Scorecard For A Departing President: Assessing Obama's Successes And Shortcomings

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 10, 2017 2:29 pm

President Obama will address the nation for what's likely to be the last time Tuesday night. He says the prime-time address from his adopted hometown of Chicago will be a chance to celebrate the successes of the past eight years and to offer some thoughts on where the nation goes from here.

The celebration could be short-lived. While Obama can rightfully boast about a vastly improved economy and other changes during his tenure, the man who's taking his place in the Oval Office has promised to reverse much of what Obama accomplished. And while the president remains personally popular, his Democratic Party is weaker than it was eight years ago, reducing its chances of protecting Obama's legacy.

The president outlined the highlights of that legacy in an open letter to the American people last week. "By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started," he wrote.

Here's a scorecard of some of the measures the president cited, along with some he left off:


The economy

"An economy that was shrinking at more than 8 percent is now growing at more than 3 percent," Obama wrote in his letter. "Businesses that were bleeding jobs unleashed the longest streak of job creation on record."

President Obama took office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He leaves with an unemployment rate less than half of what it was during the depths of the downturn.

U.S. employers have added more than 11 million jobs since Obama took office (and more than 15 million since the job market bottomed out in early 2010). After nearly a decade of stagnant wages, median household income jumped sharply in 2015. And last year's wage growth was the strongest of the recovery.

"There's the sort of rule about how you're supposed to go, leave the forest nicer than you found it," White House economist Jason Furman said last week. "President Obama is definitely handing over an economy in much, much better shape than the economy he inherited."

The Recovery Act Obama pushed through Congress less than a month after taking office was roundly and repeatedly mocked by Republicans as a failure. But a majority of economists surveyed by the University of Chicago agree that the stimulus cushioned the blow from the recession. The Federal Reserve also took dramatic action to shore up the sagging economy. And the president's controversial auto rescue (along with a bridge loan from the Bush administration) saved an industry that rebounded to enjoy record sales.

"Income gains were actually larger for households at the bottom and the middle [in 2015] than those at the top," Obama notes. "We've actually begun the long task of reversing inequality."

That could change, however, in a Trump administration. The president-elect has promised a tax overhaul that would give the biggest tax breaks to those at the top of the income ladder. He's also likely to unwind an Obama administration rule designed to make millions more low-wage workers eligible for overtime pay.


Health care

"Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, another 20 million American adults know the financial security and peace of mind that comes with health insurance," Obama wrote in his letter. "For the first time ever, more than 90 percent of Americans are insured — the highest rate ever."

The president's signature health care law has expanded insurance coverage and broadened protections for those who were already insured. It has also encouraged changes in the way medical payments are made — to reward quality rather than quantity of care. And it has coincided with slower growth in insurance premiums for the majority of Americans who get their insurance through an employer.

But the law — which passed with no Republican support seven years ago — remains deeply controversial. People buying insurance on the government-run exchanges saw premium increases averaging 25 percent this year. And Republicans have vowed to make repeal of Obamacare their first order of business as soon as they control both Congress and the White House, which they will now.


The military

"We've drawn down from nearly 180,000 troops in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan to just 15,000," Obama wrote.

Obama first ran for the White House determined to end the war in Iraq while refocusing attention on Afghanistan. He ordered the successful special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But an early troop surge in Afghanistan had only limited success in taming the Taliban. While the number of American troops in harm's way has since been greatly reduced, Obama had to backtrack on plans to withdraw from Afghanistan altogether. And critics say the precipitous American troop withdrawal from Iraq left a vacuum there which gave way to the rise of the Islamic State. In 2014, Obama was forced to send some troops back to Iraq to address the threat from ISIS.

Obama has steadfastly resisted large-scale intervention in Syria's civil war. Although the U.S. is the largest contributor of humanitarian relief, a wave of refugees from Syria has had a destabilizing effect throughout Europe. It's possible that Obama's abrupt decision in 2013 not to enforce his own "red line" against chemical weapons emboldened Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well his Russian sponsor Vladimir Putin, who illegally annexed Crimea the following year.


Terrorism

"Over the past eight years, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland," Obama wrote.

Sustained pressure on al-Qaida and ISIS, along with diligent counterterrorism efforts, have prevented another spectacular, Sept. 11-style attack. But as Obama himself has acknowledged, it doesn't take much planning or sophistication for violent extremists to bring about carnage. It was shortly after a deadly, ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino that Donald Trump called for a ban on foreign Muslims entering the country. That proposal later morphed into "extreme vetting."

But the country has proved vulnerable to "lone wolves" inspired online by extremists. It has seen those attacks and has had difficulty addressing the problem.


Foreign policy

"Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran's nuclear weapons program [and] opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba," Obama wrote. "Almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago."

The Iran nuclear deal, which grants Iran sanctions relief in exchange for strict limits and monitoring of its nuclear program, is one of the signature diplomatic achievements of the Obama administration — the result of painstaking negotiation involving half a dozen allies and adversaries. The deal remains controversial in this country and in Israel. Trump campaigned against it, but top scientists have urged him not to unravel it, saying the agreement has "dramatically reduced the risk" of Iran quickly developing a nuclear weapon.

