With just hours to go until he leaves the White House to Donald Trump, The Market Mogul picks out some defining aspects of Barack Obama’s time as POTUS. What impact did he have on the US economy and its healthcare system, how have his eight years as Commander-in-Chief changed the world, and how did he throw the role of President from executive head of state into global superstardom?
Obama and the Economy
Barack Obama’s inauguration at the beginning of 2009 came in the midst of one of the worst recessions in recent history. The aftermath of the financial crisis saw the fresh-faced president inherit, among other things, a buckling automotive industry. Rock-bottom American car sales were threatening job cuts and lost growth well beyond any recovery on Wall Street, and it was thought that a total collapse would mean three million more unemployed.
The federal government debated bailing out two of the ‘Big Three’ car giants – GM and Chrysler. Perhaps anticipating his successor, Obama’s first impact on the US economy came whilst still President-elect when he rallied the divided Senate’s Democrat faction into demanding fast fiscal action, contributing to the eventual bailout agreement.
Yet his role is also a typical example of the often limited scope that individual presidents have for steering the economy. The bailout bill still had to be tabled in the House of Representatives and approved by the Senate, and was ultimately passed by the Bush administration. Obama took on the mantle of a programme which saw a second round of bailouts, totalling $80.3bn across the two presidencies – not repaid in full until 2011.
A similar story followed with The Recovery Act, an $831bn stimulus package which the new President influenced and signed into law but nonetheless began its life in the legislature under Dubya.
It’s up for debate how much federal schemes like these have contributed to the US economy’s steady performance under the rest of Obama’s tenure, how much they are to blame for skyrocketing levels of national debt – and, of course, whether or not the panacea of positive GDP and jobs growth outweighs the lurking threat of default and the anxious strains of relying on net creditors like China.
It is also perhaps down to our readers’ perspectives how much Obama, the man, is to be counted as the influencer in eight years of transformation for the world’s largest economy, or whether forces bigger than him – be it in Congress, domestic businesses, or the global economy – would have steered history on a similar course without him.
A project that is undoubtedly Obama’s pet, though, is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). ‘Obamacare’ overhauled the US healthcare system through a number of measures like means-tested insurance subsidies and regulations in the medical provision sector. Some eight million more individuals have gained coverage since it came into effect in 2013.
Like any federal scheme, the ACA still had to go through all the channels of democratic government, and Obama the President didn’t have anything more than executive control at his hands. But presidents usually have considerable influence over their parties, and Obama the Leader mustered everything he could to push it through in what were thoroughly divided chambers of Congress.
The American people has never quite managed to warm to Obama’s darling, though, with public approval having always been firmly against it (until a slight easing up in recent months). The cost of the scheme has always been a point of concern for the taxpayers footing the bill, and survey information from ACA fact-checker ‘Obamacare facts’ betrays considerable frustration with the mandatory elements of its provisions.
This is perhaps why President-elect Trump has had a fairly easy time nudging the republican House and Senate into gearing up for a repeal. In a perhaps cruel twist of irony, Obama’s single greatest individual effort – judged by The Market Mogul readers as his most memorable legacy – could be undone by the very forces of US politics which often make presidents pale into insignificance: public opinion and that pesky two-term limit.
Whilst the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden is perhaps Obama’s most iconic moment as Commander-in-Chief, his foreign policy legacy is deeply rooted in the wider transformation of American military presence.
Obama began his first term with the weight of two foreign military interventions on his shoulders: around 170,000 troops were stationed abroad at the time of his inauguration, the vast majority in Iraq. His campaign tried to capitalise on a general sense of war fatigue, promising to wind down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that racked up huge costs to America’s coffers, its soldiers’ lives, and its global perception.
He kept to his promise of withdrawal from Iraq, with troops in the Levantine warzone pulling out steadily as local government formed again. Deployments to Afghanistan soared, however, with troop numbers more than tripling from 30,000 when Obama entered the White House to 100,000 in 2010. The Taliban insurgency barely features in the papers as he hands over to Trump, yet just as many US troops remain (10,000) as when the invasion began in 2003.
Though America’s Middle-Eastern military presence has waned in terms of boots on the ground, it has far from matched this when it comes to other kinds of intervention. Obama’s role overseeing the military and the CIA has left a legacy of drone strikes and related state-of-the-art military technology.
Shifting from soldiers with guns to deadly UAVs like the Predator drone has done more than just save its soldiers’ lives: the US targets its foes wherever satellites find them. The US now carries out ‘war’ in non-war zones, as drone strikes have been ordered against terrorists in places from Pakistan to Somalia. By embracing automated technologies, Obama’s ‘out of sight’ military strategy has contributed to a changing perception of international borders and a different kind of warfare.
The Famous Mr President
It’s no mere coincidence that the rise of the internet has seen the leader of the free world become the most visible politician online: Obama’s campaign made use of social media from as early as his first presidential campaign (when he spent over $643,000 on his Facebook presence). He only personally took to Twitter two years into his presidency, but it has since become his online medium of choice, with some 80 million followers – the fourth most in the world – to broadcast to.
Obama recognised not just the internet’s communicative power, but the cultural change that would come with it. Bringing on board star power from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to the Dalai Lama, he positioned himself alongside popular figures that already enjoyed exposure from those that a president might have previously struggled to talk to directly, such as American youths and foreign nationals. Who’d have thought that the presidency was once a much more sober role in the media before Obama leveraged its star power with memes, mic drops and cute dogs?