By: Piotr. G.S. Schulkes
Disclaimer: The contents and opinions of this blog post do not represent the views or values of Honours Review as a publication.
Every president has defining characteristics of their presidency: Eisenhower laid the foundations for the United States’ famed interstate highway system; Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon; Carter helped negotiate the Camp David Accords. With Obama leaving the White House, his achievements will be compared to the legacies of the giants on whose foundations he has built. As the first black president, he is already in the history books. In addition to this though, Obama was also the first president to endorse same-sex marriage, the first to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, and the first president to visit Hiroshima. Obama played an important part in improving the United States’ international standing after the cumulated disasters of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and the 2008 financial collapse (Pew Global, 2016). However, despite the fact that the Obama presidency was hailed as a new step for a more united and equal America, he leaves office with a population believing the nation to be more divided than ever(Gallup, 2016). Obama’s legacy might not rank among the true greats: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, but it is a legacy which will last and a legacy to be proud of. The title of this piece was a phrase coined by Obama’s critics, but the millions of citizens who received healthcare thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the millions of LGBT-community members who can now legally marry and the thousands of troops who did not have to fight another war during his presidency have used it sincerely, and will continue to do so well into the future.
“On behalf of my mother” – Making healthcare affordable
Those were the words President Obama used when signing his healthcare reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), given the name Obamacare by Republicans, into law. The PPACA was the largest overhaul of the US healthcare system since the introduction of Medicaid in 1965. It had the goal of making health insurance more available and cheaper, while severely restricting actions by healthcare companies which many would consider unethical (Economist, 2010). Despite the fact that the United States spent 18 percent of its GDP on healthcare in 2010, five times more than the country spends on modernizing, using, and maintaining the most expensive, advanced, and powerful army the world has ever seen(World Bank, 2016), 18% of the population, or 57 million people, were uninsured in 2010 (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2016). Thanks to the ACA, this dropped to 11% in the first quarter of 2016 (Gallup, 2016). While it is clear the American healthcare system is a disastrously expensive patchwork of presidential executive orders, partisan legislation, and unequal implementation, it has been beneficial for the US economy to implement the ACA. It is often said that prevention is the best cure, and healthcare is no different. Insurance allows people to seek a doctor when complications arise without having to worry that it will bankrupt the family, which in turn means that sick people will be more likely to seek preventative care. If they did not have insurance, the same people would only visit the doctor as a last resort, leading to high costs which are passed onto the consumer in the form of increased insurance premiums for the people who do actually have coverage, as they will need to cover the costs of the uninsured. A study done by Families USA in 2009 shows that the average insured family was paying $1,000 a year for treatments for the uninsured (Families USA, 2009). In short, then, by introducing the Affordable Care Act, an additional 22 million Americans got insurance, and those already insured could avoid footing the bill for other people. Despite these benefits, the Republican-controlled congress has tried to repeal the ACA at least 60 times since 2011 (Goodman, 2016). However, even if the ACA was, by most metrics, very successful, it suffers from several major drawbacks, ranging from people losing their insurance to premiums actually becoming more expensive. The ACA requires employers to insure their workers, but for many it remains cheaper to simply keep paying the fines imposed by the government for uninsured workers than actually pay for the workers’ health insurance. This was caused by the ACA’s well-meaning 10 essential health benefit system, which forces employers to insure their employees for things they might not need, such as maternity care or addiction treatment (Healthcare.gov, 2013). Furthermore, the fact that insurance companies now have to cover pre-existing conditions, ranging from a perpetually runny nose to cancer, meant that premiums rose in order for the companies to offset their larger expenditures (Wilensky, 2015). This was also directly contrary to Obama’s often-repeated promise of “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” (Politifact, 2013).
The Affordable Care Act has been dragged through the mud and beaten to death by both parties, and both groups have valid points. As with all things political, saying a change is “good” or “bad” is both biased and plain wrong. It is not as big a disaster as the 60-plus attempts to repeal it would imply, nor is it the holy grail which some people claim it is, but it was certainly a much-needed step in the right direction.
Obama’s Middle East
The Arab Spring was a world-changing series of events which permanently changed the balance of power in the Middle East. It saw the fall of regimes in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and led to civil war in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The effects of American involvement in these countries have had wide-ranging consequences, for example the Benghazi hearings which hung around Hillary Clinton’s neck like a millstone during her presidential bid. The Obama administration was also heavily criticized for both its arming of rebels in Syria and its lack of intervention against the bombing of civilians.
The 2011 Libyan Civil War was a textbook example of Obama’s style of leadership, where the focus was on a limited goal: in this case the stated protection of civilians. Central to this goal was the Leading from Behind approach, where the US facilitates operations of its (NATO-) allies, be they France, anti-government rebels, or Qatar. This approach had three benefits for the US: it avoided another Iraq or Afghanistan, it saved money, and it ensured the US would not be accused of acting unilaterally. However, this approach, for all its good intentions, was a catastrophe. After Gadaffi’s death, Obama claimed the US had “reached their objectives” without “putting a single US service member on the ground” (Kuperman, 2015). This meant that there was nobody to maintain the peace after a moderate government had been elected, and the warlords who had previously been united in their hatred for Gadaffi were now fighting among themselves (Ibrahim, 2016). Obama had campaigned on the promise of “no more Iraqs”, and announced the full withdrawal of Iraq-based troops only two days before the Libya operation ended (MacAskill, 2011). He could therefore not send ground troops to Libya without breaking a core campaign promise, and instead had to watch as the country went from a dysfunctional state under Gadaffi to a failed state under the rule of a host of warring tribes and extremist groups. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that Human Rights Watch is claiming crimes against humanity have been committed (Human Rights Watch, 2016). It is therefore not surprising that, in an interview with Fox News, he called his handling of the Libya Crisis his worst mistake (Tierney, 2016).
