In 2014, ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl asked President Barack Obama at a press conference if he was “bothered” by accusations that he could go down in history as a “do-nothing president” because of consistent pushback from an intransigent Republican congress. But despite some frustrations and false starts, when the president moves out of the White House in January, he will depart as a popular leader with several high-profile accomplishments—as evidenced by several statistics below compiled by the Observer.
His two terms may not have added up to a transformative presidency—there was no New Deal, Great Society or fundamental change in the way government functions—but he is set to leave behind a more inclusive, equitable and economically sturdy nation than the rickety one President George W. Bush handed to him on Inauguration Day, 2009.
Aside from being the Jackie Robinson of American politics, Obama steered the United States out of its most brutal economic crisis since the Great Depression before guiding the nation into the longest period of economic growth under one president since World War II.
Yes, it was only in the last two years of his presidency that many workers have finally surpassed their pre-crisis incomes, but many Americans in the darkest days of the global economic crisis would surely have found a slow but continuous positive trajectory to be a welcome improvement.
“The steady progress of the last eight years is vastly preferable to the rollercoaster ride of the Bush years,” said economist Christian Weller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He recalled the “Wild West Years” when gold prices surged, a real estate bubble burst, financial markets crashed and American families “paid a very heavy price.”
“We’ll see whether Donald Trump,” Weller continued, “figures out that President Obama left him an economy in really good shape.”
The restored economy is far from the only legacy Obama will pass on to Donald Trump. Faced with Republican Congressional leaders who publicly announced they would work to make Obama fail, in the hopes of limiting him to a single presidential term, he managed to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, which, despite intense and often hyperbolic opposition (remember the “death panels” rubbish), helped to provide medical coverage for more than 20 million Americans, eliminated pre-existing conditions as a barrier to insurance and allowed children under 26 to remain on their parents’ policies.
There was also the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which helped to recapitalize the banking system and sought to ensure that the economy wouldn’t approach the brink again.
“He took office in the middle of a crisis, and he managed to pass path-breaking legislation,” said Weller. “Those were massive achievements in the middle of a crisis.”
Obama’s presidency was, of course, about more than just the two highest profile pieces of legislation. In foreign policy, the president sharply reduced the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoided substantially deepening engagements in Syria, Libya and other destabilized countries and pivoted toward using drone attacks to eliminate numerous high-profile terrorists (and, often, others near them). These policies proved controversial, but they resulted in a sharp decline in American military deaths.
And the president ordered the risky secret covert raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, in Pakistan.
On the immigration front, the administration, often criticized as tolerant of illegal immigration, sent more than 2.4 million undocumented back home—surpassing President Bush’s own unprecedented deportation numbers. On the more compassionate side of the ledger, the administration also extended temporary protection to nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
In response to environmental concerns, the president instituted ambitious clean energy requirements, including stricter pollution standards on power plants. The administration incentivized the use of renewable power sources, as well as liquefied natural gas, and dramatically boosted automotive fuel efficiency standards.
It would have been hard to secure buy-in from Detroit, if the administration had not committed to rescuing Chrysler and General Motors in 2009 when they were in free fall.
A presidency isn’t just the sum total of its crises and landmark bits of legislation. It also consists of the evolution of the country, sometimes as a result of issues the president pushes forward, and at other times it is because the head of state doesn’t take efforts to staunch momentum, as was the case with the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide and marijuana in several states.
In other cases, the administration took more direct action, as when the president improved American judicial diversity by appointing unprecedented numbers of women, people of color and homosexuals to become judges.
With the transition to Trump looming, it is far from clear which of Obama’s actions and policies will survive. This is especially true given that Trump will benefit from Republican majorities in the House, Senate and, soon, conservative dominance of the Supreme Court.
But if Obama’s early presidential experiences with single-party majorities from his own party are any indicator, President Trump might discover that it is difficult to satisfy some ambitious campaign promises.
‘Everybody is looking for the home run—winning a war or reforming government at its core. But those are very rare moments.’—political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus
In Obama’s case, while he focused on health care reform, the stimulus package and Dodd-Frank, he proved unable to achieve predefined goals, such as a carbon tax, the closure of Guantanamo Bay military prison and comprehensive immigration reform.
