Honor and Effort: What President Obama Achieved in Eight Years
Dec. 22, 2016
And what he didn’t
Excerpted from TIME’s “Barack Obama: Eight Years,” a definitive, one-of-kind 96-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at Amazon.com.
( Time) -Barack Obama entered the White House as something new in American history. He wasn’t chosen on the basis of experience, nor for his role as leader of a party or a movement. He had not been a governor or a general or a veteran legislator. He did not become president by the accident of his predecessor’s death in office.
Obama was elected purely for himself—his message, his persona and what he symbolized. In 48 brief months, he rose from the obscurity of a state legislature to become the first Democrat in more than three decades to win more than half of the popular vote. Messenger and message were inseparable; he offered himself as Exhibit A in the case for hope and change. Obama was a mirror in which millions of people saw their cherished ideals reflected: tolerance, cooperation, equality, justice.
After two bruising and tumultuous terms in office—a period of economic crisis and geopolitical upheaval—it’s difficult to recall how the young candidate riveted the world simply by being Obama. As a mere nominee, not yet elected, he drew an estimated crowd of 200,000 people—in Germany. He filled a football stadium for his acceptance speech, a city park for his victory speech and, of course, much of the National Mall for his first inauguration. In October 2009, the Nobel Prize committee awarded him its most prestigious honor, the Peace Prize, before he’d had time to accomplish much at all. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future” the prize citation declared. A Nobel Peace Prize just for being Obama.
In a sense, there was nowhere to go but down. The most exalted position in American life has a way of humbling its occupants. Obama leaves office more human than he entered it, a mere mortal with a track record and the gray hair to show for it. And that track record contains much more than his enemies—or even many of his friends—have been ready to acknowledge.
Taking office in the midst of an economic meltdown, Obama seized on the massive federal response to make record investments in education initiatives, environmental research, industrial modernization and, most famously, health-care reform. He poured money into basic medical and scientific research and super-charged the U.S. alternative-energy sector. His high-stakes reorientation of American foreign policy worries many experts, and the results might not be fully understood for years. But the effort cannot be called small.
Indeed, Obama’s record is bigger and more substantial than even he allowed himself to admit through much of his time in office. A candidate known for his stirring speeches struggled, as president, to sell the public on what he was doing and why he was doing it.
Journalist Michael Grunwald has documented the scope of one of Obama’s ambitious achievements: the stimulus package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In constant dollars, the ARRA was “more than 50 percent bigger than the entire New Deal, twice as big as the Louisiana Purchase and Marshall Plans combined,” Grunwald wrote in his 2012 book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. It was “the biggest … education reform bill since the Great Society,” he continued. The “biggest foray into industrial policy since FDR, biggest expansion of antipoverty initiatives since Lyndon Johnson, biggest middle-class tax cut since Ronald Reagan, biggest infusion of research money ever.” And that was just one of several massive Obama undertakings. He stormed into the banking, automotive and health-care industries, winning changes that had been mulled, debated and dithered over for decades.
Yet the president was often downbeat—seemingly discouraged-about the impact he was having. He complained loudly and often of the obstructions put in his path by his Republican opponents. “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government,” Obama said after the GOP captured the House of Representatives in 2010. Voters could be forgiven if they concluded that Obama must not be getting much done.
It was as if Obama had fallen under his own spell and began measuring himself not by real wins in the political trenches but by the ephemeral goals of his soaring speeches. “This is our moment,” Obama had said on the night he won the election. “This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that, out of many, we are one.” At points in his presidency, Obama couldn’t hide his disappointment that his every dream had not come true.
Through eight years in office, Barack Obama used all the tools in a president’s kit to make significant changes: laws, rules, executive orders and the bully pulpit. Yet he couldn’t change the nature of politics itself. The irony of Obama’s presidency is that he achieved more than most presidents—yet millions of Americans grew convinced during his administration that Washington can’t get anything done.
The world economy was plunging like a runaway bobsled as Obama took the oath of office in January 2009 before one of the largest gatherings in the history of the nation’s capital.
After a steep run-up in housing prices in the U.S. and elsewhere, the bursting bubble sent millions of homes into foreclosure. This mortgage crisis in turn blazed through the global banking system, and only an extraordinary intervention by lame-duck president George W. Bush prevented a complete financial collapse.
Obama inherited the wreckage of what proved to be the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s. The economy contracted by more than 8%. Unemployment doubled, from 5% to 10%—a net loss of some 8 million jobs. Average housing prices dropped by 30%. The cumulative wealth of Americans fell by nearly a quarter: a loss on paper of some $15 trillion. As the Great Recession echoed around the world, Europe’s economy went into reverse. Nations from Greece to Iceland flirted with default on their sovereign debts, while emerging markets from Rio to New Delhi and Moscow to Beijing began to sputter and stall.
