hesitant. We did give up a lot for this deal–the Iranian government is pretty awful and by unfreezing their assets, they got access to very large amounts of money. However, I don’t think there was much else to do. Unless Republicans actually wanted to declare war on Iran, this seems like the only way to stop them from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s nuclear program will be prohibited from refining any uranium for 15 years, and this was accomplished without any military intervention whatsoever. That’s pretty excellent. Moreover, the average citizens of Iran matter as well and it is somewhat unfair to punish them with high inflation and economic hardship because their authoritarian government is irresponsible. Cato expands more here.
One of the most important accomplishments is that Obama’s administration worked to pass several free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. He also tried to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Free Trade Area, although he could have really pushed harder on these initiatives. Obama didn’t do a great job making the case for free trade and his signature deal was ultimately a failure; honestly, a B is generous here, and is more of a function of the importance of free trade more so than Obama’s actual impact. Also worth noting is that his rhetoric while campaigning was pretty vigorously anti-trade, so he should be commended for changing his mind on this.
Obama ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but was still on the record as anti-gay marriage as late as 2012. Sure, public opinion on gay marriage shifted rapidly, but Obama basically waited until it was 50-50 to switch to the right side on this; the Libertarian Party has been on board with gay marriage since the 70s. He should also be applauded for essentially not getting in the way of the court case. I know that’s a low bar, but he could have fought it and tried to keep the DOMA. The other issue is that while this is excellent, the impact of gay marriage legalization is somewhat limited to people who can take advantage of it.
The Cuban embargo was imposed over 50 years ago in a bid to quickly end Castro’s dictatorship on the island. It failed. 25 years after the Soviet Union had disintegrated, a president finally spent some political capital to remove an outdated institution. Trade embargoes harm populations, and trade embargoes on a country that has been crushed by horrific socialist economic policies are even more harmful. The president cannot remove the embargo, but everything he can do without Congress, Obama has done on this issue. Trade can bring countries together, and Obama took steps to build those bridges. If he had actually gotten the embargo lifted, this would be an A.
And that’s it for the entirely positive! Marijuana’s big progress had basically nothing to do with Obama, and Obama actually started out fighting it, performing more federal raids on state legal marijuana dispensaries in his first term than Bush. Eventually the administration did make the decision not to continue attempts to enforce marijuana laws with federal police forces. While kind of obvious and not very impressive, this may turn out to be something we remember fondly during the long night of the Jeff Sessions era.
As an incredibly brief overview, the ACA is flawed because it does nothing to address the fundamental problem with the healthcare system: a lack of market forces. The laws of supply and demand create incentives for lower cost and higher quality care. Plastic surgery and lasik are not covered by insurance and thus must compete on price and quality and over time these areas have seen remarkable improvement with prices remaining the same or even dropping.
Our insurance system insulates both consumers and providers of healthcare from the market prices; consumers don’t pay for care, they don’t pay different prices at different places, and they often don’t even buy the insurance that does pay for care. Instead their employers pay for the thing that pays for their healthcare. And sometimes, if you go to a hospital, the insurance doesn’t really pay for care either, it pays the hospital in obfuscated and arcane ways, which in turn provides the doctors and actual equipment needed to provide care. It’s a complete mess.
The ACA did do some nice things like allow people with pre-existing conditions and people who didn’t get their healthcare through their employees and poor people to get health insurance. This is great, and any healthcare reform should strive to do that. However, by not addressing the price issue, they doomed these reforms. Things have sputtered along, but healthcare costs have kept rising, and now insurers are stuck with a disproportionate amount of sick people, needing to raise prices, which only drives away more healthy people. The death spiral was a predictable consequence (and indeed I did predict this in 2010 in a blog attached to my real name and thus will not be linking to here). Obamacare was not a poorly intended bill, but it was an incredible missed opportunity to actually fix the healthcare system. The only reason I didn’t give it a lower grade was because the system was so bad already, it’s hard to argue it was made that much worse.
