With less than nine months left in his term, President Obama must be thinking about how his presidency will be assessed by history. The 44th president had an unusually ambitious agenda upon taking office, but economic and political realities forced him to put aside some goals and compromise on others. Mr. Obama himself, in a 2015 interview with Marc Maron, host of the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” said, “Sometimes the task of the government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, we’re in a very different place than we were.” He sympathized with those hoping for more sweeping changes during his administration but said, “you can’t turn 50 degrees.”
Here are some of the ways in which President Obama has steered an ocean liner—assuming the United States has a fleet of them—by at least a few degrees.
1. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Perhaps the most important law of the past half-century, the A.C.A. cemented several new principles in American health care. Health insurance is now mandatory for all citizens, part of a grand bargain that prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions and that subsidizes premiums for those who cannot afford them. Obamacare also prohibits insurance plans that charge women higher premiums, and it requires that mental health be covered as comprehensively as physical conditions.
A poll by National Public Radio this February found that perceptions of the law are mixed, with only 35 percent saying it has directly helped the people of their state and 27 percent saying it has hurt people. Still, by many measures the law has been a success, with 20 million more Americans now insured, the uninsured rate dropping from 20 percent to about 12 percent and a lower rate of health care cost inflation than in recent decades. The Republican Party can still rouse its base by calling for Obamacare’s complete repeal, but with each year it becomes more unlikely that a president of either party will do anything to yank coverage from the newly insured.
2. The 2009 economic stimulus package. Mr. Obama’s first order of business was to deal with the economic crash of 2008, and he did it by reaffirming Keynesian economics and turning away from the “government is the problem” mantra made popular by President Ronald Reagan. He proposed new federal spending on infrastructure and health programs, as well as an expansion of unemployment benefits and funds for other social welfare programs. Michael Grunwald of Time magazine writes that the stimulus also “jump-started clean energy in America, financing unprecedented investments in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable sources of electricity.... It improved more than 110,000 miles of broadband infrastructure. It launched Race to the Top, the most ambitious national education reform in decades.”
Many Democrats wanted a much larger stimulus, but conservatives argued that any deficit spending would only worsen long-term economic security, and a $787 billion package passed with only three Republican votes in the Senate and zero Republican votes in the House. Five years after its passage, the White House estimated that the stimulus added six million jobs, and avoided a “double-dip” recession. Republicans called this guesswork and countered that the stimulus did not bring down the unemployment rate as fast or as far as promised.
3. The auto industry “bailout.” With General Motors and Chrysler near bankruptcy in late 2008, the incoming Obama administration feared a total job loss near one million, plus a collapse of parts suppliers that would have affected even the relatively healthy Ford Motor Company. Mr. Obama created a task force that gave $80.7 billion in federal funds to G.M. and Chrysler but on the condition that the companies formally file for bankruptcy, streamline their operations and shift the administration of retirement benefits to an independent trust. After these reforms, the auto industry became more stabilized and restored jobs (though not to the pre-recession level), and the Obama administration later claimed to have recouped $70.5 billion, or almost all its investment. The Obama administration calls the revival of the industry an unqualified success; libertarians object that the bailout simply preserved the industry’s high labor costs (i.e., wages) and perpetuated the power of labor unions.
4. The Dodd-Frank Act. Mr. Obama proposed reforms to the finance industry in 2009; the following year, Congress passed and he signed this legislation. It creates multiple agencies to monitor financial markets, regulate hedge funds and intervene to avoid a repeat of the 2008 crisis—for example, by dissolving large banks without government bailouts. Banks are now required to make less risky investments and to keep more capital on hand to cover potential losses. The law also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to write and advocate regulations on behalf of the borrowers of mortgages, credit cards and student loans.
Because of its complexity, the effectiveness of the Dodd-Frank Act is hard to measure and something of a moving target. Adam Davidson of the New York Times Magazine wrote last year that the finance industry has used hundreds of meetings with banking regulators, along with lawsuits over “every tiny detail” of Dodd-Frank “to change the letter of the law so as to alter its spirit.” But a New York Times financial reporter, Peter Eavis, concluded this April that “Dodd-Frank is mostly intact—and exacting slow, steady results. The act has stamped out many risky practices…. The largest banks appear to be slowly shrinking.”
