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Julien Mercille: 'From a progressive perspective, Obama's record is less than impressive'

Barack Obama’s contributions to the economy and health care were positive but his list of failures is longer, writes Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille Associate professor, UCD

OBAMA TOOK OFFICE in January 2009 and will leave this week, when Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.

Undoubtedly, Trump will be worse than Obama as President. Yet, this is not to say that Obama has been great either. From a progressive perspective, his record has indeed been less than impressive.

Obama – the establishment figure

Sure, Obama could not control everything going on in US politics. But as President, he obviously had the capacity to play a significant role in policy. It is true that for a large part of his eight-year tenure, he has faced a Republican-controlled Congress that was more intent on blocking any Democratic initiative than playing a constructive role. Yet, for the first two years of his presidency, Obama did have congressional support, and this is usually when many policies are introduced.

Further, even when faced with a hostile Congress, a president can shape public opinion by strongly supporting specific policies and explaining problems faced by the country. Yet, Obama didn’t do much of that and largely acted as an establishment figure.

Specific policies that will define his legacy

Let’s start with the positive. On the economy, Obama took office at a time of turmoil, in the middle of the financial crisis. He took steps to get the United States out of recession relatively quickly by implementing a stimulus package that revived the economy. That’s contrary to the austerity that Europe has implemented in response to the crisis, with worse results than in the United States. On that count, Obama did much better than European leaders.

Yet, there have been missed opportunities to transform the economy in a more progressive fashion. For instance, the big banks are even bigger than before the recession and Wall Street is still standing powerful.

Also, many jobs are precarious and low-paid, and inequality is still very high. In other words, many Americans haven’t benefitted enough from the recovery, which explains in part why Trump won the presidency, surfing on a wave of disaffection and rejection of the Democratic and Republican establishments.

Health and international diplomacy

Also, Obama made a positive contribution to health care with his Affordable Care Act, which halved the number of Americans without health coverage and benefitted low and middle-income households. Yet, there are still many problems with US health care, including high prices for medicines, and lots of wasted money due to private health care providers and insurers. Obama didn’t push hard enough to solve those problems.

Internationally, there have been some successes, such as the gradual normalisation of relations with Cuba, a policy which increasingly isolated the United States globally. Also, the agreement with Iran on nuclear issues will reduce tensions with that country, although the deal could be undermined by the new Trump administration.

The list of failures is longer

Chicago Air and Water Show Opponents to the US military's use of drones in warfare set up a drone replica display. Source: AP/Press Association Images

In 2009, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. But the next eight years weren’t peaceful.

When Obama came to power, he promised he would close Guantánamo within a year. But eight years later, there are still several dozens of detainees who held there without charge for 15 years. The prison is still open, at a cost of $445 million last year—money that could instead be spent on schools and hospitals.

Also, US military troops are now present in 138 nations, a jump of 130% compared to the end of the Bush administration. There has been an increase in deployments from about 60 countries in 2009 to more than double that in 2016. In 2016 alone, the US military dropped 26,172 bombs in seven countries (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan).

In particular, Obama has institutionalised drone warfare. Whereas George W Bush conducted about 50 drone strikes that killed some 500 people, Obama has authorised over 500 strikes that have killed nearly 5,000 people. Obama didn’t lose any time: three days after he first got into office in 2009, he authorised a strike that killed five children in Pakistan.

Moreover, Obama declared in 2009 that he would work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. But in fact, he has spent heavily to modernise the US nuclear arsenal. The expenditures will reach $350 billion between 2015 and 2024 and $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

Expanding surveillance even as he leaves

Finally, Obama has been harsh on whistleblowers. For example, Edward Snowden exposed the mass surveillance conducted by the US government around the world. Yet, the Obama administration has demonised Snowden. The same applies to Chelsea Manning, who exposed atrocities committed by the US military in Iraq. Manning has been languishing in a US prison. And there are other, similar cases of whistleblowers. Obama’s message is clear: don’t mess with US power.

True, a landmark bill was passed to reduce surveillance abuses, but the reforms remain modest. Indeed, Obama is expanding surveillance powers as he is leaving office.

Overall, although there have been some positive accomplishments on his watch, Obama has mostly disappointed those who hoped he would bring progressive change.

Julien Mercille is an associate professor at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille.

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Julien Mercille  / Associate professor, UCD

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