Across both sides of the political aisle, Barack Obama has won admirers for leading a relatively corruption-free administration over two presidential terms; avenging the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center by tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden; and bringing a personal dedication to the job that was not swayed by the dizziness of the office he held. His tenure’s high points include leading a largely successful transition of the U.S. economy from the financial crisis of 2007-2008, steady progress in job growth, leadership in climate change policies and attempts to bring accessible and affordable health care to all Americans. But he also faltered in implementing health care reform, failed to successfully convert public outrage over mass-casualty shootings into stronger gun control laws, and watched helplessly as income and wealth disparities widened, and political divisiveness grew to unprecedented levels under his watch.
“On balance, it is a very positive legacy,” said Eric Orts, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who is also faculty director of the school’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. He added that from a historical perspective, “especially with the contrast we are going to get [with Donald Trump], President Obama has come of out of eight years in office with a reputation for decency and a no-drama coolness that a lot of people will miss.” He also noted that “it’s hard to measure the impact that [Obama as the country’s first African American president] has had just for massive numbers of Americans who are not white.”
The two major themes of Obama’s eight-year tenure were “economic success and partisan rancor,” according to Theodore Ruger, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who is also an expert on health law and constitutional law. “It’s a complex situation with both, but he was involved in both of those developments.” Ruger said Obama led an economic recovery that was, “across all kinds of empirical metrics, quite palpable” and that he “deserves at least some substantial share of that credit.” But high among the declines during the past eight years is “the divisive nature of our political discourse, and … it has probably coarsened,” he added.
Orts and Ruger discussed the hits and misses of Obama’s tenure on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Depression Averted, but Income Gaps Widened
According to Orts, one “major unspoken legacy” of the Obama Administration was in how it dealt with the financial crisis. “We didn’t have a Depression, and people forget that,” he said. “That was partly owing to fairly good management, partly beginning with the Bush Administration but being carried forward. You had a Keynesian style of dealing with the crisis with infrastructure investments, et cetera.” He noted the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as another major development, even as the jury is still out whether all the changes it brought were good moves or not. “Parts of Dodd-Frank have been described as closing the barn doors after the horses have left, but other features of it, such as the setting up of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will go down as positives.”
But the record of recovery from the economic crisis had its share of blemishes. Orts said that with economic growth, although the U.S. has had a long record of recovery and 75 straight months of job growth, and the lowest unemployment rate since 1973, “it’s still true that we have had overall wage stagnation.” He noted that many see that income disparity as one of the explanations for why Donald Trump won in large parts of Middle America.
The other failure Orts listed is that Obama “hasn’t done anything to shift the long-term trend we see of increasing amounts of the wealth of the country going to the top owners.” Citing Emmanuel Saez, economist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he noted that the top 1% of the U.S. population still owns nearly half of the wealth of the entire country. “You are starting to hit record highs in economic inequality. That is a legacy that Obama may have wanted to do something about.”
The inability to clinch a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court judge who passed away in February 2016, also counts among the missed goals under Obama’s watch. Ruger said that “such a long delay in finding a replacement” for Scalia is “unprecedented.” He noted Obama’s own comments that the Republicans who blocked his nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, “didn’t pay a political cost” for delaying that process. But voters could eventually show their displeasure over such delays and respond at the ballot box, he added.
“President Obama has come of out of eight years in office with a reputation for decency and a no-drama coolness that a lot of people will miss.”–Eric Orts
Failure to Articulate Policy Intent
Obama did not do enough to communicate his policies more broadly, such as the 2010 Affordable Care Act, said Ruger. “There might have been some missed opportunities to build common ground around some precepts that are more widely shared. There is lots of blame to go around for our overly partisan culture, but perhaps the President might have done better there.”
Obama’s role in climate change policies will also leave a positive legacy, said Orts. He noted the U.S. role in securing the Paris Agreement at the 2015 United Nations’ climate change conference. “Trump would find it difficult to deliver on his promise of withdrawing from that, at least not without a huge outpouring of opposition,” he added. Also, he expected other countries that were signatories to the Paris Agreement to continue to be committed to it. “They are going to move forward even if the U.S. might shift.”
Obama was a better communicator in his second term than in his first term, said Ruger. In particular, he cited Obama’s speeches in response to the 2015 shooting at a South Carolina church that killed nine people and the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults. Orts recalled Obama’s tribute at the funeral of South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston shootings, where he broke into song. “That was a moving moment.”
According to Ruger, Obama could have extended that ethos where “he really spoke from the heart” to better articulate his policies. “It might have made a difference for the Affordable Care Act if he had been as personally invested in communicating the moral rationale for health care as he was of the moral imperative of keeping our kids safe,” he said.
Similarly, Obama failed to win consensus on stronger gun control laws, even though “he used a lot of political capital” to try to get a compromise through Congress. But he also felt that a big part of that failure could be traced to “the divisiveness and the rancor” that Ruger cited. “There is so much distrust already that even though you had a pretty strong public opinion in favor of tougher gun control after all those incidents, the political situation was just too divisive to get anywhere on it.”
Obama’s White House mishandled many aspects of implementing the ACA, including calling it Obamacare, said Ruger. “Apparently, people in the White House coined the term Obamacare — that turned out to be a colossal mistake, because in the polls Americans approve of the ACA but they don’t like Obamacare,” he said. He referred to University of Texas at Austin professor William Sage suggesting that the Obama team should have early on come up with a better name such as “Americare” or something patriotic, and people’s attitudes toward it may have been different.
Obama is not alone in failing to win bipartisan support for his health care reform law, Ruger said. He recalled a similar situation when the Labor Party in the U.K. spearheaded its universal health care program by creating the National Health Service in 1948. He noted that the voting on the NHS was strictly on party lines, and that it did not win a single Conservative Party vote. “But within two years the Conservative Party wanted to claim it as its own. That never happened with the ACA,” he added.
“He has the luxury, unlike older Presidents, to take control of his legacy and help shape it even more now that he is out of office.”–Theodore Ruger
Next for the Obama Legacy
Obama’s legacy as it relates to the Affordable Care Act is in danger of being unraveled if the Trump Administration repeal it or tear out significant parts of it, Ruger said. At the same time, Trump will not find that job easy, he noted. “It’s clear that Americans are nervous about government control of our health care, but polls show we are equally nervous about corporate insurance company control.” He said parts of the Act that regulate insurance company practices are “very popular, even among some Republicans,” including Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for the secretary of health and human services. (Price has been vague on repealing the ACA in Senate hearings, as The New York Times reported.) “So it’s going to be complicated to unravel it because there is a lot in there that Americans like across the aisle.”
Even after Obama leaves the presidency, he will continue to protect those aspects of his legacy that are most dear to him, Ruger predicted, noting that at age 55, he is still young: “His legacy is still in progress…. He has the luxury, unlike older Presidents, to take control of his legacy and help shape it even more now that he is out of office.” In fact, Obama tweeted this morning as he left the Oval Office for the last time: “I won’t stop; I’ll be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by your voices of truth and justice, good humor, and love.”
All said, Obama’s personal values eclipsed his missteps, said Ruger. “There’s no question that history will look at President Obama with very little question about his commitment to the job, to the American people,” he said. “There will be very few doubts about his ethics as plague most presidential administrations, and it was a remarkably scandal-free White House. There is a lot to admire there, whatever one thinks of the policies.”