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The Successes and Failures of the Obama Administration

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

By Luke Montalbano

Image by: Tyra Parker - Voices of Gen Z

On January 29th, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated to the presidency. In little more than 11 years, Obama went from a young State Senator to becoming the most powerful person in the western world. When he entered office, he inherited many troubling issues from George Bush Jr., notably the Iraq War and the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis which was still shaking America to its core. He had to work together with the Democrats and Republicans to ensure a recovery from the economic crisis. To do this, he would have to take on unpopular, yet effective policies, many of which would spur controversy for the Obama presidency in years following. In this article, I will analyze some of the successes and failures of the Obama Administration, to help you draw your own conclusions on the effectiveness of his presidency.


Economic Recovery, Tax Cuts and Job Creation

As President Obama sat down in the White House for the first time on January 29th, 2009, he faced many issues confronting America, the most considerable being the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. By January of 2009, the financial crisis had put 11 million Americans out of jobs, brought unemployment to 7.2% and devastated capital markets across the country, most noticeably: real estate. The New York Times stated that, for the economy, it was “the worst year since 1945”. Mr. Bush Jr. brought in the first economic stimulus package the previous year to Obama’s presidency, which aided in preventing further economic collapse but it did not put U.S. GDP back into positive growth.

The Obama Administration realized that to attempt to solve this situation, high taxes on corporations and dissuasion of foreign investment would not be productive to stimulate growth. Because of this, he began to draw up a larger and more widespread economic stimulus plan than that of Mr. Bush. This stimulus plan, also known officially as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), brought in sweeping tax cuts, increases in healthcare spending, and allocated $275 billion USD for Federal contracts, loans and grants to incentive job creation. By the fourth quarter of 2009, GDP was back in the positive with an increase of 6.7% and the CBO projected that by 2012, the US economy would recover nearly 7 million lost jobs.

The ARRA managed to strike a balance between responsible fiscal conservatism and universal social programs that would successfully aid in the recovery of the American economy. The Obama administration has, in recent years, been viewed as widely successful in their efforts to counteract the failings of the Bush Jr. administration during the financial crisis.

Obamacare and Healthcare Reform

A common dinner table debate is the effectiveness of Obamacare, officially referred to as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Although it came with many drawbacks, notably its hurried implementation and high spending commitments, it came with many merits. In this section, we will discuss those merits of the Act and the implications on American healthcare because of its passage.

In the USA, the average health insurance premium for single person coverage in 2016, was $6,400 and $15,500 for family coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Officer. This price is a cost that has become increasingly affordable for most middle and low-income families and is deemed the highest in the world among countries offering similar private solutions. According to the New York Times Obamacare managed to successfully counteract this economic hardship by giving over 20 million Americans health coverage . Since the passage of the act, the USA was ranked first for healthcare spending in the world with a massive $10,000 USD being spent per capita in 2018 according to OECD.

As many American families no longer have the pressures to spend a meaningful portion of their savings for healthcare coverage, they have become increasingly more financially stable. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average per capita debt of Americans recently covered by Obamacare, from 2014 onward, has dropped from $1,600 dollars of debt to $1,000.

Overall, Obamacare has provided financial relief for many American middle and low-income families and has provided adequate healthcare insurance for those who could not afford it otherwise.

Carbon Emissions Decline

Climate change is one of the largest threats facing mankind and has been so for decades. Many would be surprised to learn that major advances in the fight against climate change came into being under Republican governments, specifically George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon. Obama seemingly took many lessons from these two Republican Presidents when it came to the environment, learning from their successes and failures. But did Obama succeed?

During his tenure as President, Obama successfully signed the Paris Agreement, a climate agreement with aims to drastically lower carbon emissions across the world. He also expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by six times its original size to 490,000 square miles - the largest marine reserve in the world. In 2011, the Obama administration cooperated with 13 major automobile companies to increase fuel efficiency standards such that by the year 2025 US oil consumption is expected to lower by 12 billion barrels per annul.

