While Barack Obama was a steady and civilized presence at the helm of the nation, he is often accused of being aloof and cold. In a piece for The Boston Review, Elaine Kamarck argues Obama's unwillingness to "play politics" could cost him his legacy. Kamarck, reviewing a new book edited by Julian Zelizer on Obama's presidency, believes a president's legacy is dependent on the strength of the policies he enacted.
While President Obama passed a great deal of paradigm shifting executive orders, like the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), these orders are easily dismissed by future administrations. He made few allies in either party and his tenure saw Congressional power swing dramatically toward the right.
The politics were pretty disastrous. As Zelizer summarizes, “During his presidency, even as he enjoyed reelection and strong approval ratings toward the end of this term, the Democratic Party suffered greatly. . . . Democrats lost more than one thousand seats in state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and Congress during his time in office.” Zelizer could have gone further. According to Ballotpedia, more Democratic state legislative seats were lost under Obama than under any president in modern history.
...Obama was not just distant from the Republicans in Congress—he was distant from the Democrats as well. His reluctance to engage members of Congress cut across the aisle, with many Democrats just as furious as Republicans. This would only occasionally break out into the press, but it was well known on the Hill.
So while it is true that Obama faced an extremely oppositional Republican Party, historians must not ignore the fact that Obama was a distant politician. In the end, he was more concerned with policy and reluctant to engage in the political battles that make for successful and sustainable policy.
What President Obama was able to accomplish, however, has changed the lives of millions of Americans for the better. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), his signature policy initiative and the legislation he used most of his political capital passing, remains in effect. Despite the best efforts of Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, the ACA seems set to be the law of the land for the foreseeable future. Per The Boston Globe, the health care bill has dramatically improved citizens' access to health care.
[N]ew 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.
...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.
While President Obama's national policies were largely a humanitarian success, his policies veered much more hawkish when dealing with foreign affairs. In 2008, many hoped a liberal president would undo Bush-era guidelines for fighting the war on terrorism. To the contrary, President Obama in many ways stayed the course set by President Bush. Per CNN:
On many Tuesdays during his presidency, Obama convened an extraordinary meeting in the Oval Office. His national security aides would show him mug shots and short biographies of alleged terrorists. The suspects were Yemenis, Saudis, Afghans and sometimes Americans. They included men, women and even teenagers. The President would look over these chilling "baseball cards," as one aide called them, and pick which subjects should be put on a kill list, to be assassinated on his orders.
Sometimes these orders had broad public support, such as his decision to launch a raid that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. And sometimes they were more controversial, especially when civilians were inadvertently killed.
The decision by a liberal President -- a former professor of constitutional law -- to embrace an official program of targeted killing of suspected terrorists was one of the most surprising developments of the Obama presidency. Moreover, the assassination program was just one of several hardline Bush administration counterterrorism policies that Obama chose to continue.
The hope that President Obama would lead the country into a more civilized era of dealing with terrorists did not ultimately come to fruition.
One aspect of the Obama presidency that experts almost unanimously laud is the effect his policies had on the economy. A New York Times Magazine piece from the last year of President Obama's term lays out his accomplishments.
His economy has certainly come further than most people recognize. 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.
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.”