Obama took steps to reduce climate change. Even if you’re not concerned about the most dire predictions of global warming, that’s probably a net benefit. He also was able to get China to sign onto the Paris Agreement. While not having legal punishments for countries who break their promises, it’s a solid negotiating achievement. However, Obama also implemented, largely by executive order, regulations on coal plants in the US that will have very little impact on carbon emissions. It’s also not at all market oriented, and therefore not particularly economically efficient. Additionally, in his first year in office, Obama had a chance to try and pass a more economically efficient carbon credit trading bill. Assuming climate change is as dire a threat as many say it is (I’m admittedly less worried), it seems to be a poor decision to spend political capital on other bills that did pass, especially something that was as flawed as Obamacare.
The employment rate is lower than it has been in a long time, but the problem is this graph. Labor force participation has plummeted from 65% in the depths of the recession to around 62% now. The last time it was this low was before 1980. Since the current labor is around 160 million people, and we are at 62% participation, that means the cohort of the working age population is about 258 million. In 2009, unemployment was around 9%. With a labor force of 155 million people, that’s almost 14 million unemployed. Today with an unemployment rate of 4.7%, that’s only 7.5 million unemployed. However, looking at the people not in the labor force in 2009 there were 83.5 million not working but not unemployed. In 2017, there are 98 million not working but not unemployed. so unemployment dropped by almost 7 million, yet more than twice that many more people were staying out of the labor force entirely. The economy isn’t in free fall, but it’s not knocking it out of the park either, and this is 8 years after the recession. This isn’t entirely Obama’s fault, as the Federal Reserve is much more responsible for economic success overall, but the things Obama did have control over were abject failures: fiscal restraint, entitlement reform, and deregulation.
Obama’s legacy on immigration liberalization is mixed. Unfortunately, as this is one of the more important issues in improving the world, a mixed record is disappointing. Obama deported more people than George Bush and he failed to pass any sort of comprehensive reform bill. Obviously, he couldn’t pass bills on everything, but this would have been a pretty important area to do so. Obama did however create an executive order delaying deportations for millions of illegal immigrants. This was a bit odd constitutionally, but with so many illegal immigrants in the United States, it would be impossible to deport them all anyway. Obama’s order simply prioritizes some over others, protecting children and parents of American citizens. This was certainly a good policy, but unfortunately Obama’s legacy in this area should have been so much better.
Obama is the first president to be at war for every day of his presidency. From Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and Syria, to undeclared wars and bombings in Yemen and Pakistan, we have entered a new era of endless war. Libya is specifically horrifying: Obama chose to involve the American military in Libya unilaterally. He explicitly did not get authorization from Congress, and in fact Congress explicitly voted against a resolution to authorize his military involvement after the fact. That is a terrifying precedent to give Donald Trump.
The only reason this category is not an F is because of Obama’s continued reluctance to expand the US involvement in Syria. Of course, he did this in the worst possible way, by drawing a line in the sand and then backing down from it but it’s undeniable that a larger American role in Syria would have involved the US in one of the largest, bloodiest civil wars of the last decade. Of course, we have not even touched the fact that American troops are in Iraq 14 years after the invasion, and many US contractors remain in Afghanistan 16 years after that invasion. Obama has still institutionalized war in way never before seen.
I mean wow. How did we get here? If you want all the citatations, this Mashable article is a good start. The United States government engages in broad sweeps of Americans’ phone records through unconstitutional general warrants issued via a secret court that had no defense team, no oversight, and has only rejected a handful of warrants in its entire history. The NSA also had a program for collecting data on foreigners and Americans from major technology companies, as well as a massive database storing all of that information for later search. Every available method of siphoning data is apparently being used. The NSA also invested heavily in ways to break internet encryption standards. They even paid $10 million to RSA to get them to set their default encryption algorithm to one that was fundamentally broken in one of their products. Most impressively, it turns out that the big phone record collection the NSA was conducting in total secret, that had no oversight and Senators couldn’t even talk about, it’s illegal according to a federal appellate court.