Having campaigned on “the audacity of hope” Obama was thrust into a contagion of fear. Fear of lending froze capital markets; fear of investment idled assembly lines and sent stock exchanges tumbling. And fear that something even worse might lie ahead caused consumers to hunker down and stop spending.
Obama’s new administration went immediately to work on the largest economic-stimulus bill ever enacted by Congress-about $8oo billion. Much of the money went to tax relief, unemployment insurance and other direct infusions of cash into the pockets of Americans who would, in tum, the administration hoped, spend or invest it. But the new president also seized the chance to pump billions into priorities that would normally struggle to receive much smaller sums. The stimulus bill was packed with record spending on renewable energy, a modern electrical grid, computerization of health-care records, high-speed rail, and new bridges and roads. Obama also directed billions to basic scientific research, hoping to sow seeds of discovery that would yield the next wave of American innovation.
“From the National Institutes of Health to the National Science Foundation, this recovery act represents the biggest increase in basic research funding in the long history of America’s noble endeavor to better understand our world,” Obama told an audience in Denver less than a month after taking the oath.” And just as President Kennedy sparked an explosion of innovation when he set America’s sights on the moon, I hope this investment will ignite our imagination once more, spurring new discoveries and breakthroughs in science, in medicine, in energy, to make our economy stronger and our nation more secure and our planet safer for our children.”
The extent of the economic emergency allowed Obama to fulfill a catalog of campaign promises in the first dizzy weeks of his administration—that is, to make good on pledges he made to invest. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the recovery act boosted growth in the U.S. by 1% to 4% in 2010, with smaller impacts in subsequent years. That’s not bad by historical standards, but Obama was reluctant to boast; it was not the rapid repair that he had envisioned, and it was hardly enough to cure such a deep recession.
So it was that the unprecedented bill drew harsh criticism from both ends of the political spectrum: conservatives called it a wasteful “porkulus” while liberals complained that it was too small to be effective. Though there has been a clear positive influence, Obama’s advisers were not going to brag about the bill while millions of Americans were out of work—and besides, there wasn’t much time for bragging, because the president was rushing ahead into other crises.
The auto industry was facing disaster. At the onset of the crisis in October 2007, sales of cars and light trucks had been humming at about 16 million per year. But over the end stretch of the Bush administration, that production plummeted. By the end of February 2009, with Obama fewer than so days into the job, that number was down to 9 million, a year-over-year drop of more than40%. Two of the Big Three U.S. automakers—General Motors and Chrysler—teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, with Ford at risk of being dragged down with them. The entire auto supply chain, with millions of workers at countless companies across the country, was at risk.
Obama moved forcefully to shore up the industry. But rather than dole out tax dollars while asking little in return, he wielded the bailout funds to force rapid streamlining and reforms, such as having fewer dealerships and more flexible pay scales. Critics, appalled at what they felt was federal overreach, gave GM a new name: “Government Motors.”
Government is not an economics seminar, however—it’s the real world. Obama could see all the jobs at stake, and he pictured the families and communities behind those jobs. Initial estimates of the bailout price tag exceeded $8o billion, but as the bank industry recovered, taxpayers recovered all of the money Obama pumped into it and almost all of what went to Detroit. By 2015, American car and truck makers were banking record profits on booming sales—at little cost to taxpayers.
During those panicked early months, Obama was also pressing ahead with the unpopular bailout of the banking industry that began under President Bush. By most measures, it worked: instead of a cascade of bank failures, Americans ended up with a stronger financial system, and the public got its money back. All the tax dollars devoted to the bank rescue wound up being repaid.
But that didn’t matter much to the public.
Millions of Americans came to the conclusion that reckless Wall Streeters caused the financial crisis—and skated past the consequences thanks to political connections. Beginning with the Tea Party movement of 2010, populist candidates on both the right and the left fed on this widespread anger. Republican Donald Trump spoke ominously of a “rigged” system. In Obama’s own party, Sen. Bernie Sanders stirred up a fire from the embers of resentment. Though Obama spent the rest of his presidency tightening banking regulations, he never managed to shake off these critics.
And then there is “Obamacare:” The president’s hugely ambitious, yet troubled, health-care reform. Rammed through Congress without a single Republican vote, the Affordable Care Act is Obama’s attempt to deliver on a promise that Democrats have made for generations: medical insurance for all. At the same time, the law is an unprecedented effort to break the fever of runaway medical costs.