Obama had passed numerous acts, in an attempt to combat greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 2016 clearly shows his effectiveness in this field. Total CO2 emissions dropped from an estimated 6,000,000,000 metric tons in 2009 to around 5,700,000,000 metric tons in 2017. These numbers are a clear indication of the Obama administration’s successes when it came to combating climate change.


National and Political Unity

Map of the 114th Congress, subsequent to the 2014 US Senate Midterms. The Republicans were able to make significant gains in multiple states and captured 51.7% of the vote. (Image provided by author)

After 7 years in office, the Obama Administration had reached a low point in public opinion. Division in the House of Representatives was at an all time high, as was political polarization among voters. Donald Trump, a political outsider and populist, had been nominated by the GOP. Many Americans now believed that the old “establishment” candidates, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should no longer populate Washington. As we saw in the election later that year, the electoral college voted in Donald Trump, in a victory that has been challenged by the Democrats ever since. But how did this political polarization occur? What did the Obama Administration do to cause this massive shift away from the Democrats in 2014 and the election of a political outsider in 2016?

During his last two years of presidency, Obama was unable to come to an agreement with the Republicans on many issues. This led to his number of executive orders ballooning to 41 in 2016 alone compared to 21 in 2013. Many of these bypasses of congress led to the Republicans stonewalling Democratic initiatives to create a deadlock in congress –– they sensed Democratic defeat on virtually every level of national government. His inability to unite the congress through negotiation and compromise had very clear reverberations in the 2016 Presidential Elections, where Trump managed to pull off a victory in all federal legislatures. The ineffectiveness of Washington was clearly deemed a Democrat leadership issue by the voting public.

Foreign Affairs

When Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, the USA’s foreign policy agenda was filled to the brim with wars, Russian presence in the Arctic, terrorism, and environmental dangers. During his tenure, Obama managed to successfully negotiate multiple international agreements, notably the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris climate accords, and successfully “eliminated” the terrorist that had plotted 9/11. These major cornerstones in US foreign policy led the way for peace and prosperity in many regions of the world. Although these were some of the significant wins of the Obama administration, more often than not, the State Department was drowning in blunder after blunder in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

During the first years of Obama’s tenure, he bought into the advice of the Defense Department to escalate the war in Afghanistan, which failed miserably. Doing so provided no tactical nor political benefits and only wasted vast swathes of the US Defense budget that could have been spent elsewhere. Obama began supporting the Arab Spring, much earlier than expected, and did not give the State Department an adequate amount of time to draw up a proper strategy. This led to Obama launching into Libya with an unprepared armed force and then, after many failures, tried to disconnect himself from the action. The turnabout and opaqueness of his actions made many feel isolated from the conflict and entrusting of the true narrative of the events unfolding. He seemingly waffled his stance between Syrian chemical weapons and drawing a “red line” while also doing nothing to aid in defense of Crimea.


The Obama Administration had to make multiple difficult decisions, notably with the financial crisis, foreign policy, and Obamacare. The ultimate decisions made sparked massive confrontation with the Republican Party, because of spending, specifically embracing deficits.

Many argue that the acts implemented by the Obama Administration caused large deficit spending. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other similar legislation, all aided in the amassing of a sizable debt and deficit load. The first four fiscal years of the Obama Administration ran $1.294 trillion, $1.3 trillion, $1.087 trillion, and $679 billion deficits respectively. It is estimated that these consistent deficits, especially those breaching 1 trillion dollars, added between $2.8 trillion dollars and $9 trillion to the national debt. When Obama took office, the debt stood at $10.626 trillion and when he left it stood at $19.974 trillion, the largest increase under any president in US history.

Obama’s legacy has been far from conclusive and highly partisan. He came in with such high inspiration and promise and was elected twice to fulfill this promise. 2014 showed that people were upset nearer to the end of his term but does this define his presidency? His legacy is under much debate, perhaps only history will decide whether his tenure as president was a success or a failure.

Written by writer Luke Montalbano

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