Obama's legacy: From healthcare reform to the Paris Agreement

In part two of our look back at the Obama years, we examine his environmental record and how he fared in the US itself

Obama's legacy: From healthcare reform to the Paris Agreement

Picture by Charles Rex Arbogast AP/Press Association Images

"Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter" - Barack Obama, inaugural address, 2009

We have already looked at the approach of Barack Obama to international affairs during his presidency, but it was of course within the borders of the US that he had the most impact. As President Obama moved to fulfill his policy promises, he spent much of his two terms attempting to realise his proposed legislation against often fierce political opposition. 

You can read part one of this feature - Obama's global legacy: From Peace Prize to drone strikes - here


"While a number of factors led to such a severe recession, the primary cause was a breakdown in our financial system. It was a crisis born of a failure of responsibility from certain corners of Wall Street to the halls of power in Washington. For years, our financial sector was governed by antiquated and poorly enforced rules that allowed some to game the system and take risks that endangered the entire economy" - Barack Obama, 2010

When Obama entered the White House, the financial crisis was the issue of the moment - a devastating collapse that destroyed long-established institutions, exacting an immeasurable human cost in the process.

One of the major pieces of legislation introduced in the first months of his administration was a massive economic stimulus project, worth in excess of $800bn. It included a large range of measures, from increased unemployment benefits to subsidies & reliefs for healthcare, education & energy. Above all, the goal was to create and save jobs.

While debate has continued over the effectiveness of that act - which was followed by other major initiatives such as the bail out of the auto industry - the US economy did improve dramatically during Obama's tenure. 

In this June 8, 2009, file photo Joe Biden talks to Barack Obama during a Cabinet meeting. Picture by Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP/Press Association Images

While certainly influenced by actions taken by his predecessor and countless factors beyond his control around the globe, the reality that the recession did end under Obama was a point of pride for the administration. Unemployment fell dramatically from 7.8% to 4.7%, while GDP went from negative to positive growth. President Obama also signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law - one of the major legislative measures introduced in an effort to avoid another crash on the scale of 2007.

And yet, echoing the situation seen elsewhere, the economic recovery was far from smooth sailing. Stimulus packages added dramatically to the already growing national debt. It was an uneven recovery - the poverty rate of 13.5% recorded in 2015, for example, was slightly higher than the one recorded in 2008.

All of this, it's important to note, came amid inevitable social, industrial and economic changes, such as an ageing 'baby boomer' population, and the shift away from traditional manufacturing jobs.

Obama cannot take full credit or indeed full blame for shifts in the economic fortunes of the US, but you need look no further than the support base for the new president to see how many people believe that they have been left behind by the much heralded economic recovery. 

On a more global scale, perhaps the defining international trade deal was the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Although talks predated Obama, it was only in 2016 that he and 11 other leaders signed the controversial deal, which is still yet to be ratified. Both Hillary Clinton and Trump were critical of the deal during the election campaign, and under President Trump implementation now seems unlikely. 


Picture by Jon Elswick AP/Press Association Images

“In the United States of America, healthcare is not a privilege for the fortunate few - it is a right.  And I knew that if we didn’t do something about our unfair and inefficient healthcare system, it would keep driving up our deficits, it would keep burdening our businesses, it would keep hurting our families, and it would keep holding back economic growth.” - Barack Obama, 2013

If you asked people to name one piece of legislation they associated with the Obama presidency, it would likely be the Affordable Care Act. Sure, that’s partially because the popular name for the act is Obamacare, but it was also a symbol of the Obama presidency - the opposition he faced, the compromises he made, and the goals he attempted to achieve.

Obama made several promises about healthcare during his election campaigns, and as Politifact notes, he had mixed success in implementing them. Certainly Obamacare providing health insurance to 20 million more Americans is no small achievement, even if still some distance away from the national health systems seen in most other developed economies.

The ACA does, however, provide guarantees to people with pre-existing conditions, and also helped create a health insurance marketplace, although its implementation is not uniform across the US.

And yet, Obamacare has been dogged by opposition and compromise.There were major political and legal challenges both at federal and state levels, and memorably, the launch of Healthcare.gov in 2013 was near disastrous.

