President Barack Obama was sworn into office for the first of his two terms on January 20th, 2009, becoming the first African American to act as commander in chief. The country and the world rode a wave of optimism, predicting everything would change, and the world would become a better and safer place for all.
It was also the year of the biggest economic disaster since the great depression of the 1930s. Obama inherited the legacy of the War on Terror from his predecessor George W Bush. He promised much, notably to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, close the torture chamber that is Guantanamo Bay, make the government and financial industry more accountable and introduce a sorely needed public healthcare system, Obamacare.
Now as his presidency comes to an end, how has he delivered on these promises? Hillary Clinton, his possible successor, has given him an A Grade and many in the media fawn over the coolest president in history. But like all presidents, some love him, others hate him, and yet more people are in between.
To find out how he got on I spoke with a number of people, American writer Ben Reynolds, born and raised in the seat of power that is Washington D.C., Professor Aaron Belkin of San Francisco State University and Professor Wyn Rees, an expert in American foreign policy under Obama from The University of Nottingham, to get their views on his two terms as ‘Leader of the Free World’.
One of the major promises he made was the introduction of a public health care programme. You may think that a country which often leads the way in science and technology would already have a basic health care programme, for those not fortunate enough to be swimming in pools of cash – you’d be wrong.
The United States’ healthcare system is a disgrace, arguably the worst at catering for those below the poverty line in the Western world. Obama sought to introduce Obamacare to help remedy this, but his plan was met with fierce resistance from the opposition Republican Party, which for most of Obama’s presidency controlled Congress (The Senate).
In order to get laws and bills passed, the president has to get it approved in Congress, a feat that is, according to Professor Belkin, ‘almost impossible when the Senate is controlled by Republicans.’
Miraculously, the bill was eventually passed, but Reynolds is sceptical about its effectiveness. He tells me: “[This is] the only major policy achievement of the administration, which even in the form that was passed didn’t even include a publicly provided insurance option – which was one of the main purposes of trying to implement the programme in the first place”.
He also doesn’t point the blame for this squarely at obstructionist Republicans, adding:
The funny thing is that the passing of Obamacare was held up, not only by Republicans, but by Democrats. Even when Democrats had the votes in The Senate to pass hypothetically whatever they wanted, it was Democrats that were being funded by the insurance companies that actually killed the passage of the programme that would have made a meaningful difference in the cost of insurance premiums.
But Professor Belkin is defensive of the president and his party: “No president delivers on 100 per cent of promises made during campaigns, and delivering is particularly tough in the US system because we have so many veto points and because the Republicans put political aims above public well-being”.
So on a domestic front Obama managed to implement some kind of healthcare reform, just not on the scale that was promised or that he wanted, though it wasn’t for his lack of trying – whether it was solely down to the veto power of The Senate or elements within his own party, is up for debate, although it seems to be a combination of the two.
What then of his foreign policy promises? Professor Rees tells me we must think of this in relation to what came before, saying:
I would begin anything on Obama by talking about the context in which he comes into office and clearly he inherited a pretty difficult situation from his predecessor, not only the major economic crisis that the U.S. was experiencing, but the major wars that he inherits. He is very clear from the outset that he’s got a different take on the two wars.
Obama believed that the war in Iraq was the so-called ‘dumb war’, one that the United States made a mistake in starting, and that the war in Afghanistan was the necessary war, one which is vital to national security. He promised to end both wars and did so significantly in Iraq at one point, though there are now said to be around 5,000 combat troops deployed in the country.
However in the case of Afghanistan, initial troop withdrawals took place, but this was followed by a large increase of American military personnel, deployed to the region supposedly until 2014. They are still there, in what is now the longest war in U.S. history, eclipsing even Vietnam.
He has also overseen new conflicts, as Reynolds explains:
A lot of people like to make the claim that Obama changed U.S. foreign policy, at least in the Middle East in a significant way, and while I think that there has been more resistance to major ground invasions, there has still been significant intervention, including the bombing of 6 or 7 countries presently, and funding armed rebel groups in many countries which horrendously destabilised them.
The United States is currently engaged in bombing several countries, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Libya. The Afghanistan conflict has also spilled over into neighbouring Pakistan, with Taliban fighters fleeing there to avoid U.S. troops – the Islamic insurgents also have a history in certain regions of the country.
It is for this reason that we see so many drone strikes in Pakistan, in which enemy combatants, but also hundreds of civilians, have been caught up in. These tragic casualties are coldly considered to be necessary – collateral damage.
Professor Rees views these strikes and the way in which Obama has used force as a “hallmark of his presidency”, adding that “he’s very wary of using force with an open ended commitment because he’s watched how America has done that in the case of Iraq and suffered hugely in terms of casualties, loss of international legitimacy and huge financial commitment”.
Another major foreign policy objective he wanted to implement was the closure of Guantanamo Bay, something which he promised, perhaps naively, to achieve within his first year in office.
Though still active, the number of people incarcerated there has dropped dramatically from over 700 to under 100 during the course of his presidency, but yet again he was met with opposition from a Congress that didn’t want to see these prisoners brought onto the continental United States – the military prison is located conveniently on the neighbouring island of Cuba.
However, it does seem he has ended many of the practices associated with the prison, such as so-called extraordinary rendition – lifting suspected militants from areas and shipping them to countries with less stringent rules on enhanced interrogation (aka torture), many of whom ended up in Guantanamo.
But how will history remember the 44th President? Domestically he managed to bring in some form of public healthcare, foreign policy wise he scaled back the wars of his predecessor, but oversaw other aggressions.
Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks proved the extent to which the government had been spying on its own citizens, Chelsea Manning, the whistle-blower that provided Wikileaks with the collateral murder video, was sentenced to 35 years in prison and Julian Assange is still peaking out from behind the curtains of the Ecuadorian embassy, unable to leave for fear of extradition.
But depending on whoever wins the next election – with neither candidate exactly devoid of dirt before even entering office – we may remember him as the last relatively moderate and popiular president for quite some time.