For Carmel Martin, the executive vice president for policy at the progressive Center for American Progress, the blame for such failures should be assigned to Republican congressional obstructionism that included threats of “fiscal cliffs” and government shutdowns.
But in some instances, Obama simply ignored his campaign rhetoric. A candidate who argued convincingly for more government transparency oversaw a notably opaque administration and numerous government whistleblowers were prosecuted and imprisoned. Similarly, a candidate who promised to scale down the digital spying on American citizens later acquiesced to efforts to expand those powers (before some were later reined in post-Snowden).
A president’s legacy is ultimately a mix of their policy achievements and failures, what a leader represented, as well as the general evolution of the country while they were in the White House.
The initial presidential campaign of Obama, like Trump, saw both men talk about swinging for the fences, but presidencies often settle for small-ball progress.
“Everybody is looking for the home run—winning a war or reforming government at its core,” said political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus, co-founder of the Presidential Proclamations Project at the University of Houston. “But those are very rare moments.”
As America reflects on the Obama presidency, perspectives will surely continue to evolve. In the coming years, more elements of the Obama administration’s wisdom, and folly, are likely to become evident.
For now, one thing seems certain. When we look back at the Obama years, they will be bookended by the terms of a pair of controversial Republicans—George W. Bush and Donald Trump—whose gut reactions, speaking style and temperament could hardly be more different from the measured, analytical problem-solving leadership style of “No Drama” Obama.
In the coming years, it appears likely that President Trump’s in-our-faces reality-TV tendencies might highlight the more traditional and respectful elements of the Obama presidency. And that just might lead to nostalgia for a particularly respectful and graceful president, whose personal qualities—calm, civility, unflappability, thoughtfulness—many Americans appreciated even if they didn’t like his politics.
After all, President-elect Trump seems keen to continue lambasting the media, trolling celebrities and politicians and revealing policy in 140 character bursts, sometimes in the middle of the night.
“This president,” observed Rottinghaus of Obama, “may be the last one who acts presidential.”
Doing the Job?
When President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 with the U.S. and global economy in free fall, the traditional unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent, rising to 10 percent later that year as the worst economic crisis in seven decades deepened. In November 2016, with the end of his term looming, the rate dropped to 4.6 percent.
Restoring the Market
On January 20, 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had sunk to 7,949 points. By November 8, 2016, the day of the election to replace President Obama, the Dow Jones had risen to well over 18,000 points, a more than 225-percent increase.
The growth rate in 2008, the year before Obama became president was -.3 percent. In the third quarter of 2016, it reached 3.2 percent.
Ready for a Raise
In 2009, the median household income stood at $55,478. By 2015, that number rose by $1,038 to $56,516 after inflation.
Million Dollar Babies
Did Obama soak the rich? Hardly. Back at the end of 2008, the number of households with assets exceeding $1 million dropped to 6.7 million, a 27 percent decline from the previous year, according to CNN Money. But deep-pocketed America bounced back. The numbers of millionaires reached a record 10.1 million in 2015, reported Robert Frank of CNBC.
Crime Is Down (at Least in Washington)
Just one senior Obama administration official ended up with a rap sheet: CIA Director (and potential Secretary of State) David Petraeus, who pled guilty to sharing classified data with his mistress-biographer. During the Bush years, eight senior officials were convicted of crimes, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. President Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence for lying and obstructing justice during the investigation to determine who revealed covert CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to the press.
As of November 2016, President Obama had commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 people. That’s more than the previous seven presidents combined, according to Justice Department data. George W. Bush commuted just 11 sentences. Bill Clinton freed 61 people through executive action.
Closing Guantanamo—One Prisoner at a Time
President Obama inherited 242 Gitmo prisoners in January 2009. Over the last eight years, four have died in custody while 179 have been resettled, transferred or repatriated. So while Congress blocked his efforts to close down the U.S. prison on a military base in Cuba, 59 prisoners remained there as of December 4, 2016. Twenty of them have been recommended for release. Some are being prosecuted, but there are no plans for 29 Gitmo prisoners to be charged. The average cost per prisoner at Gitmo is about $7 million per year.