Libya was only the first in a series of massive Middle Eastern headaches for the Obama administration, with the largest and most durable one being the Syrian Civil War. The war, whose origins can be traced back to the capture and torture of 15 boys aged ten to 15, had by February 2016 wounded or killed an estimated 11.5% of the Syrian population (Black, 2016), with the UN claiming both Assad’s regime and the Islamic State have been committing war crimes and crimes against humanity (Guardian, 2014). Obama’s legacy will be stained by failing to the stop Syrian War’s evolution from local revolt to a proxy war with regional and global powers supporting different sides. However, the US government’s logic behind non-intervention at the beginning was expressed by the German deputy chancellor, who drew a line between “America’s flawed interventionist policy” and the refugee crisis (Olterman and Luhn, 2017). Obama, like most people, did not want to have another Iraq, and after the loss of faith in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine after 2011, gaining enough favour within the UN to involve boots on the ground became impossible (ICSS, 2001). Of course, Obama is not solely to blame for the lack of Syrian peace. Russia has vetoed five security council resolutions, often joined by China, and in October 2016 rejected a resolution which called for the halt of all air strikes (Al-Jazeera, 2016). Another important thing to consider is the relatively novel nature of the Syrian War, and how it has complicated matters immensely. Previous American interventions, and wars in general, have the purpose of weakening the enemy state to ensure it cannot fight back. This was the case for Vietnam and Iraq wars, and has been the case for just about every conflict in history. In Syria, however, it is different. The Western coalition is dropping bombs on the very country they are trying to save. The growth of social and global media has ensured that the brutality of war can be seen by anyone, anywhere, and it while it has always been hard to justify intervention, it has become just as hard to rationalize inaction. The United States and the West are simultaneously at war with a country, or at least elements within it, while they also have to be responsible for the refugees originating from there. This becomes especially painful when one considers the fact that two countries which have played an important role in lengthening and escalating the war, Russia and Iran, have done “virtually nothing to help” the refugees (Human Rights Watch, 2013). Obama’s handling of the situation has been far from stellar, but the global community has joined him in sitting on the side lines while another Rwanda unfolds.
Obstructing Obama and executive orders
Senator Rand Paul claimed Obama was acting “like a king or monarch” due to his perceived excessive use of executive orders (CBN, 2013). Historically, executive orders have been used by the likes of Eisenhower to desegregate schools, Reagan to defund abortion, and Clinton to create enormous nature reserves. Their controversy stems from the fact that it allows the president to introduce legislation without consulting congress, avoiding one of the three branches of government. This is obviously not the right way to run a democracy, but Obama has had to run an abnormally resistive government for the majority of his two terms.
In 2010, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican Majority Leader, stated that the most important thing he wanted to achieve was “for Obama to be a one-term president”, although he did also mention a desire to meet Obama half way (Kessler, 2012). However, it is hard to see say that this spirit of compromise shown any signs of life: according to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service, there have been a total of 168 cloture motions on nominations for government positions since 1949, with 82 (or 49%) of those happening between 2009 and 2013 (CRS, 2013). If simplified a great deal, cloture motions are filed when one wants to avoid a filibuster, which is when a Senator quite literally talks a nomination or bill to death by blabbering on for so long that the time allotted for the bill runs out. An extreme example of this being Senator D’Amato reading from a phonebook for 15 hours in 1992 to avoid jobs being moved to Mexico. An increase in cloture motions is symptomatic of an increase in filibusters or filibuster threats, which are often used to hamper members of the senate from passing legislation. With a senate unwilling to do their job, and a House Speaker who said “We're going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can” about Obama’s health care reform in 2010 (Henry, 2010),  it is not entirely surprising that the ex-president felt he had to rule through executive orders. One more thing worth mentioning: Rand Paul’s claim of Obama ruling “like a king” is quite unfounded, with Obama being the two-term president with the least EOs since 1877, and the least EOs overall since Bush Senior (Peters and Wooley, 2017).
“Yes we can”
Obama’s ascension to the presidency inspired a generation. The New York Times claimed racial barriers had fallen, while Eugene Weekly wrote “Our Long National Nightmare is Over”. He ushered in a period of hope for millions, and Obama led the United States through good times and bad, from the legalisation of gay marriage to the nation-wide despair felt after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016. When Obama became president, he only had three years of federal political experience as a Senator from Illinois. Inheriting challenges ranging from two seemingly endless wars to an economy in freefall, it seemed as if the young senator was well out of his depth. However, one death of Osama bin Laden later, one introduction of the largest healthcare reform in 60 years later, and one successful Iran Nuclear Deal later, Obama and the United States can safely say: yes we can, yes we did.
11.) Wilensky G. Why Does the Affordable Care Act Remain So Unpopular?. JAMA. 2015;313(10):1002-1003. http://jamanetwork.com.proxy-ub.rug.nl/journals/jama/fullarticle/2190972?resultClick=1
14.) Ibrahim, Ahmed H. 2016. "The Arab Uprisings And The United States: The Dichotomy Between Balancing Stability And Upholding Commitment To Democracy". Digest Of Middle East Studies 25 (1): 70-87. doi:10.1111/dome.12081.