It was such a disaster that Congress eventually tried to pass a reform bill to fix Section 215 of the Patriot Act which is what the courts cited as the justification for these general warrants. Yet in the end, that bill was watered down to the point of uselessness, with Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and Rand Paul all voting against it due to its lack of real power. In fact, the bill extended the Patriot Act for several years. Obama’s legacy in this area is a total disaster, and he leaves an out of control intelligence agency with no oversight in the hands of a petty authoritarian. The NSA (and all agencies they share information with) knows intimate details about all of our lives, our communication patterns, and our digital existences. As we’ve written before, this is not good.
Reason does a good job tearing the Obama administration apart over the “most transparent administration in history” line. Again, this area is such a disaster there are too many things to cover. We can start by discussing how just a month or two prior to the Edward Snowden revealing everything we talked about in the last section, DNI Clapper blatantly lied to a Senate committee about the government’s spying capability. Obama himself has hardly given any interviews to the press. His administration has had more than double the Espionage Act charges against whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Which is especially concerning since none of these were acts of espionage! These were legitimate problems that were hidden from view from the public, brought to light by people doing the right thing. But the secrecy was pervasive throughout the administration; regular employees were banned from talking with reporters, a record number of FOIA requests were denied and at least 1 in 3 were denied improperly (which was only ever found out if challenged), and, of course, the government had a secret extrajudicial kill list.
Conor Friedersdorf writes that in Obama’s first year in office, his administration conducted over 100 drone strikes…in Pakistan. Quick recap: Congress voted for an Authorization of the Use of Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks, which allowed the government to invade Afghanistan. Congress also voted to go into Iraq. Pakistan is not one of these countries, yet apparently Obama was carrying out an entire proxy war via drone strikes. In 2010, those strikes only intensified, yet it was worse than that; to cloud the truth, the Obama administration counted all military age males in the vicinity of these strikes as combatants, regardless if they were civilians or not. There were eventually reforms to this process, and the number of civilian casualties per strikes started to go down, but this is but the smallest of victories. In waging these undeclared wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the Obama administration concocted an absurd “legal” process to target specific individuals without a trial, including American citizens. We are talking about a logistically planned and funded protocol for murdering American citizens overseen only by the President. This process eventually ended up killing a civilian by accident, a 16 year old American. This is unjustifiable. No one was ever held accountable for these lawless actions, and the president retains power to murder at will, which he has promptly done, murdering the deceased teenager’s sister this past week. Someone get this guy a Nobel Peace Prize.
This section condenses much of what Gene Healy says in his excellent piece “Goodbye, Obama”. The powers the Obama administration seized and expanded are vast. While initially running against “dumb wars” and unauthorized wars, Obama became the first president to be at war for every day of his presidency. He undertook drone strikes in countries where he had authorization to be in, he even undertook an entire military action in Libya when Congress had expressly voted against supporting it. He continued to use the 2001 AUMF six years after the death of Osama bin Laden and against a group (the Islamic State) that essentially didn’t exist on 9/11. And the Trump administration has continued this justification. His drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, and even American citizens. He has created a secret kill list with no oversight from courts or Congress. He has ascended to new heights of secrecy and prosecution of whistleblowers, and he has thwarted attempts at transparency at every turn. Without public knowledge, the ultimate oversight of the democratic process is destroyed as well. And none of this is even touching areas outside national security where Obama also took unilateral presidential orders to new and creative areas. These include instituting new immigration law by executive order when it was bogged down in Congress, creating new overtime labor rules, adding new environmental regulations on power plants, national school curriculum requirements, and even unilaterally amending Obamacare. Healy writes “More than any recent president, Obama has embraced and, to some extent, legitimized the anti-constitutional theory that congressional inaction is a legitimate source of presidential power.”
Obama’s legacy is the Imperial Presidency. Simply by occupying the same office as Obama, Donald Trump inherits vast powers, legislative, military, and judicial. Americans’ private information is available, their lives at risk without the need for due process, the very laws of the country can be changed via the presidential pen. Barack Obama has accomplished much during his presidency, but most of his important projects have ended in utter disaster, and the manner of their attempted accomplishment has greatly imperiled the separation of powers and constitutional restraint. While itg is quite possible, even likely, that the Trump presidency will be worse still, we cannot forget the incredible cost and horrific events of the Obama legacy.
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