Number of prisoners officially brought to Gitmo under President George W. Bush: 780. Number of prisoners officially brought to Gitmo under President Obama: 0
Stopping the Insanity
Between the start of the Reagan administration in 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population skyrocketed by an estimated 890 percent, primarily due to the dubious War on Drugs. But in 2014, the number of prisoners in Bureau of Prisons institutions finally started to decrease, albeit modestly. In 2013, 219,298 people were in prison, which slipped to 214,149 in 2014. The number fell by another 8,426 inmates in FY2015. The New York Times recently reported that Obama will be the first president to leave office with fewer people incarcerated than when he was sworn in since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
Is Pot Legalization Up in Smoke?
Under President Obama (who admitted he smoked pot as a young man), the Justice Department put prosecutions of legal pot enterprises on the back burner. “During President Obama’s tenure, we have seen a steep decline in national marijuana arrests, mostly due to states implementing decriminalization and legalization policies,” reported Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Based on data from the FBI Uniform Crime Report, the number of pot arrests (sale of marijuana) dropped from roughly 93,000 in 2008 to 68,480 in 2015. But 420 fans get ready to flush your stash. Earlier this year, Sen. Jeff Sessions, who Donald Trump recently nominated for Attorney General, said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Republicans love to bash Obamacare, and the election of Donald Trump, who repeatedly labeled the Affordable Care Act (ACA) a “total disaster,” likely means the law is on life support. But data suggests that Obama’s signature legislation paid tangible benefits, particularly for the most vulnerable Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that adults, 18 to 64, with “Serious Psychological Distress,” such as chronic depression, who needed medical care but could not afford it, dropped from 33 percent in 2012 to 24.4 percent in 2015.
Dr. Benjamin Sommers, an assistant professor of health policy and economics at the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted a study comparing health care in two states that expanded Medicaid—Arkansas and Kentucky—with Texas, which did not. Expansion led to a 6.3 percent increase in screening for diabetes, an 11.6 percent decrease in respondents skipping medications because of cost and a 6 percent decline in the likelihood of an emergency department visit.
“[Obamacare] produced the largest gains in health insurance coverage since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965,” Dr. Sommers told the Observer. “As a public health researcher but even more as a primary care physician, when I think about people gaining health insurance I think about providing people with the dignity to take care of their health: When someone is struggling with a new diagnosis of cancer or a heart attack, or a parent is trying to raise a child with asthma or autism, the notion that they could not afford the medical care they need is simply heartbreaking.”
Between 2009 and 2014, the Obama administration deported more than 2.4 million people via immigration orders, a 20 percent increase from the nearly 2 million people President Bush deported during his eight years in office. But Obama’s deportation tally was higher than the total for all 20th century presidents combined, according to Department of Homeland Security data.
President Obama sought to protect about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation via a 2014 executive action, but a 4-4 vote of the Supreme Court in June put an end to those plans. But the president did shield 730,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as immigrant children from deportation. Their fate is uncertain under President Trump.
While Donald Trump, as the Republican presidential candidate, insisted that Obama’s cuts to military spending made it a “disaster,” the U.S. spent an average of $656.66 billion annually in constant dollars between 2010 and 2015. For George W. Bush’s two terms, it was $634.9 billion. President Ronald Reagan spent $565 billion when adjusted for inflation. (These figures exclude additional military-related spending by the CIA, Energy, Homeland Security, the VA and the Justice and State Departments.)
In 2008, 469 U.S. soldiers died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of early December 2016, 30 died, amounting to a difference about 176 percent, according to icasualties.org.
Death by Drone
President George W. Bush approved about 50 known drone strikes that killed about 296 terrorists and 195 civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Obama approved 506 such strikes as of early in 2015, killing 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians
Obama, as a political pragmatist and constitutional scholar who preaches judicial restraint, hasn’t exactly nominated dream judges of the left. Then again, his appointees have marked a sharp departure from the archconservative jurists George W. Bush tended to appoint, and they have advanced progressive causes, including same-sex marriage, while also offering a bulwark to the Affordable Care Act and clean air measures.
His appointees, reports Alliance for Justice, have also helped to make the people running courtrooms look more like America. Of Obama’s judicial appointees through 2015, 42 percent were women, which is nearly double the percentage of President Bush. And 36 percent of Obama’s appointees have been people of color, compared to 18 percent for his predecessor and 24 percent for President Clinton.
Obama has also appointed 14 openly gay judges; previously there had been just one.
Drill, Baby, Drill
Domestic oil production gushed during the Obama years. In 2008, the country produced 1.83 million barrels of crude, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2015, production spiked to 3.437 million, representing a roughly 88 percent increase. At the same time, crude oil imports fell from 3.581 million barrels to 2.687 million. We’re not energy independent yet, but we’re heading in the right direction.
One for the Road
When Obama reached the White House, new cars, trucks, vans and SUVs averaged 21 miles per gallon. By October of this year, that average had risen to 25 MPG, according to the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. (If current requirements remain in place, fuel consumption for each carmaker’s fleet must average 42 MPG in 2020 and 54.2 MPG in 2025.)
President Obama frequently touted his commitment to alternative fuel production, which rose significantly during his time in office. The amount of wind and solar power produced at energy plants nearly quadrupled from 2008 to 2015, skyrocketing from 56,227 to 215,612 (thousand megawatt hours).
The Center for American Progress calculated that President Obama designated a whopping 3.589 million acres as national monuments, more than any other president. Some of the gems now protected from energy exploration include the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico and parts of the Mojave Desert in California. His predecessor, George W. Bush, preserved 746,373 acres using the Antiquities Act—about five times less land. No president has ever reversed a national monument designation (and it is unclear an attempt would pass Constitutional muster), but some on the right urge Donald Trump to do just that. William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an anti-environmental law firm, told The Washington Times that Trump will have “plenty of power to vacate the illegal actions of President Obama with regard to those monument decrees.”
The Executive Order President?
Republicans sharply criticized Obama for skirting the Republican-dominated Congress by using executive orders to get his way when he is unable to win over legislators. But in fact, Obama has signed fewer such orders per year than any president since the 19th century. As of November 20, 2016, Obama had signed 260 executive orders. Those same Republicans weren’t complaining when President George W. Bush signed 291 during his tenure. But compared to many other presidents, both Obama and Bush have signed relatively few. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed more than 3,000 executive orders.
Just Say No
In battles with Congress, presidents have a powerful trump card, the power of the veto pen. President Obama averaged just one and a half vetoes per year, which is equal to President George W. Bush. Bill Clinton used his presidential veto power more than three times as frequently.
Vetoes: 12 for Obama (1 override), 12 for George W. Bush (4 overrides), 37 for Clinton (2 overrides).
The Late Night President
In March 2009, Obama became the first sitting president to appear on a Late Night talk show—and then he took to the interview couch more than two dozen times, including on the Late Show With David Letterman, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live and, recently, sans couch, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal.
The Lobby Crowd
Obama promised to take money out of politics. While in the Citizens United era, he didn’t take money out of politics, his presidency saw it plateau. Over the course of the presidency of George W. Bush, the amount of money lobbyists spent to influence policy doubled. Then it fell from $3.3 billion in 2008 to $3.22 billion in 2015, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Obama’s presidency also saw a 26 percent decline in the number of lobbyists. In 2008 there were 14,153 registered lobbyists, while that number fell, by 2016, to 10,882.
Will We Miss Him When He’s Gone?
In the week after the 2016 presidential election, Gallup put Obama’s approval at 57 percent and rising. Bush, as a lame duck president, scored below 30 percent in October 2008.
Eric Pape has worked as a journalist with a large focus on politics on five continents. He was a correspondent for Newsweek International and Spin magazine. He has written extensively for Foreign Policy, Los Angeles Times and The Daily Beast, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times and the Guardian, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ericpape.
Infographics by Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.