Was Barack Obama a good president?
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Was Barack Obama a good president?

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Barack Obama was a polarizing president. His supporters say he'll be remembered as one of the greatest presidents America has ever seen: he inherited an imploding economy and turned it around; he expanded health care for all Americans; and he led the nation for eight years without any real crisis. But his critics say his foreign policy was a disaster, he made racial tensions worse, and his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, has made health care too expensive for Americans. What do you think?

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A lot of Tylters say Barack Obama is, hands down, their favorite president.

And who could blame them? Obama inherited a failing economy and was able to turn it around. That's no small feat. The financial crisis was tanking the economy and had people terrified it would metastasize into a new Great Depression. Working around the clock with Congress, Obama was able to forge a bipartisan deal that brought the economy back from the brink.

The private sector has added jobs for 73 consecutive months—some 14.4 million new jobs in all—the longest period of sustained job growth on record. Unemployment, which peaked at 10 percent the year Obama took office, the highest it had been since 1983, under Ronald Reagan, is now 5 percent, lower than when Reagan left office. The budget deficit has fallen by roughly $1 trillion during his two terms. And overall U.S. economic growth has significantly outpaced that of every other advanced nation.

It's easy to forget how bad things really were before the recovery.

Gene Sperling, the former director of the National Economic Council who spent hours inside the Oval Office debating and devising the president’s economic strategy, told me, “If we were back in early 2009 — when we were coming to work every morning with clenched stomachs, with the economy losing 800,000 jobs a month and the Dow under 7,000 — and someone said that by your last year in office, unemployment would be 5 percent, the deficit would be under 3 percent, AIG would have turned a profit and we made all our money back on the banks, that would’ve been beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.”

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, stands as one of Obama's signature legislation victories, despite the withering attack Republicans continue to launch against it. Obamacare helped the most vulnerable Americans get access to healthcare. People who were previously excluded from receiving life-changing or life-saving care were suddenly able to get the treatment they needed.

But new studies out this week indicate that Obamacare is making a life-changing difference for actual Americans. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the first full year of the ACA “brought historic increases in coverage for low-wage workers.” Immigrants saw the sharpest rise in coverage. In particular, a third of those who gained insurance are Hispanic — and two-thirds are minorities. The numbers would be higher but or the fact that blacks disproportionately live in red states that have rejected Medicaid expansion.

Obamacare ensured access to insurance. When you're already struggling, health costs can be cost-prohibitive especially for the uninsured. Obamacare has hit some snags with rising premiums and doctor choice. But the bottom line is more people have insurance and are getting the care they need.

A couple of years ago, a study looking at Medicaid expansion in Oregon found that those who received access to care not only saw the virtual disappearance of debilitating medical expenses, as well as less financial hardship, but were actually 30 percent less likely to suffer from depression than those who were not covered. Ironically, the study also found that health care outcomes didn’t show dramatic improvement. The biggest benefit was economic security — which, if you think about it, is the reason most people buy insurance of any kind in the first place.

But critics argue Obama's successes at home did not translate overseas. While he did accomplish many things—like brokering a deal to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons (which Trump has since reversed) and successfully completing the Bush plan to withdraw from Iraq—Obama's foreign policy has been an extension of traditional hawkish American policy that created many of the issues facing the U.S. today.

Yet Obama’s presidency is in other respects a tragedy—and especially when it comes to foreign policy. It is a tragedy because Obama had the opportunity to refashion America’s role in the world, and at times he seemed to want to do just that. The crisis of 2008-2009 was the ideal moment to abandon the failed strategy of liberal hegemony that the United States had been pursuing since the end of the Cold War, but in the end Obama never broke with that familiar but failed approach. The result was a legacy of foreign-policy missteps that helped propel Donald Trump into the White House.

His critics on the left say he did not change enough. He maintained an America-World-Police style policy that just about every other president has pursued. The Obama administration largely maintained a distracted policy that had the U.S. jumping from region-to-region and crisis-to-crisis.

Like Bill Clinton, Obama tried to address a vast array of global problems as cheaply as possible (and without “boots on the ground”), but he never told the American people what their vital interests actually were. Equally important, this most eloquent of presidents never gave voters a simple template to help them distinguish between the places where the United States should stand ready to fight and regions it could safely leave to others. Instead, almost any part of the world could suddenly become a “vital interest” for which Washington was supposed to have a solution, and failure to act immediately in a crisis anywhere exposed him to charges that he was squandering U.S. credibility or leaving the country vulnerable to some shadowy danger. “He who defends everything defends nothing,” warned Frederick the Great, and Obama’s inability to develop a clear set of strategic priorities hurt him throughout his presidency.

Critics on the right say Obama fundamentally misunderstood international politics and world leaders. He was weak against Putin and made critical missteps. Obama believed that Putin could be reasoned with. Instead, Putin took the opportunity to reassert himself on the world stage. In essence, he had too much faith in people.

Second, in both domestic and foreign policy, Obama failed to appreciate that his opponents were not as reasonable, rational, cool, or unselfish as he was. If a central theme runs through Obama’s approach to politics, it is his conviction that people with differing views can come together, discuss, debate, share information, and gradually come to a mutual understanding that satisfies both sides and that will advance the public interest. This quality made him a great law review editor and a successful community organizer, but it hamstrung him as president in today’s highly polarized political environment.

And critics see Obamacare as one of his biggest failures, not a success. They point out that premiums have skyrocketed for Americans and Obamacare is distorting the healthcare market. They see it as socialized medicine, which is doomed to fail.

New administration data released this week find that Obamacare premiums will spike an average of 25 percent across the country for benchmark plans in 2017. Americans will be forced to forfeit plans they like or lose insurance altogether and accept a tax or fine — or whatever liberals are calling their state-enforced mandate these days.

His critics believe the premise of a managed market in the first place is the problem. They think the most effective way to efficiently distribute healthcare is to leave it up to the free market. It will find the solutions itself. Instead, Obamacare distorts the whole system and will eventually make it all collapse.

Obamacare is working so well that Democrats are now pressuring Republicans to fix it and Hillary Clinton is arguing that to save it, we need a “public option” — a euphemism for a government-run insurance program. You can’t save contrived marketplaces, because they never work. They don’t work even when you allow cronyistic insurance companies to write policy. They don’t work simply because technocrats massage numbers and cram them into a line chart.
Rest assured, those “improvements” never mean opening up markets or loosening restrictions. In other words, health-care reform was exactly what many Republicans feared it would be: a way to incrementally socialize the system.
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