Obama's diplomatic thaw with Cuba also broke new ground, ending more than half a century of official isolation. Cuba has been slow to match the U.S. in liberalizing trade and travel restrictions. But the White House says its overture to Cuba has also helped improve relations with the rest of the Western hemisphere.

America's image in Europe and Asia has generally improved during Obama's time in office, but it has suffered recently in Israel and the Middle East. Administration efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians went nowhere. And the sweeping trade deal at the heart of Obama's push to raise America's profile in the Pacific stalled amid political opposition here at home.


Energy and climate

"Our dependence on foreign oil has been cut by more than half and our production of renewable energy has more than doubled. In many places across the country, clean energy from the wind is now cheaper than dirtier sources of energy and solar now employs more Americans than coal mining in jobs that pay better than average and can't be outsourced."

Domestic oil and natural gas production have surged on Obama's watch, largely as a result of the fracking revolution. In 2015, the U.S. relied on imported oil for less than a quarter of its total petroleum needs, the lowest level since 1970. Wind and solar power have seen rapid growth during the past eight years, though they still account for less than 6 percent of overall electricity generation. Coal and natural gas account for about 33 percent each, while nuclear power contributes about 20 percent.

President Obama led an international effort to cut carbon pollution, resulting in the successful Paris Climate Agreement. But U.S. participation in that deal could be jeopardized by the incoming administration. Trump has tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate skeptic with strong ties to the fossil-fuel industry, to head the Environmental Protection Administration. Trump and Pruitt have both criticized the power-plant rules at the center of Obama's climate efforts.

Obama also imposed more stringent energy efficiency standards for cars and appliances, though those could be relaxed by the incoming administration.


Education

"The high school graduation rate is now 83 percent — the highest on record — and we've helped more young people graduate from college than ever before."

Obama boosted Pell Grants and made it easier for many college graduates to repay student loans. But the cost of a college education continues to rise faster than inflation.

Obama was unable to sell Congress on his idea of universal preschool for low- and middle-income 4-year-olds, although preschool offerings have expanded at the state level. Long-term achievement gaps between white and minority students persist.

Obama also controversially, through stimulus funds, instituted the Common Core standards. His Education Department dangled millions of dollars to states to adopt more rigorous testing and teacher standards, which put a lot of pressure — and introduced a lot of confusion — into the system. Despite Common Core being developed by Republican governors, it became a target for Tea Party conservatives and pro-union liberals. Proponents will argue that it introduced data-based accountability on teachers, though teachers, especially those teaching the most difficult populations, would argue they weren't always given the supports they needed.

Obama also controversially expanded charter schools, and the book is still out on their success. Obama also changed the conversation on higher education with a focus on community colleges that hadn't been seen before. Scott Jaschik of Insider Higher Ed told PBS NewsHour that even though Obama didn't get free tuition for community colleges, "Eight years ago, people were not talking about the idea of free college. Now they are."


Culture

"We've also worked to make the changing face of America more fair and more just ... repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and advancing the cause of civil rights, women's rights, and LGBT rights."

With help from Congress and the Pentagon, gay and lesbian members of the military can now serve openly, and their spouses receive equal benefits. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. And the first bill signed into law by Obama made it easier for women to sue their employers for unequal pay. But a push last year by the Justice and Education Departments to protect the rights of transgender students was halted by a federal judge.

In addition to protecting vast tracts of land and water as national monuments, Obama has also used his power to protect smaller parcels, commemorating Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez and the Stonewall Inn, where the modern gay-rights movement began.


Unfinished business

"For all that we've achieved, there's still so much I wish we'd been able to do, from enacting gun safety measures to protect more of our kids and our cops from mass shootings like Newtown, to passing commonsense immigration reform that encourages the best and brightest from around the world to study, stay, and create jobs in America."

Immigration reform and gun-safety legislation were two of the president's priorities in 2013, after he won re-election. Gun-safety legislation to expand background checks stalled in the Senate. The Senate did pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul, but it never got a vote in the House. Obama did use his executive powers to give young people brought to the country illegally as children a temporary reprieve from deportation.

Obama also failed in his effort to raise the federal minimum wage (although 18 states and the District of Columbia have done so since 2013). And while the president has used his commutation power to shorten the prison sentences of more than 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders, his push for more comprehensive criminal-justice reform has stalled.

Congress also blocked Obama's bid to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although the prison population has been substantially reduced on his watch, from 242 when Obama took office to around 50 today.


Politics

President Obama's personal popularity helped mask a sharp decline in the Democratic Party nationally over the past eight years. Republicans will soon control not only Congress and the White House, but more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers, and 32 out of 50 governor's offices.

The Democrats who follow Obama have a deep hole to dig themselves out of. But the outgoing president has remained upbeat. Shortly after the November election, he reminded reporters that, in 2004, when he delivered the speech that launched his national political career, Democrats lost the White House and were completely out of power in Washington. Two years later, they won back Congress, and four years later, he was sworn in as president.

"The running thread through my career has been the notion that when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together in collective effort, things change for the better," Obama said in his weekly radio address over the weekend. "It's easy to lose sight of that truth in the day-to-day back-and-forth of Washington and our minute-to-minute news cycles. But remember that America is a story told over a longer time horizon, in fits and starts, punctuated at times by hardship, but ultimately written by generations of citizens who've somehow worked together, without fanfare, to form a more perfect union."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.