The Obama Presidency: Milestones... and missteps

Above: While Mr Obama signed many laws, the cloud hanging over his legacy is this: Can a president still be considered great if he has nothing to show for it - if his achievements are dismantled by the man who comes after?
Above: While Mr Obama signed many laws, the cloud hanging over his legacy is this: Can a president still be considered great if he has nothing to show for it - if his achievements are dismantled by the man who comes after?PHOTO: REUTERS

Healthcare for all Americans as well as the killing of Osama and the Paris climate accord may be Obama's crowning achievements but they are tarnished somewhat by foreign policy failures like Syria

As President Barack Obama heads towards the exit at the White House, his legacy remains very much up in the air. American voters chose him and his platform of hope and change in 2008. Now they have handed the reins of power to someone who has pledged to undo what Mr Obama has done.

Some milestones of his presidency can never be taken away, however - Mr Obama approved the raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and he will always be known as the first African-American president - but the stunning results of the 2016 presidential election leave question marks over nearly everything else.

Although Mr Obama took a more active role in campaigning for a chosen successor than most of his predecessors, the election left the Democratic Party without control of any of the levers of power in Washington. Republicans now hold not only the White House but majorities in both chambers of Congress as well. Judges appointed by Republican presidents will now also likely hold a majority in the Supreme Court for generations to come.

That leaves little protection in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government for Mr Obama's core achievements. The extent that core parts of his legacy will still be in place in four years' time will be determined by a party that has spent the last four years opposing him.

Up until the apparent repudiation on Nov 8, President Obama appeared to have a lot going for him.

He could, for instance, be considered as the man who finally gave Americans the healthcare reform they badly needed. While many, including the President himself, concede that the law known as Obamacare is far from perfect, it was at least a start. Some 20 million Americans who did not have health insurance before the law kicked in now do.

Yet the future of Obamacare is uncertain, primarily because the party now in power has tried dozens of times to repeal it. President-elect Donald Trump's pick for health secretary, congressman Tom Price, has been a vocal critic of Obamacare. While the politics of repealing and replacing the law might be difficult, the Republicans have made it clear they intend to try.

Mr Obama was also the president who saw the country through the Great Recession. Thus, he will leave office with the US economy as one of the brighter lights in an otherwise depressed global environment.

Overseas, President Obama's landmark achievements include a series of key agreements - the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, the Paris climate change pact and the Iran nuclear deal. The TPP was meant to be the anchor for the administration's broader pivot to Asia; the Paris accord reflected a big step towards solving what he considered the biggest threat to America; and the Iran deal served as the epitome of a key Obama belief - that the world's problems were best dealt with through diplomacy.

Mr Obama's eight years in the Oval Office saw their fair share of missteps as well. He looked weak when his infamous red line in Syria was crossed and his administration did not react. Similarly, Mr Obama was criticised for his response to the Russian annexation of Crimea.

At home, Mr Obama has said one of his greatest regrets was that rancour and partisanship had grown during his tenure. The current danger for the President is that if his best work is undone, all that will be left are the failures.

Thus the cloud hanging over the Obama legacy is this: Can a president still be considered great if he has nothing to show for it - if his achievements are dismantled by the man who comes after?

For some observers, the answer is still yes. Dr Jeffrey Alexander, Yale University sociology professor and author of the book Obama Power, said if Mr Trump does turn out to be wrong in vowing to unwind Mr Obama's achievements, it could yet validate the current president.

"I actually think that Trump's imminent effort to destroy the major achievements of the preceding administration will make Obama's policies seem that much more important... The Obama era will come to seem a Golden Age to which the American progressive tradition will look back with pride and yearning," he told The Sunday Times.

"This iconic status for progressives will make the possibility of overturning Trumpism that much more likely."

US-Asia ties flourished under Pacific President


US President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival in Jacksonville, Florida on Jan 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama billed himself as the first "Pacific President" soon after he took office in 2009 and he has largely lived up to that reputation.

Under his Asia rebalance policy, ties between the United States and Asia have flourished.

Mr Obama made it a point to visit the region every year of his tenure and attended nearly every one of the annual Asia summits. Earlier this year, he even held the first special meeting of US and Asean leaders on American soil.

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Killing of Osama a signature victory


Saudi-dissident Osama bin Laden (left) on Nov 8, 2001, sitting at his hide out at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. PHOTO: EPA

President Barack Obama's record on terrorism is marked by one big victory and many smaller losses.

First and foremost, he will be remembered as the leader who rid the world of Sept 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden but also the one whose tenure coincided with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

A number of smaller lone-wolf attacks such as the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and at an office party in San Bernadino, California, occurred under his watch.

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'Diversity makes us who we are'


Michelle Obama gives her final remarks as US First Lady at the 2017 School Counselor of the Year event at the White House in Washington DC, on Jan 5, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • First Lady Michelle Obama made an impassioned case for embracing diversity and welcoming all religious groups in a not-so-veiled message to her husband's successor two weeks ahead of Inauguration Day.

In what was billed as her last formal speech before President Barack Obama leaves office, the First Lady said at an event on Friday honouring high school counsellors that the United States belonged to people from all backgrounds and walks of life. "Our glorious diversity - our diversities of faiths and colours and creeds - that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are," she said.

The remarks were reminiscent of her vigorous campaign speeches in favour of Democrat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.

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New steps to bolster landmark Iran deal


 A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the US, Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The landmark Iran nuclear agreement is widely seen as President Barack Obama's hallmark foreign policy achievement, but President-elect Donald Trump has called it a "horrible deal". That has prompted the Obama administration to take further steps to bolster it before Inauguration Day.

Iran and the UN Security Council's five permanent members the United States, France, Russia, China and the United Kingdom, plus Germany, reached and endorsed the agreement in July 2015 and adopted it three months later.

The Obama administration says that before the deal Iran would have been two to three months away from building a nuclear bomb, but that after the deal the "break out" time has been extended to a year.

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Pivotal role in sealing Paris climate accord


The Eiffel Tower illuminated with the lettering reading 'The Paris accord is done' in Paris on Nov 4, 2016, to celebrate the first day of the application of the Paris COP21 climate accord. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • While the US and China agreed on little during President Barack Obama's term, one area on which they did find common ground was climate change.

The two countries were able to move the world forward on the issue, spurring the signing of the landmark Paris climate change deal.

The Paris Agreement took effect last Nov 4 - after parties accounting for over 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emission ratified it. It aims to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels. China and the US generate nearly 40 per cent of the world's emissions.

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Law that gave health insurance to millions


Julian Gomez (right) explains Obamacare to people at a health insurance enrolment event in Commerce, California on March 31, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, an estimated 20 million Americans have gained health insurance, but the future of this landmark healthcare law is uncertain. President-elect Donald Trump and his administration have promised to repeal and replace it.

The programme found its feet after a problematic roll-out in October 2013. Technical problems on the website left many Americans frustrated and unable to sign up for their insurance plans. Republicans leapt at the chance to cast the law as unworkable and an example of the failure of big government.

Nevertheless, 7.1 million people had signed up for Obamacare by April 2014. Until then, many experts had deemed the United States the last major developed country without universal health coverage.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Milestones... and missteps'. Print Edition | Subscribe