‘Yes we can’. Three simple yet powerful words that echoed from the Grant Park stage in Chicago, Illinois on the night of November 4th 2008. His victory speech, powerful as always, was performed behind 2 inches thick, 10 feet high bulletproof glass, precautions testament to the momentous event – the first black president. Yet the Republicans instantly replied with a defiant ‘no you can’t’ as they barricaded themselves within congress whilst simultaneously declaring their main priority to be making that mountain climb Obama often spoke of, longer, harder and more dangerous; and so the GOP (Grand Old Party) became the Great Obstructionist Party.

This is often the defence the Obamaphiles portray when tasked with the question over the former president’s legacy. Of course, the Republicans presented themselves to be an obnoxious affront to the political will of the American public however to solely blame them for the failures of his presidency would be a disastrous oversight to his legacy. This was a presidency defined by speeches. The tense pauses coupled with his mighty crescendos will leave him to be regarded as one of the great orators yet did those speeches ever translate into action, policy, and change? It seems the hope he generated was just that, hope, wishful thinking. Obama succeeded on many fronts, however, his domestic policy often overtook his foreign policy with devastating consequences.

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Obama performing his victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago

Barry, as he was often known as in his youth, came into office inheriting a poisoned chalice, a country in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the great depression. The economy was staring down a cliff edge and the world began to tilt over its side as the U.S appeared to be the country that would be hit hardest. No doubt Obama did well to mitigate the catastrophe beset upon the global economy by reprehensible bankers through his stimulus package. That package being the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), a $831bn gradual injection into the economy in the hope that it would save jobs and counteract the diminished private spending during the recession. This piece of legislation effectively saved and helped create 11.3 million jobs throughout his presidency proving to Europe that the Keynesian method of increased public spending during a recession is much more successful than the European austerity. The jobs created surpassed those of his predecessor five fold yet this achievement was a double-edged sword. The increase in median household incomes has been meagre in comparison to the rather lucid economic growth, productivity in labour is surging yet at the same time real wages are still stagnant and have been since the 1970s. This is testament to the even faster growing inequality that still plagues America, the bail out of the banks and the reinvestment scheme of the ARRA proved to actually concentrate wealth even further in the most affluent in society. Even though the Dodd-Frank Act passed under Obama in 2010 brought some financial regulation back to the banking system, which did lead to an increase in stability, it has not gone far enough and not all of the measures have even been implemented yet. Furthermore, the banking sector still trades heavily in derivatives and bespoke tranche opportunities and portfolios, which were largely responsible for the crash. Obama continues the economic legacy of the Watergate babies; he has failed to stop the advances of deregulation, anti-competition, and economic concentration, all harmful to America both socially and economically. Soon this trend will be unsustainable as the plutocrat Nick Hanauer often states, ‘the pitchforks are coming’.

Workers produced much more, but typical workers’ pay lagged far behind: Disconnect between productivity and typical worker’s compensation, 1948–2013
Real wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, continuing under Obama. Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Bureau of Labour Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis data

On the forever contentious issue of healthcare however, the orator prevailed and triumphed as no other president has had before him. To understand the magnitude of his success one needs to look no further than Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, whose remarks on the momentous bill, ‘this is a big fucking deal’, perfectly illustrate just how historic this event was. It is essential to understand that the American people detest big government or any other form of government intervention, they see the NHS as an infringement on individual rights and the welfare system as a scheme for the lazy to exploit. It is possible to trace this fear of federal power to the colonial rule of the British, when the states were bullied around by a monarchic empire enforcing unfair taxes and legislation upon the masses on the other side of the Atlantic. Thus the American constitution was born from the founding fathers, framed to ensure federal government would never be able to impose its will upon states or the people and a tyrant would never be given the mantle of power they so gratuitously lust. Of course, they succeeded, possibly to the detriment of millions of Americans.

