Obama’s Legacy: A mixed record of economic triumph and social unrest

text by Laura CreeseRaquel Espunyes, Veronika Lukashevich, Becca Meier, Jose Eduardo Freitas Pereira

video by Pierre-Antoine DenisRaquel EspunyesVeronika Lukashevich



According to CNN, 49.9 million Americans didn’t have health insurance in 2010. In order to change that, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as ‘ObamaCare’, into law on 23 March 2010.

The aim was to initiate a reform on the healthcare system in the US by providing more Americans with affordable health insurance. The ACA introduced a large number of changes. For example, health insurance companies can’t reject people with pre-existing conditions, limit their coverage, or drop those who get ill. ACA also covers preventative care and prevents insurance companies from charging more based on gender.

One of the key elements of the Act is the individual mandate. Since early 2014, having health insurance has been mandatory for most people. Unless granted an exemption, not having insurance means paying a tax penalty. Through federal or state online marketplaces offered by insurance providers, one can choose between four categories of health plans during an open enrolment period. All plans offer different costs and levels of coverage. For those who can’t afford to buy health insurance, the government offers subsidies, the amount of which depends on the person’s income. Also, Medicaid has been expanded in many states to cover low-income families.

The ACA should also benefit young adults. Those under 26 can now stay under a parent’s insurance plan. As of early 2016, about 20 million previously uninsured people have access to health care.

Economic growth

When Barack Obama took power, he was left with a major worldwide financial, economic and social crisis to solve. On 16 September 2008, the soon-to-be President said: “We are in the most serious financial crisis in generations”. Specifically, it was the worst crisis since World War II.

Exactly five years later, Barack Obama remembered this moment and said: “In a matter of a frightening few days and weeks some of the largest investment banks failed, stock markets plunged […] by the time I took office, the economy was shrinking by an annual rate of 8%”.

Once he took office, President Obama made the crisis a priority. The government directly invested $787m into infrastructure in order to save the failing banks, as well as create new jobs and provide job training. The economy took a new breath and the unemployment rate came back to normal.

However, after this quick response, no further important actions were taken during the president’s first 100 days of office. What is more, no significant financial legislations were voted, nor tax reforms passed, to prevent a similar crisis in the future. Barack Obama opted to focus his energy on international matters and social healthcare.


Gender equality issues

During his eight years in the White House, President Barack Obama introduced initiatives and signed legislations in favour of gender equality.

The first bill signed by the president was The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, underlining the importance of ending the gender gap. Other examples include the reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – an act giving women and men resources to help deal with their traumatic experiences – on 7 March 2013. The VAWA, initially written by Vice President Joe Biden in 1994, also introduced better protections for Native American women, and people in the LGBT communities.

He created The White House Council on Women and Girls (CWG) on 11 March 2009, and launched the It’s On Us campaign on 19 September 2014 to spread awareness about sexual assault on college campuses. Moreover, President Obama increased and supported participation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.


 dsgetch Flickr via Compfight cc
dsgetch Flickr via Compfight cc


Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter: the online campaign that has grown into an international activist movement. Despite its global reputation, many have been disappointed with how little the leader of the free world has been involved. And it can’t be denied: for this ambivalence to come from the first black POTUS is surprising.

It’s prompted many to comment that he prioritised his relationship with black people at the time of his campaign, but not since then. Of course, it’s not his lack of vocal condemnation of police brutality that is causing issue.

In October 2015, he said: “The African American community is not just making this up. …It’s not something that’s just being politicised. It’s real.” After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed, he said: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

It’s the disappointing statistics about black life that have followed him throughout his presidency: a third of black children live in poverty, black people earn $13,000 less per year than their white counterparts, and are twice as likely to be unemployed than white people. Many have asked why his speeches of support have not translated into figures.

Nobel Peace Prize

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, making him the fourth US president to be awarded the prestigious Norwegian prize, and the third to receive it whilst still in office. He received the award for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples, with the Nobel Committee citing that “only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

In receiving the award, Obama stressed that he would “accept the award as a call to action, a call to all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century”.

President Obama honoured his commitment to take troops out of Iraq in 2010. However, since then, sectarian strife and extremism have rekindled in the country. In 2014, the number of American troops serving in Afghanistan was reduced from 100,000 to 10,000, a sign that President Obama was abandoning his hopes of ending the two wars he inherited as president. As Syria turned into hell on earth, the president repeatedly made the case that any intervention would be “either futile or dangerous.”

The former secretary of the Nobel Prize Committee, Geir Lundestad, admitted in his 2009 memoir that the committee had not achieved what it set out to in awarding the prize to Obama.

Cubahora Flickr via Compfight cc
Cubahora Flickr via Compfight cc

Relationship with Cuba

Arguably one of President Obama’s most historic and unexpected achievements throughout his two terms, was the dramatic improvement in relations with Cuba. Almost 60 years of bitter tensions divided the two countries. President Obama was the first existing US president to visit Cuba since the revolution in 1959.

The tensions began when Cuban Dictator Fulgencio, supported by the US, was removed from power in 1959 by communist leader Fidel Castro. This ultimately led to a trade embargo imposed by the US and a complete break off of diplomatic relations.

President Obama undertook two years of secret talks. This led to the announcement in 2014 that both countries would be looking to reestablish their diplomatic relations.

Since then, there have been several historic moments, such as the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington DC. This is one of the examples of the diplomatic relations President Obama reestablished with countries around the World.

Climate change

In November 2008, President Barack Obama made a speech for the soon-to-come Global Climate Change Summit (COP 14) in Poland. He said: “Few challenges facing America and the World are more urgent than combating climate change”. While the words were there, the actions could not be found.

The Americans did not sign any agreement at that summit, nor at any of the six following ones. We had to wait until 3 September 2016 to see the United States, along with China, signing the Paris agreement for climate change. A smart move before handing power to the next leader.

Hachi Gatsu Flickr via Compfight cc
Hachi Gatsu Flickr via Compfight cc


Edward Snowden

6 June 2013: The Guardian revealed that the NSA is collecting millions of people’s phone records. On 7 June 2013: Obama said: “You can’t have 100% security and then 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices.”

It spelled optimism, but what has Obama actually done since one of the biggest revelations about mass surveillance in recent history? For many, the answer is “not much”. Despite Obama strengthening the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts, his government has faced widespread criticism for automatic support of US mass surveillance, evidenced by vague public addresses and weak promises. In any case, if Obama is going to be remembered for a role, it won’t be as a defender of civil liberties.

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