Despite the hardships he faced in getting it passed, Obamacare is undoubtedly one of Barack Obama's proudest achievements from this time in office. It is also a precarious achievement, and the one least likely to survive the Trump years.

Domestic and social policy

"At a certain point I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" - Barack Obama, 2012

Democrats are often only 'progressive' compared to their Republican rivals, but in terms of social progress there have been a few notable accomplishments during the Obama years. 

Before he was president, he flip-flopped somewhat on the issue of gay marriage. During the 2007/08 election campaign, he spoke out strongly in favour of LGBT rights, but not in support of full same-sex marriage.

That changed in 2012 when he publicly announced his support for marriage equality. His hand on the matter was arguably forced by Joe Biden announcing his support before Obama himself, but either way, the announcement was historic. He leaves office less than two years after a landmark US Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry.

The historic significance of becoming the first black US president cannot be understated, but there has arguably been a deterioration in race relations in the US over the course of the Obama presidency. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and tensions over police shootings has been countered by an increased visibility of white nationalism. In a New York Times and CBS News poll last summer, the results showed that 69% of Americans said race relations are generally bad - the same level recorded during the 1992 riots in LA. 

Over the course of his presidency and an ever-increasing list of mass shootings in the US, it was clear Obama became more and more frustrated over the prevalence of gun violence in his country. He was visibly moved and horrified during his responses to incidents such as the Sandy Hook massacre, giving one of his most memorable and unguarded speeches as president in its wake.

"All of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies," he said last year. "All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislatures and businesses do their part to make our communities safer."

Progress has, however, been slow when it comes to 'common sense' gun law reform, and any progress on that looks unlikely under Trump. While Obama did bring in some executive measures on gun control, major legislative efforts failed to pass through Congress. For increasingly frustrated campaigners, there was little in the way of change despite Obama's efforts to do something to tackle that most contentious of domestic issues.

Increased surveillance and monitoring programmes, some of which were inherited from his predecessor, were also a feature of his administration. The revelations of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden showed to the world the startling levels of mass surveillance that were being carried out by intelligence agencies - in both the US and around the world - during the Obama years.

The horrified public and activist responses to such revelations clearly illustrated some of the limits of liberal support for Obama. He adopted a hardline approach to the actions of Mr Snowden, although the president won back some degree of favour with transparency campaigners with his late decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning.

The environment

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image: Carolyn Kaster / AP/Press Association Images

“The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” - Barack Obama, 2014

Although progress has hardly been as speedy or wide-reaching as most campaigners would like, the environmental legacy of Barack Obama will be remembered as one of his significant achievements. That’s particularly pertinent when considering the new administration, which boasts several climate change skeptics.

The most high-profile of Obama's measures was the US ratifying the Paris climate change agreement - the most significant international commitment to combating greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement is not without its critics - and achieving its ambitious targets will depend on its proper implementation - but as one of the world’s two biggest polluters alongside China, the US commitment will be essential to its success.

Domestically, there was increased investment in clean and renewable energy; the Clean Power Plan; multiple measures to protect natural resources; a rejection of the hugely controversial Keystone XL pipeline, to name a few. Even in the final weeks of his presidency, he notably moved to ban offshore drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

There have been failures, too. He pledged that 25% of US electricity would be delivered from renewable sources by 2025, but legislation attempting to implement it never made it past the Senate. Environmental groups have criticised some of his initiatives as being as being political moves that did not go far enough. But in general Obama has made positive, albeit incremental, progress towards a more progressive and sustainable approach to the environment. How much of that will survive the Trump presidency is an open and deeply concerning question.


President Obama departed Washington on Friday 20th January 2017, leaving behind a significant but fragile legacy. Some achievements are likely to be wiped from the books of US legislation almost immediately, while others will leave a lasting impression. If the Obama years were short on fundamental reform, they were also without the sort of major scandals seen under previous presidents. He leaves behind a weakened Democratic party, and a Washington controlled by the Republicans.

His long-time opponents will continue to tear apart his achievements, while he will be remembered fondly by others. His legacy is very much the definition of mixed, but the Trump years could potentially influence how history looks back on the 44th President of the United States of America.

"I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can. Yes, we did. Yes, we can." - Barack Obama, farewell address, 2017