Healthcare comes into this because Obama strived and pushed for an idea of universal healthcare provided for by the government. Such federal power is unprecedented and the bill itself imposed harsh regulations and threatened the free market system. American healthcare prior to this was solely provided by private for-profit insurance companies often leading to poor care and it being too expensive. Nevertheless, facing opposition from both the Republican party and his own Democratic party, he passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. Whilst imperfect with its soaring premiums, this bill guaranteed healthcare for an extra 22 million Americans, many of whom would have been far too wealthy to enrol themselves within the Medicaid scheme yet too poor to actually purchase an insurance plan. Healthcare is essential to a working economy, it fundamentally allows the poor to break the poverty cycle and finally emerge as a wealthier citizen. The bill itself revolves around the main principles of the individual mandate, the guaranteed issue and the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. The individual mandate calls for every citizen to buy insurance or face a penalty; the guaranteed issue ensures that insurance companies cannot discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, your sex or age; and the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid allowed for an increase in coverage for the elderly and those below a certain income threshold – the poor. This is just a tip of the iceberg for the almost 1000 pages long piece of legislation. Ironically this legislation is not even a Democratic bill; its ideals were devised by republicans, most notably Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. Furthermore, the fact remains that is it laden with pitfalls, it is a piece of legislation rushed through congress before lawmakers even had the chance to read it. With premiums soaring it has failed to maintain its affordability, it failed to ensure the government’s ability to bid down the price of drugs for Medicare, and plans offered through the Obamacare exchange program are often poor and limited in comparison to employer provided insurance. Therefore, the self employed are often hit hardest when they find out doctors won’t accept their plan as they are brutally made aware when the doctor replies over the phone ‘sorry, we don’t take Obamacare’. This system runs on the assumption that Americans will become healthier in the future however instead, since its introduction, insurers have found their customers are getting older and sicker meaning they lose profit. This has led to the insurers passing on the cost to wealthier customers which has in turn not only led to higher premiums but deterred younger Americans from signing up. This procedure occurs in a loop and many Republicans claim it will lead to the system collapsing due to the cost of healthcare continuously rising. This was a piece of legislation characterised as a God-given saviour to the American healthcare problem, in reality it is an imperfect piece of legislation that has met numerous pitfalls and obstructions within congress. A Democratic congresswoman who supported the bill was even shot in the head whilst hosting a town hall event for her constituents. Over 60 challenges have been raised against Obamacare by Republicans through both courts and bills in congress; all have failed. However, the republican-led House of Representatives did manage a federal government shutdown on the 1st October 2013 when both the Senate and House failed to pass into law an appropriations bill effectively funding government led schemes. Nearly one million federal employees were given a leave of absence because Republicans aimed to prevent the funding of Obamacare and other legislation (this move was spearheaded by none other than Ted Cruz himself). Obama did well to resist these attacks to his credit, however, the imperfections of the Affordable Care Act still remain unchanged. Regardless of this, no one can take away from Obama the fact that on major healthcare reform, seven presidents tried, seven presidents failed – Barack Obama did not.

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Obamacare has and always will remain a highly contentious issue in the United States

On healthcare Obama did achieve some sort of legislation but when it comes to another policy area for which he cared so deeply about, he failed dramatically. When 20 children, aged six to seven years old, were shot dead by a deranged 20 year old on the 14th December 2012, the President gave a remarkable eulogy two days later as a solitary tear rolled down his face. As he read the name of each victim, Obama recounts how he saw a Secret Service member cry quietly in the corner. Six year olds murdered in a school, a place they expected to be a safe haven. ‘This is the fourth time since I’ve been President’ he recounts, ‘and in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children.’ – ‘Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children is the price of our freedom?’ he asks. He has often cited the massacre as the darkest day of his presidency, a day he’ll never forget and a day he’ll always regret. When he stood in the Rose Garden in April 2013 with the victims’ families behind him, the anger clear in his voice, he voiced his frustration at congress’ refusal to widen background checks upon dealers and purchasers of firearms, in response to the shootings. ‘This was a pretty shameful day for Washington’ he declared. Often seen as the classy President it was clear that day he put that attitude aside and directed his anger at the politicians who refused to implement logical procedures, not because of mature reasons – of which there are few – but politics. These politicians were afraid of the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), releasing ad campaigns criticising the senators for infringing upon the 2nd amendment (the right to bear arms). This is representive of a deeper problem within Washington, they do what the lobbies tell them to. Thanks to the Citizens United supreme court ruling any company can donate and spend an unlimited amount upon their preferred candidate which inevitably leads to a system whereby lobbies essentially control the votes and actions of lawmakers. Of course the issue of gun control was never resolved. The process was on a loop, another mass shooting, the President takes the stage with a heart-felt speech for history, he pushes gun control, congress says no. It is devastating to witness the fall from ‘yes we can’ to the sheer helplessness he found himself in regarding an issue so close to him personally. This time as nine black people are senselessly gunned down in the Emmanuel African Methodist Church in 2015 by a white supremacist, Obama once again gives the eulogy as he leads Amazing Grace in honour of the fallen and with respect to the grace of the Reverend who lost his life. One can be excused for thinking  that these impassioned displays, the need to powerfully present and honour the lives lost in countless mass shootings are partly a desperate attempt by the President to shield the public from the truth; that these shootings won’t end any time soon. One can only feel sorry for the former president; the limitations of the office and the power of the lobbies would mean any form of gun control would be near impossible. This is a black mark in his presidency, however, one that he should not bear all the responsibility for.

Domestically Obama’s record is a relatively mixed bag. No one can deny him the extra 11.3 million jobs he created or the extra 22 million he put on healthcare but even his successes have been half-hearted. His economic revival plan has not fed down to the poorest in America, his plan to protect homeowners from foreclosures was never implemented and even his historical healthcare bill has remained contentious and littered with flaws. Even though he has had relative success in passing a socially liberal agenda, race relations under his two terms in office have faltered with police brutality resurfacing as major issue. He was outspoken on gun control and yet he failed to translate that into law as congress stood against him. On all of these issues, Obama failed to meet expectations. When he travelled through the States campaigning on his message of hope, few expected him to churn out results such as these on his home turf and sadly his legacy in the international community will not stand the test of time either.

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