5. Tax and budget compromises. In 2010, the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, ending any hope of a second economic stimulus package and forcing Mr. Obama to govern according to smaller-government principles. In December, he agreed to a compromise that extended by two years the income tax cuts signed into law in 2001 by President George W. Bush but also targeted additional tax relief to middle- and working-class families and provided new funds for unemployment insurance.
In 2011, Republicans demanded deep cuts in government spending as a condition for raising the federal government’s debt ceiling. Mr. Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which mandated a “sequester,” or across-the-board cuts, of $1.2 trillion in domestic and defense spending over nine years, unless or until the passage of a deficit-reduction package that saved the same amount of money; the sequester took effect in 2012. Since then Congress has softened the spending cuts in various ways, but using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations has become commonplace, and Mr. Obama has presided over a slowdown in federal spending. Critics say that spending is still high by historical measures and that we have failed to address the soaring costs of entitlement programs like Social Security, but Mr. Obama’s deals with the Republican Congress will make it difficult for any future Democratic president to increase federal spending greatly.
6. The “net neutrality” rule. Net neutrality pitted content generators (such as YouTube and Netflix) against cable companies and other Internet service providers; the latter wanted the ability to block content or to charge websites more to stream content that takes up more bandwidth. Mr. Obama eventually came down against different pricing for different content, saying “companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business,” and the Federal Communications Commission followed his lead by adopting net neutrality rules in 2015—over the protests of Internet service providers who argued that the rules discouraged technological innovation. In this case, Mr. Obama made his mark by staying the course and leaving things alone; no one knows how much the Internet as we know it would be different if your service provider could, say, make it more expensive to watch a video than to read text.
7. Rejecting the Keystone Pipeline. One of the bigger disappointments for Mr. Obama has been the lack of progress in addressing climate change during his administration. But he did catch the world’s attention in late 2015 by blocking the construction of the 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried 800,000 barrels of carbon-heavy petroleum from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The move may not have much of an impact on the emission of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, as the oil is already being transported by rail and other pipelines. (New E.P.A. rules limiting carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants would have a more direct impact—if they survive court scrutiny.) However, nixing Keystone and coming down against those who said the project would provide jobs and other benefits was a moral decision that put the long-term health of the planet over short-term economic growth.
8. The appointment of (at least) two Supreme Court justices. Mr. Obama has named two members of the nine-person Supreme Court; Republican leaders in the Senate are determined not to let him name a third, despite the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. In 2009, Mr. Obama nominated the federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace the retired David Souter; she became the first Hispanic and the third woman ever to serve on the court. With her confirmation, six of the nine members of the court were Catholic. In 2010, the president named Elena Kagan, U.S. solicitor general, to replace the retired John Paul Stevens. Because both women replaced justices in the more liberal bloc, Mr. Obama’s appointments preserved rather than upset the court’s ideological balance, but he has continued its evolution into a more diverse, and thus more representative body.
9. Speaking frankly about racism. In July 2009, Mr. Obama weighed in on the case of a black Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates, arrested for “disorderly conduct” after he protested being questioned by the police while trying to enter his own home. The police acted “stupidly,” the president said at a press conference, adding, “there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.” This was only one of several times when Mr. Obama reminded Americans that his own election did not mean that racism had ceased to exist. After Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by a neighborhood watchman in Florida in 2012, Mr. Obama pointedly said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And just a couple of months ago, the president met invited leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement to the White House to talk about the often-tense relations between police and racial minorities.
10. Criminal-justice reform. The United States is rethinking policies that have led to the incarceration of more than two million citizens, or four times the number in 1980. We now have 5 percent of the population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Many of the attempts to reduce mass incarceration and to reclaim human potential are taking place at the state level, but Mr. Obama has helped to steer the public conversation away from the “tough on crime” overreach that peaked in the 1990s. Last July, he met with inmates at a federal prison in Oklahoma, focusing media attention on excessive sentences for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. The president has also commuted the prison sentences of 248 individuals, convicted mostly for nonviolent drug crimes—more than the past six presidents combined. Criminal justice reform is the rare initiative with bipartisan support, and there is good reason to hope that the next president, whether a Democrat or Republican, will continue moving in this direction.
