As President Obama enters his last full year in office, his supporters and critics alike have begun to debate his legacy, seeking to shape the first-draft assessment of “the Obama years.” President Obama has been one of the most polarizing figures in recent American political history, so it is no surprise that judgements of his domestic policy accomplishments diverge sharply along partisan and ideological lines. Even many of his supporters, however, would acknowledge that his domestic policy accomplishments will in many areas fall frustratingly short of the aspirations that they had on his historic election in 2008.
Any assessment of Barack Obama’s domestic policy legacy must begin with the Affordable Care Act (often called “Obamacare”), a sprawling piece of legislation championed by the President and passed by Congress in 2010 in an attempt to provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and to create financial sustainability within the American healthcare system. Stopping short of a single-payer or National Health Service model, the law rests on three key pillars: a mandate that all individuals purchase health insurance (if they are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, which the ACA expanded), extensive subsidies to low – and middle – income individuals to make that insurance affordable, and a requirement that insurers offer policies even to those with pre-existing health problems. The law has clearly succeeded in reducing the number of uninsured in the United States (from about 18% to about 12% of adults, according to one reliable estimate). The long-term financial sustainability of the system, however, and its overall impacts on American healthcare costs, remain murky, and the subject of considerable debate. Democrats tend to see the economic stresses in the Obamacare system as modest and manageable; Republicans are more inclined to see them as fundamental and severe. In any case, passage of the ACA will likely be regarded as the most significant domestic policy achievement of the Obama presidency. Obamacare has yet to attain majority support from the American people, and the program will certainly be revised going forward (more fundamentally if the next president is a Republican). However, there will realistically be no return to the status quo ante; a permanent, significant reduction in the number of uninsured Americans will be a major part of the Obama legacy.
Another major domestic policy area in which President Obama has sought to act—largely without success—is immigration. From the time he came to office, Obama has talked about the need for “comprehensive immigration reform,” a phrase generally taken to mean some path to legal status for the millions of immigrants who have been in the United States illegally for an extended period of time, in tandem with some level of enhanced border security. While Democrats controlled Congress in 2009 and 2010, however, Obama chose not to push for major immigration policy reforms, focusing instead on Obamacare; once Republicans captured the majority in 2010, Obama’s immigration agenda became moribund. Unable to reach any agreement on immigration with Congressional Republicans, President Obama sought in 2014 to address the issue through unilateral executive action, suspending deportations for those who had been brought to the United States illegally as children and for all undocumented adults with children who are citizens or legal permanent residents. Immediately, however, Republican leaders in twenty-six states sued to block the action, claiming that it was an unconstitutional overreach of executive power. A Federal Appeals Court agreed; as a result, the executive action remains unenforced, pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if President Obama should prevail before the High Court, his action is only a partial and provisional response to the illegal immigration question. The suspension of deportations only affects some undocumented immigrants, could be reversed at any time by any of his successors, and grants no path to eventual citizenship. Moreover, acrimony over the executive action has only deepened divisions between Democrats and Republicans on the immigration issue. Thus, truly comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform seems farther away than ever.
A less tangible, but perhaps even more important, aspect of President Obama’s domestic legacy is the tone and tenor of American social and political life. When he was initially seeking office, candidate Obama talked often of transcending partisan divides, of representing “purple” (rather than “red” or “blue”) America. In addition, taking office as he did in the wake of the global financial crisis, President Obama promised to ease Americans’ economic fears and restore a sense of economic optimism, especially among the middle class. Finally, many commentators openly hoped that the election of a mixed-race president could heal many of the wounds left by America’s difficult racial history, improving race relations and ushering in a more “post-racial” era of national life. Thus, on many fronts, Obama—the candidate of “hope” and “change”—sought to leave the national discourse in a more cooperative and optimistic state than he found it.
Sadly, those aspirations cannot reasonably be judged as anything other than failed. Partisanship has not abated during the Obama administration; rather, Democrats and Republicans (both in the public and, especially, in Congress) are farther apart ideologically than at any time in modern history. It is difficult to imagine President Obama working constructively with the Republican Congress on any major domestic policy issue. Moreover, despite clear economic improvement since the depths of the recession in 2009, Americans—especially working-class ones—have not become especially sanguine about their future. Even with unemployment around 5% and steady (if modest) GDP growth, most Americans believe that the economy is getting worse, not better, according to the most recent Gallup surveys. More broadly, only 26% of Americans believe that the country is generally headed in the “right direction,” according to polling from Rasmussen Reports. Finally, the picture in the more specific area of race relations is similarly bleak. The Obama presidency has witnessed racial demonstrations (of varying intensity) in cities throughout the country, often in response to allegations of police brutality against African Americans. Racial grievances have recently flared on college campuses all over America, often in explicit solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Whatever one may think of the merits of these various protests, they are not the hallmark of a society on the road to racial reconciliation. Americans seem intuitively to sense this; in a 2015 Gallup survey, 53% answered that relations between whites and blacks were either “somewhat bad” or “very bad” (by comparison, only 30% offered these responses in 2008). Clearly, while one can hardly lay all of the blame for these sentiments at Obama’s doorstep, his presidency has not produced the easing of partisan and racial tensions, or the surge in national optimism, that his supporters in 2008 fervently hoped for.
Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas