Rating Barack Obama’s Time in the White House

As the U.S. president prepares to leave the world stage, what were his successes and failures? Black Lives Matter, feminist groups, the LGBT community and environmentalists will miss the outgoing president – not so U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan or detainees in Guantanamo.

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US President Barack Obama celebrates after delivering his acceptance speech ion Chicago on November 7, 2012. Obama swept to re-election, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD
US President Barack Obama celebrates after delivering his acceptance speech ion Chicago on November 7, 2012. Credit: Jewel SAMAD/AFP

Health insurance for (almost) everyone

One of the greatest successes of President Barack Obama’s administration – which he promoted with all his political might – is health care reform. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of uninsured Americans has declined by over 21 million since signed the reform in 2010. Those gaining the most from the health care revolution are the weakest populations – for example, the elderly, among whom insurance coverage increased to over 90 percent thanks to the reform (though illegal immigrants remained uninsured).

But at the same time, the costs for other Americans soared. According to Forbes magazine, the costs in many states climbed by over 50 percent. Public opinion polls show that most Americans believe the U.S. population has benefited from the reform, but they aren’t certain they themselves gained anything from the new arrangement. For example, a survey by the Kaiser Institute showed that the percentage of Americans who think the law helped the poor and uninsured is far higher than those who think it helped their own family.

As Obama ends his second term after eight years, Americans are still divided on ObamaCare (the Affordable Care Act): 45 percent have a positive opinion of the reform while 45 percent have a negative opinion; and while one third hope it will be canceled, an equal number hope it will be maintained.

>> More on Obama’s legacy: It was a long time coming, it’s going to be a long time gone - Chemi Shalev | All downhill for Obama after he won the Nobel Peace Prize - Asaf Ronel | In treacherous Mideast, Obama ultimately did what was best for U.S. - Zvi Bar'el <<

The immigrants’ dream and their letdown

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles during a press conference at the White House briefing room in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016.Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

If there’s one population group that Obama let down above all others, it’s illegal immigrants. During his first year in office, Obama promised them a comprehensive reform that would legalize the status of millions of people who have been living for years under the threat of deportation, and offer them a legal track to citizenship. But the four million-plus immigrants were to be sorely disappointed. Although Obama invested all his energies into immigration reform during his second term, it was blocked by the Republicans.

Instead of being able to “come out of the shadows,” as Obama promised, children who arrived in the United States before age 16 with immigrant parents had to make do with a temporary reprieve that prevents their expulsion. Today, 800,000 American residents are protected from deportation thanks to the initiative, but the new administration of President-elect Donald Trump can easily cancel it. And to add insult to injury, Obama deported 2.5 million immigrants during his term – more than any other U.S. president.

Commander-in-chief who killed Public Enemy No. 1

When Hillary Clinton ran for president, her campaign repeatedly boasted that the Obama administration killed Osama bin Laden, thereby closing a circle that began with the most traumatic attack the United States had suffered since Pearl Harbor. That day, May 1, 2011 (U.S. time), when he had to decide whether U.S. special forces would raid Bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan, Obama’s political future and legacy were on the line.

Had the Navy SEALs failed, that would have reinforced the image of Obama as being weak on security – and might have cost him a second term. But Bin Laden was killed in the attack and the next morning the proud president informed the American public that he had brought about the death of Public Enemy No. 1, the man responsible for the murders of “thousands of men, women and children.” The United States breathed a sigh of relief, and few people in the West shed a tear over the death of the architect of 9/11.

In the ensuing years, the U.S. war on terror, and the Obama administration’s policy of targeted killings of terrorists, was increasingly criticized by human rights organizations, when stories about innocent civilians being killed in fields, mosques and their homes by American drones generated headlines worldwide. According to data published by the Obama administration, U.S. drones were responsible for 473 strikes during his term, in which some 64 to 166 civilians were killed along with 2,372 to 2,581 fighters. However, investigative journalists claim the Obama administration is responsible for additional deaths, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 200 and 1,000 civilians were killed by U.S. drone strikes.

Restrained foreign policy at all costs, even in Syria

Obama’s foreign policy was exactly what he promised, but it is also the most problematic legacy of the outgoing president. In his first election campaign, he promised to rely on diplomacy rather than sending U.S. soldiers to unnecessary wars, and expressed similar sentiments when he reached out to the Muslim world with his Cairo speech in 2009. It seemed like the dawn of a new era in the relationship between the West and the rest of the world.

