Barack Obama: A most consequential President
President Barack Obama delivered his eighth and last State of the Union address on January 12. It was essentially a victory lap. He has earned it.
President George W. Bush's unbudgeted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reckless domestic and military spending had driven America's economy into a great recession by 2008. America was in dire straits when Obama assumed the presidency in January, 2009. "Too big to fail" financial institutions began to fail. The Stock Market crashed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted to a dangerously low 6500. The unemployment rate skyrocketed to over 10 percent.
Fortunately for Obama, for the first two years of his presidency, both the House and the Senate were under Democratic control. Within days of Obama's presidency, the Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, popularly known as the Stimulus Package, which pumped $831 billion into the ailing economy.
The Stimulus Package was based on the Keynesian macroeconomic theory which stipulates that during great recession the government should offset the decrease in private spending through the infusion of public funds to save jobs, and arrest further economic downturn by investing in infrastructure, education, health and renewable energy.
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had warned that the stimulus package was inadequate. Republicans, who had no problem bailing out Wall Street's financial institutions with 700 billion dollars of tax payers' money at the behest of President George W. Bush in 2008, were furious with the Stimulus Package, and predicted that it would lead to financial disaster. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had prescribed: "Let Detroit (meaning the American auto industry based in Detroit) go bankrupt!"
Fast forward to the present, and the numbers speak for themselves. There has been steady job growth under Obama (13.7 million new jobs in the last 69 months); from a high of 10 percent in 2009, the current unemployment rate is 5 percent. The Dow has nearly tripled from its 2009 low of 6,500 to over 18,000, making the rich even richer. And Detroit's auto industry is booming. If Obama were to gloat, one would understand.
President Obama's greatest achievement, however, is the Affordable Health Care for America Act (2010), the so-called Obamacare. America was the only western democracy without national health insurance. For a hundred years, presidents of both parties attempted and failed to enact national health insurance in the face of fierce resistance from the medical lobby and Republican politicians.
With a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (60 Senators) and a majority in the House, Obama had a two-year window (January 2009- November 2010) to enact the healthcare legislation, before the Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010 mid-term election. (The president's party always loses in the mid-terms.) Obama attempted to work with the Republicans for a bipartisan healthcare bill, but realised that the Republicans were not interested in helping Obama achieve a monumental legislative victory. Instead, they tried to run out the clock on him.
When Senator Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.They went ahead with the modest healthcare legislation the Senate had already passed, and discarded the more ambitious one the house had passed (which they knew that the Senate Republicans would filibuster.) Overcoming intense Republican opposition, the Affordable Care Act passed in the Senate on December 24, 2009, in the House on March 21, 2010, was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010, and upheld by the Supreme Court on June 28, 2012.
The Affordable Care Act ranks among the most socially progressive legislations in America 's history, alongside the following: President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal social welfare programme, The Social Security Act (1935) for seniors; President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programmes such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) that outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin; national social insurance programme, Medicare (1966) for seniors; healthcare programmes for low income Americans, Medicaid (1965);Voting Rights Act (1965) which allowed African Americans to vote by removing legal barriers. Republicans had opposed all these legislations. Thanks to Obamacare, the number of uninsured Americans has dropped below 10 percent for the first time ever, and 17.6 million Americans and climbing have gained coverage.
Another of Obama's achievement is the normalisation of relations with Iran, severed after Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Last July, America and five other world powers struck a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, which, despite staunch opposition from Israel and its friends, mostly in the Republican Party, survived a vote in Congress. In exchange for Iran foregoing its nuclear ambitions, crippling sanctions on Iran have been lifted, and Iran is now free to sell its oil, and conduct normal business with other nations.
Obama also normalised relations with Cuba, broken after President Kennedy's botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Last August, America reopened its embassy in Cuba. Restrictions on travel to Cuba and American companies wanting to do business there, have been eased.
Obama spearheaded the world's climate change agenda. In early January the world came together at the Paris climate talks to sign a historic climate deal with ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last October, Obama also signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, involving 12 Pacific Rim nations, with provisions to cut trade barriers, protect labour and environment interests and ensure intellectual property rights.
The continuation of the Obama legacy depends on who is elected President this November. If it is a Democrat, Obama's achievements will be fortified. If it is a Republican, attempts will be made to dismantle many of Obama's signature legislative successes. House Republicans voted over 50 times to repeal Obamacare. Last December, the Republican controlled Senate also passed a repeal bill, which will be successfully vetoed by Obama. Republicans now control both the House and the Senate. If they also win the Presidency, Obamacare will be under serious threat of repeal.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.