11. Civil rights for gays and lesbians. PolitiFact called it a “full flop.” In 2012, Mr. Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, telling ABC News, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.” As recently as 2008, in the closing days of his first presidential campaign, he told MTV viewers, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” But public opinion was rapidly changing as more states instituted same-sex marriage, and Mr. Obama adopted a more inclusionary definition, at least in the civil sphere. This spirit of inclusion also led Mr. Obama to issue an executive order in 2014 protecting federal workers and contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
12. Immigration policy. In 2014, the head of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the United States, called Mr. Obama “the deporter-in-chief” for overseeing more than two million deportations of undocumented migrants, more than any previous president. Such aggressive enforcement of the law may have seemed necessary while the president lobbied for an immigration reform law that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding residents, but that legislation died in Congress in 2013. So Mr. Obama, as he has done on several major issues, turned to “executive action,” announcing just after the 2014 midterm elections that some four million undocumented residents would be eligible for a new legal status protecting them from deportations and allowing them to work here legally. Republicans denounced the new policy as “lawless” and initiated a lawsuit against the president; the Supreme Court has said it will rule on the legality of the executive action before this summer. Immigration has become an ever-more partisan issue over the course of the Obama administration; as on other issues, Mr. Obama has positioned his party firmly on the side of pluralism and social change—and may have strengthened the Republicans among Americans uncomfortable with the speed and the scope of such change.
13. “No-drama” foreign-policy. In March, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed up Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy agenda as “to get out of office being able to say that he had shrunk America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevented our involvement on the ground in Syria and Libya, and taught Americans the limits of our ability to fix things we don’t understand.” Not everyone is happy with Mr. Obama’s aversion to tough language. The Republican presidential candidates argue that his low-key manner only encourages terrorism and instability. In the column cited above, Mr. Friedman also says the president underestimates “the dangers of his passivity,” and some Republicans argue that “no-drama” Obama is responsible for the popularity of Donald J. Trump. It is not surprising that presidential candidates (even Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state) are promising a tougher foreign policy, even if it means putting more American troops in combat.
14. Drone warfare. As a candidate, Mr. Obama criticized President George W. Bush for bringing “more and more power into the executive branch” and for extending the “war on terror” to include torture and the mass surveillance of American citizens. As president, he has scaled back some of the worst excesses of his predecessor (see “Presidential Powers,” by America’s editors, 4/18), but he has also approved the routine use of drone warfare, killing as many as 5,000 people, enemy combatants and civilians alike, with no record or accountability. Mr. Obama’s countenancing of what is essentially a death penalty without trial or appeal is in stark contrast to his support for a more humane criminal justice system within American borders.
15. Normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. In December 2014, Mr. Obama restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba and opened an embassy in Havana after more than 50 years of sanctions against the island nation, promising to “cut loose the shackles of the past.” He had been moving toward normalized relations since the first days of his administration, when he repealed some of the most punitive rules against travel and cash remissions to Cuba. At the time, America’s editors hoped (5/18/09) this was part of a move against the “approach of all stick and no carrot, which has characterized much of foreign policy in recent years, [and] has yielded little more than a world full of enemies.” Improved relations with Cuba, along with the negotiations leading to the nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran, also fits Pope Francis’ prescription to build more bridges rather than walls.
The Status Quo
In some ways, such as the advancement of the “free trade” Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Obama has followed the course of his predecessors. There are many other areas where he has not changed direction as much as he had hoped to do. He has expressed regret that he has not been able to reduce partisanship in Washington. Mr. Obama got the Affordable Care Act through Congress without a single Republican vote, but that kind of victory became impossible to repeat after the G.O.P. won control of the House of Representatives in 2010. With divided government, there has been little or no movement on major legislation to reform immigration, reduce gun violence or change the way elections are financed, and there is little reason to expect progress during an election year. Some course corrections have to be left to the next president.