Obama remained faithful to the ideal of restraint and diplomacy, even when new wars broke out across the globe. Russian President Vladimir Putin passed homophobic legislation that aroused criticism in his country, and he later occupied the Crimean Peninsula and Eastern Ukraine. China and even North Korea launched cyberattacks on the United States. In the Middle East, meanwhile, wars shattered hope for that new era, with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) group in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Above all, though, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Syrian civil war will be the greatest stain on Obama’s legacy. In the past two years, testimonies and requests by Syrians pleading for assistance, plus the thousands of orphaned children and bereaved parents, haunted the world, while Obama dallied and refused to commit to broad U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Although political pundits will continue to argue whether a different U.S. policy could have influenced the civil war and reduced the number of casualties, it will be undeniable that the tragedy in Syria took place on Obama’s watch.

The treaty with Iran

One of Obama’s greatest successes in his desire to reach out to his country’s historical enemies still awaits the test of time. Obama promised Iran an easing of U.S. sanctions; in exchange, the Islamic republic agreed to limit its nuclear program and be subject to greater international monitoring.

Despite the attempts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s foes in the Middle East to scupper the agreement, it was signed in 2015 in Austria. Iranians and Americans celebrated the lifting of sanctions and the renewal of diplomatic relations that were severed in 1979. Israel, though, presented the agreement as one that brings the ayatollahs in Tehran closer to getting a nuclear bomb.

The agreement ensures tight control over the Iranian nuclear program (including by the Israeli security system), meaning Iran will not be able to make a breakthrough device for the next decade at least. Obama hopes the thawing of relations and partial acceptance of Iran into the international community will cause them to abandon their nuclear aspirations and try to achieve closer diplomatic relations. Time will tell if he is right.

Ending the cold war with Cuba

“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them is ridiculous,” said Obama during the Democratic presidential debate prior to his election, and it’s hard to think of a more prominent success story to illustrate his diplomatic capabilities than the end of the cold war with Cuba, which was inconceivable only a few years ago. The Obama administration engaged in symbolic steps to thaw relations with the Caribbean nation when Americans were allowed to visit Cuba, and Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013.

After years of embargoes and Cuba’s economic decline, Americans no longer felt it posed a threat and believed in the president’s vision of peace. Cuban Americans who fled the Castro regime were split, but the younger generation didn’t think that rapprochement would be a betrayal of the regime’s victims.

Obama landed in Havana in 2016 – the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country since 1928 – thereby ending almost 50 years of hostility. Obama extended a “hand of friendship” and declared that he had come to Havana to “bury the last remnant” of the Cold War in the Americas.

Saving America from the abyss of the economic recession

President Barack Obama gives a kiss to first lady Michelle Obama as they dance together at the Obama Home States Inaugural Ball in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

“Anybody who says we are not absolutely better off today than we were just seven years ago – they’re not leveling with you. By almost every economic measure, we are significantly better off,” said Obama in his last economic report. He received a country in the grip of an economic recession, but during his term 14.4 million new jobs were added to the labor market, and unemployment fell five percentage points to 5 percent.

Gene Sperling, former head of the National Economic Council, told The New York Times: “If we were back in early 2009 ... and someone said that by your last year in office, unemployment would be 5 percent, the deficit would be under 3 percent, AIG [a major insurance company] would have turned a profit and we made all our money back on the banks, that would’ve been beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.”

Other black lives matter, too

The election of Obama as the U.S.’s first black president seemed like the end of a long journey for movements dedicated to advancing the rights of African-Americans in the United States. But after eight years, a different struggle looms on the horizon. Even though police brutality against black people is not a new phenomenon in the United States, the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch officer, the riots in Ferguson following the police shooting of Michael Brown, and dozens of similar incidents nationwide, created a new civil protest movement.

The Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the pain felt by ordinary African-Americans who had lost family or community members. Obama has sided with the movement, taking some symbolic actions and launching several reforms. When the local Florida police tried to portray Martin as a criminal, the American president said, “I could have been Trayvon Martin.” And when Black Lives Matter gained momentum, Obama hosted the leaders of the Ferguson protest at the White House.

In 2015, Obama made history as the first U.S. president to visit a federal prison. He also reduced, through executive pardons, the sentences of more prisoners than any other U.S. president. He tried to change the legal and justice systems by launching reforms in police forces, which included attempts to mediate between policemen and local communities. And his administration also prohibited the holding of minors in solitary confinement in federal prisons (but not in state-run prisons), as well as abolishing private prisons.

Even though Obama gave legitimization and a platform to Black Lives Matter, some might say he didn’t launch enough reforms in this area. Upon his departure from the White House, discrimination in the legal system against black people is still a divisive issue on the public agenda.

