international analysis and commentary

A legacy of hope but modest change

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Barack Obama entered the White House on a promise of “hope and change.” He leaves as, to some, the worst president in history, who came close to ruining the country; to others, one of our most brilliant and competent, making the country significantly better despite battling a completely obstructionist Congress almost every step of the way. As in most things, history’s final accounting of Obama will probably fall somewhere in the middle.

The two defining accomplishments of Obama’s presidency occurred at its very outset and largely determined the rest of his time in office: his response to the financial crisis of 2008, and Obamacare. These are also good prisms for viewing everything else about his tenure.

Obama was elected largely because of the financial crisis. Despite the enthusiasm he generated in some quarters – and in spite of hindsight – his election in 2008 was no cakewalk: Senator John McCain led in the polls by as much as five points just after Labor Day, and still held the lead in mid-September. McCain’s ill-advised decision to respond to the stock market crash by “suspending” his campaign, however, and Obama’s contrastingly steady response, convinced enough skeptical Americans – many of whom are dismissed eight years later as “racist” Trump voters – to take a chance on the first African-American president.

Assuming office in the midst of the worst global downturn since the Great Depression – one that could have even eclipsed it if not for the prudent actions of a wide range of leaders, including but not limited to Obama – the new President took the basic action required to stanch the hemorrhaging: good old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus. Had the US followed the opposite austerity path pursued by most of the rest of the world, and advocated by Republicans, it wouldn’t soon have regained its position as the fastest-growing developed economy.

Obama has received perhaps a bit excessive praise from his supporters for saving Western civilization – massive stimulus was the correct, but obvious and conventional, response and did not require any great insight by Obama. He has, however, received too little (in fact, no) credit from his critics for keeping the Great Recession from getting even worse. This is for several reasons: Republicans decided from the outset to oppose his every action and deny him any success, even in the midst of a national (in fact, global) emergency. Obama’s accomplishment consists primarily in what did not happen – an even worse economic meltdown – a success that is difficult to spotlight. And the ensuing recovery, while one of the longest and steadiest on record, has been notably lackluster, leaving many behind – and angry. Perhaps none of this is fair to Obama.

But neither is it quite accurate to lionize him for saving the economy. In the stimulus, as in everything to follow, Obama was intelligent yet uninspired. Most economists, and certainly those amongst Obama’s own advisors, argued for an even larger stimulus than the one he ultimately embraced; the “small-c conservative” argument – advocating caution because of political difficulties – prevailed with him then, as it did often thereafter. Obama was unwilling to risk a bruising battle with Republicans over a much larger spending figure – yet, even after he tried to mollify them by diverting some of the stimulus into tax cuts despite economic advice to the contrary, they still were willing to fight him to the death over a “big-spending” stimulus package. For the same amount of grief, he could have purchased enough stimulus not just to avert total meltdown but also to turn the economy around faster and perhaps avoid the backlash that permanently lost Congress to the Republicans in 2010. 

At the same time, Obama left the details of the stimulus to Congress – which promptly loaded it up with pork-barrel spending because, well, that is what Congress does. That debased the entire concept to the public, reduced its economic efficacy, and in fact resulted in a lot of waste. It also meant that, despite the administration’s own mantra of not wasting a crisis as a chance to accomplish major change, the stimulus package became merely a huge but uninteresting example of textbook Keynesian economics in action rather than a truly transformative event. Obama clearly envisioned it as an opportunity not just to spend money but to build the infrastructure of a new 21st century economy that could promote US global domination, an economy built on a more educated workforce, high-speed Internet, technological advance, and cheaper, renewable energy. Unfortunately, the stimulus accomplished little of that. 

Most crucially, the Great Recession was not simply the bursting of a speculative bubble: It represented a “phase transition” from the booming late-20th century economy to the new economy of the 21st century, which will eliminate large numbers of existing occupations and life-paths – like the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, except at about ten times the speed. Like that prior transition, it offers dramatically higher incomes and world-changing opportunities, but also wrenching dislocations and deeper inequities. Obama’s stimulus plan reflected his understanding of the importance of this new economy, but his obliviousness to the fact that it was not an unalloyed good, in that half the country essentially would be obsolesced by it in their own lifetimes, caught between a recovery that would not reach them and a future that would not include them. The foundations for the coming, deepening division – and the politics of 2016 – had been laid. (This was aggravated by Obama’s failure, reflective of his general disinclination to confrontation and disharmony, to prosecute or seek retribution from those who caused the financial collapse and, in most cases, walked away richer at everyone else’s expense. This has stoked populist anger worldwide.)

And then came Obamacare. As it had been for President Bill Clinton before him, large-scale healthcare reform would become the tar-baby of his presidency and the graveyard of a cooperative Congress.

Beyond the always-pathological politics of healthcare reform, however, the main problem with Obama’s push was that it took his eye off the only ball that should have mattered at that point – the negligible economic recovery. This was compounded by the decision to address healthcare reform comprehensively: Essentially, the tactical decision involved making coverage more affordable for middle-class Americans, more available for low-income Americans, or both. Tackling the former first would have built political support for expanded coverage by making the healthcare system both more satisfying to most voters and cheaper overall (and thus cheaper to pay to expand).

In fact, Obama had been the one Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 (correctly) wary of creating a large, centralized, compulsory federal healthcare program. Obamacare as it finally emerged, however – as Hillary Clinton pointed out repeatedly in 2016 – was really Hillarycare:  Ultimately, as with the stimulus, Obama did not care as much about the details as about making the history books. But the massive reform gave fodder to Middle Americans who believed they were being asked to pay for Obama’s (and liberals’) greater interest in the poor.  Again, the battle lines of 2016 were already forming. 

The result was a presidency highly ambitious in conception, but far more mediocre in execution. Over the rest of his tenure, Obama was forced to pursue his agenda without, or in contravention of, the other branches – an impediment for which he deserves blame, not sympathy. As a result, he oversaw less grandiose, go-it-alone, actions – but these quietly wrought substantial changes in the nature of the country:

  • moving it toward cleaner energy, stricter environmental standards, and greater preservation of public lands; 
  • nurturing a more tolerant society with one of the swiftest social revolutions in history over gay rights, and pushing policies more accepting of immigrants;  
  • pursuing a more activist government than at any time since the New Deal in regulating large economic actors to protect those less powerful, like workers and debtors (especially college students);
  • promoting greater global integration and trade;
  • and, however much his critics may disagree with his conception of the public interest, restoring the expectation that government officials, especially the president, will pursue that public interest over personal gain and enrichment.

These all, perhaps unnoticed, made America greater. But the succeeding administration will now swiftly overturn every single one of these accomplishments. 

If “hope” were the entire job description, President Obama would go down in history as one of the greatest. “Change,” ultimately, not so much.