In 10 days, Barack Obama will no longer be president. For his detractors, that will be a day longed for. For his ardent supporters, it will be an extremely sad day because of who is replacing him and what is coming next. It is likely neither side will be objective in their analysis of the two terms of the 44th president.
First and foremost, Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who helped the country take a major stride towards ending racism. His election in 2008 demonstrated that Americans would elect a non-white president. That was a major achievement for the nation, and President Obama symbolized our progress. Yet, the juncture of reaction to Obama’s election and priorities among some white Americans and the renewed frustration of African-Americans has produced new conflicts. Dealing with racism remains part of our future and not just our past.
President Obama will be remembered for presiding over the end of a great recession. In 2009, the unemployment rate was at 10 percent. Many predicted a long recession. However, unemployment is now below 5 percent. While many European nations struggled with austerity measures, the U.S. stimulated its economy. The result was dramatic. The U.S. economy bounced back much faster than those of other nations.
At the same time, those stimulus programs dramatically increased the federal budget deficit and the national debt. The debt to GDP ratio is nearly at World War II levels, which is dangerously high. Even if the budget was balanced next year (an impossibility), it would take decades for the economy to grow out of this massive national debt, much of which has been incurred over the past eight years.
Another distinction will be Obamacare. A main goal of Obamacare was achieved: the percentage of Americans without health insurance has dropped precipitously. In 2009, more than 15 percent of Americans lacked health insurance, and therefore access to medical care. Today, that figure is under 10 percent. The percentage of children in families without health insurance is even more dramatic — falling by more than half.
It may be difficult for those of us with company-based health plans covering the vast majority of our basic medical care costs to understand what it means to parents to take their children to a doctor without paying out-of-reach costs. Or to appreciate how important Obamacare was to a family with young adults who cannot afford their own private insurance, but did not qualify for a parent’s plan. Or to comprehend the benefits to those who, before Obamacare, could be removed from plans because of ill health or could not qualify for health care under any company’s plan.
On the other hand, the very partisan nature of the passage of Obamacare has produced the coming reaction. Republicans intend to repeal as much of Obamacare as they can. There is no replacement in sight, which means those gains in health coverage will be reversed. If the president-elect and the Republican congressional majority succeed, the Obama legacy will be a short-term program that never gained the widespread public support it needed to be sustained.
Yet another legacy will be education. The Obama administration placed a high priority on improving the public education system to better serve all populations, but specifically to help those who children who are at the margins in terms of educational achievement. The effort produced positive results. For example, over the past eight years, the percentage of high school dropouts fell from 10.5 percent to 6.5 percent. The news was even better for African-American youths — 12 percent to just over 7 percent.
On the issue of foreign policy, the Obama legacy is mixed. Relations with allies are better than in 2008. But the world is not a safer place today. North Korea has a nuclear arsenal it threatens to use against other nations. Middle East peace is just as elusive. Vladimir Putin and his brand of Russian imperialism are global threats.
Barack Obama accomplished much good while president, some of which will be overturned by Donald Trump. He failed in other areas. Nevertheless, it may not be long before Americans look back on his presidency with fondness.