The future of Obamacare is uncertain, and President-elect Donald Trump has expressed disdain for the act. The private-insurance exchanges at the heart of the plan appear to be at risk. Although millions of Americans have gained coverage, too many of those are among the chronically ill, and too few are young and healthy. The result: more claims and less revenue than projected, leading to higher premiums. Fears of a so-called death spiral, in which rising premiums drive off all but the sickest customers, have some Democrats once again calling for a government takeover, something opponents label “socialized medicine.”
But while that old argument heats up again, other provisions of Obamacare are spurring a revolution. Through a combination of carrots and sticks, the law has raised the proportion of doctors and hospitals using electronic medical records from about 1 in 5 to more than 4 in 5. Though this transition can be rocky, experts continue to believe that computerized records will work data-driven miracles, greatly reducing medical errors, cutting useless or redundant treatments, and steering health-care providers to the best approaches.
In other words, Obamacare is a work in progress. And this points to something important about the presidency: it always has the ring of unfinished business. No president, whether having served for many years or a partial term, has stepped away with his work complete, nor without some baggage left behind in the Oval Office. The presidency is a relay race with no known finish line, and America’s challenges and opportunities persist through each passing of the baton. Questions and issues—like the problem of afford able health care—will continue to evolve long after Obama’s tenure is done.
Still, Obama carried the baton a great distance, and he leaves America in a different place than he found it. Here are a few more of the many examples:
Private lenders no longer dominate the college-student-loan business. By making loans directly, rather than providing guarantees for private loans, government has transferred billions of dollars that used to pay lenders into new loans at cheaper rates.
Obama doubled the number of female justices in Supreme Court history, from two to four, and appointed the first justice of Hispanic heritage, Sonia Sotomayor.
Same-sex couples are free to wed, in part because Obama’s Department of Justice refused to support the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. Gays serve openly in the military because Obama ended “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Women can choose to qualify for combat roles.
Greenhouse-gas emissions are down some 12% in the U.S., and the White House projects even steeper drops over the next decade, thanks to massive investments in more efficient appliances, buildings, cars, trucks and power lines. America is generating more energy from renewable sources and less from coal. Meanwhile, Obama has deflected efforts from inside his own party to halt the fracking revolution—a technological win-win that has cut carbon dioxide emissions while freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil.
When it comes to foreign policy, only time will reveal whether the baton Obama passes is stuffed with TNT. His opening to Cuba seemed overdue, given the collapse of Castroism in the shattered economies of Havana and Caracas. His cautious approach to China kept relations with the rising power steady even as Beijing struggled with economic growing pains. In fact, by some measures Obama leaves the U.S. in a stronger position in Asia and the Pacific than it was the day he took office.
But what about the Middle East? Obama delivered on his promise to get American troops out of lraq, and he greatly limited U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But history is likely to judge him by the outcome of his high-stakes bet on Iran. A best-case scenario: five or 10 or 20 years from now, pragmatic leaders will have come to power from Tehran to Ankara, from Cairo to Riyadh, tempering the Sunni-Shia conflict in favor of regional peace. Obama leans this way because he is a big believer in pragmatism-maybe too big. Because the worst-case scenario is a regional conflagration in which the Shia mullahs of Iran and the Sunni sheiks of Saudi Arabia pile a nuclear-arms race atop their centuries-old religious rivalry.
Eight years after Obama took office with the economy crashing around his ears, people are still arguing about his accomplishments. What matters more: the stubbornly low growth that makes this the slowest recovery on record, or the longest string of consecutive job gains in recorded history? The U.S. economy is nearly $1trillion bigger today than it was before the crisis, and most other developed countries have fared worse.
Such debates are good. They are the stuff of history and the currency of a free society, and Obama’s impact will be discussed and reexamined for years.
Yet there is something that seems unassailable, and it goes a long way toward explaining the steady rise in the president’s approval ratings as Americans contemplate his last day at the helm. Despite his inexperience, Barack Obama gave a full measure of scandal-free service, a rarity among modern presidents. And he never lost hope, even when others wavered. There is no tougher job—an endless stream of difficult decisions, all guaranteed to stir fierce criticism. Obama did it with dignity and conscience. As was true at the beginning, it remains true at the end: who Obama was mattered at least as much as what he did. And start to finish, he was an honorable man.
From “Barack Obama: Eight Years.” In his historic Presidency, Barack Obama led the United States through eight tumultuous and remarkably active years. And in this definitive, one-of-kind Special Edition, TIME’s experts assess the impact his Presidency had on the U.S. economy, foreign policy, health care and so much more Along with spectacular and often moving images, TIME’s unmatched writers and reporters give this Presidency a clear-eyed context through issues of race, inclusion and military approach. This edition delivers sharp, fresh stories and an extra bonus: TIME’s foray into augmented reality, in which the cover and several inside pages spring to life via curated audio and video pieces accessed easily through the free TIME Special Edition app.