A feminist in the White House

Obama will be remembered as a leader who repeatedly addressed feminist issues in an empathetic and convincing manner, not as a concession to pressure by women’s groups. Obama was the first U.S. president to declare himself on numerous occasions a feminist, thus presenting a new model of masculinity for the 21st century, a model of a political leader devoid of sexism in his attitude toward women – let alone one embroiled in sex scandals, abusive behavior or disdainful humor.

Obama also turned the campaign against campus rape in America into a major issue, establishing a committee to look into the phenomenon. He called on men to take personal responsibility for eradicating rape from campuses.

No less important was the respectful relationship between Obama and his wife Michelle, which the first couple embodied during their stay in the White House. “It is absolutely men’s responsibility to fight sexism too,” he wrote in an April 2016 article describing his feminism. “And as spouses and partners and boyfriends, we need to work hard and be deliberate about creating truly equal relationships.”

The green president

In 2014, America and China signed an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the first such agreement signed by China. The deal will have a significant global impact, since the two countries are responsible for almost half of such emissions. America is also a signatory to the historic Paris climate change agreement, whereby 195 countries committed to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

After seven years of discussions, Obama rejected the proposal to build a pipeline connecting Albertan tar sands to Montana, out of concern for environmental pollution. And at the end of his term he rejected running the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Protests against the pipeline had united American Indian tribes and environmental activists.

Obama also declared several spaces protected areas in which development is prohibited – more than any president before him. However, the arrival of President-elect Donald Trump places a large question mark over many of Obama’s developments in this realm.

The detention camp that refuses to close

President Barack Obama caps his pen after he signed an executive order closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Jan. 22, 2009.Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP

Obama promised to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in his first year in office, and indeed on his second day at the White House signed a presidential decree ordering its closure and the transfer of detainees to a prison in Illinois. But at the end of his term, the camp is still operational, with Obama having failed to resolve the issue of alternative placement of prisoners or their release.

Initially, Obama wanted to settle the first group of prisoners to be released – members of the Uighur community in China, who had fled to Afghanistan – among an American Uighur community in Virginia. Protests following, which evolved into Congress forbidding the release of Guantanamo detainees in the United States.

That posed another problem for Obama: how to convince allies around the world to accept some of these inmates. In addition, the Pentagon had no interest in trying these detainees in America, which would have led to either their imprisonment or release. Most of the evidence against them was inadmissible in court, since it was obtained through torture. After Obama released 15 prisoners to the Emirates in August 2016, 71 inmates remain in Guantanamo Bay. Twenty have been approved for release, according to the Pentagon.

No plans to leave Afghanistan

An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Pfc. Tyler R. Iubelt at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Nov. 15, 2016.Credit: Steve Ruark.AP

Even though the American presence in Afghanistan barely makes headlines in the United States and was rarely addressed during the election campaign, this has now become America’s longest ever war. American forces have been there for over 15 years, with more than 2,000 soldiers killed. Plans for an exit are still unclear.

Obama, who had promised to leave by 2014, explained instead that “the U.S. must win this war.” Concerns over the strengthening of the Taliban and the evolving of Afghanistan into a terror hub caused the president to send tens of thousands of soldiers there.

“Afghani defense forces are not as strong as they should be,” Obama said, explaining the difficulty in leaving Afghanistan in the hands of a local government – even after the Americans had trained the local army and paid billions for their presence there. In the meantime, the Taliban controls half of the country, even capturing the large city of Kunduz for two weeks in 2015. As Obama leaves the White House, 8,400 U.S. soldiers still remain in Afghanistan.

Volte-face on the LGBT community

It seems that not only eight years have passed but a whole generation when it comes to rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Historic reforms passed during his term now look obvious, with new and more controversial issues now making news. Obama said early in his first term that marriage is restricted to a union between a man and a woman, but since then underwent a big change. The United States has also changed, and is not the same country anymore.

In 2010, Obama abolished the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, in which the Clinton administration allowed the LGBT community to serve in the U.S. Army as long as they kept their sexuality a secret. “Tens of thousands of Americans in uniform will no longer have to live a lie or look over their shoulders,” said Obama upon canceling the policy.

In his second term, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across America, and transgender rights appeared on the public agenda. Obama mobilized for this fight, too. In July 2016, he canceled restrictions barring transgender people from serving in the military. And when several conservative states passed laws requiring people to use bathrooms according to their gender at birth, Obama instructed schools that discriminating against transgender students is prohibited by law.

When everyone was in shock following the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, the White House was illuminated in the colors of the gay flag – a symbolic show of support that was etched into the collective memory of the gay community. After the attack, Obama declared the Stonewall Inn – where the movement for gay rights in the U.S. was born – as the first LGBT site to be designated a national monument.

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