The legacy of the Obama presidency


“You can have two kinds of leaders, both like chairs. One goes round and round in circles and the other simply folds up instantly”. Bernard Wooley, Yes Minister

Barack Obama has been one of the most controversial presidents since the founding of the office. But as Bernard so insightfully puts it, has he really achieved all that much? Are US leaders merely constrained by the legislature and other structural political limitations, particularly with a conservative-skewed Supreme Court and a Congress favouring the Republicans for most of his presidency?

Of course the checks and balances that Congress and the Supreme Court levy upon the Commander in Chief are just the start of it, the election of Donald Trump to the office of President in November 2016 can be seen as a hammer blow to Obama’s legacy. Or can it? It’s true, in most Western democracies, very little is set in constitutional stone outside of basic founding principles (2nd Amendment anyone?). But before we can begin to talk about whether the Donald is likely to destroy Obama’s changes; we need to discuss what has actually happened since the end of the ‘W Bush’ era, 2008/9.

Domestic Policy

Change Rating 2/5

Success Rating 3.5/5


Had Obama fallen upon kinder economic times, he may have been able to implement a more notable domestic agenda. Unfortunately, most of his first term was stymied by serious restructuring after the financial crisis of 2007/8. Therefore, his overall progress has been steady but far from radical. Having said that, he has made progress in reforming Wall Street and managed to implement a rudimentary healthcare bill.

Economic Policy

In terms of Obama’s taxation policy, he only actually changed one bracket, and that took some serious House of Representatives wooing. He managed to increase the income tax rate on highest earners from 35% to 39.6%. An achievement, but Clement Attlee he was not.

He managed to raise the debt ceiling eventually, having presided over a federal government shutdown for two weeks. In reality, there was no policy change nor effective deficit reduction plan in place. Neither was there significantly higher spending. The deficit did increase, but not sizably more than it did under the previous presidencies of Clinton or Bush.

One of Obama’s principal economic achievements was the increased regulation of Wall Street, following the sub-prime mortgage crisis. This again remains in jeopardy under President-elect Donald Trump.


Through fiscal stimulus packages, Obama was able to reasonably successfully boost US infrastructure. However, this didn’t translate into a meaningful decrease in unemployment until around 2014, 5 years after he had taken office. He was left a pretty dire situation, so he can claim that he did an adequate job given the circumstances. Overall it has gone from around 9% to about 5-6% on average the last couple of years.

Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

Obamacare has been more than contentious. It was heard in the US Supreme Court with the same level of baited breath as there had been over Roe v Wade or Brown v Board. Having passed through, thanks to some civil activism from Chief Justice John Roberts, Obamacare has helped to increase healthcare coverage and to somewhat lower costs. Certainly a step into the liberal unknown for the USA. But its future is already in jeopardy, with Trump looking to repeal at least some of the bill.

Foreign Policy

Change Rating 3/5 (Most of this is much worse)

Success Rating 1/5

Even the most hawkish of conservatives can hardly say that Obama was left a rosy foreign policy situation. Having been handed effective control over wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and general terrorism, it was always going to be a baptism of fire. Despite this, Obama’s foreign policy, although well-meaning has ended in an appalling state of affairs in the Middle East. He has lacked conviction when he needed conviction, and his inaction have led to continued instability. There have been limited successes such as Cuba, but he has presided over a difficult time in foreign affairs for the USA.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Obama has withdrawn the majority of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which was one of the standpoints he came from at the 2008 election. This has, in many ways made the situation worse. Daesh (I don’t wish to give them more legitimacy than they deserve), have taken effective control of vast swathes of land in Iraq whilst Al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue insurgency and regional control in Afghanistan.

Paris Agreement

Although currently in flux, the Paris Accords could yet be the defining Climate Change piece of multinational legislation. While at the moment, much of the empirics of the changes are yet to be developed, it is still a landmark that could be part of what Obama is remembered for in the future. Having said this, Trump has already been rumoured to be considering pulling out.


Libya has been dreadful for the Obama administration. Since the deposal of Gaddafi through US led airstrikes, Libya has been caught in the midst of an often forgotten and particularly bloody civil war. With Tuareg’s ethnic militia to the South West, Daesh coordinating insurgency and the Government Vs Army struggle still ongoing, Libya has been a humanitarian disaster for Obama.


It’s not gone brilliantly to be honest. Russia has taken its own stance of foreign policy, supporting Assad and invading the Crimea. Obama has done little in terms of stopping Russia’s continued expansionist agenda.


This is one of the Obama’s comparative successes, with Cuba and the US beginning to work together on the potential for real trade in the future, beginning with the opening of their respective embassies.


It’s telling when a situation as bad as Libya has been somewhat dwarfed in the news as of late by Syria. The US backed Syrian opposition have failed to gain any territorial initiative against Assad, and the destabilising effect that US involvement caused, has allowed Daesh and other radical Islamic groups to take control of a majority of Syria’s landmass.


The nuclear deal achieved with Iran can be said to be one of Obama’s few successes, preventing a potentially dangerous situation from escalating. The thawing of relations with an age-old enemy could yet be in danger following the election of Donald Trump.


Overall Success Rating 5/10

Having examined some of the biggest domestic and foreign policy achievements and failures of the Obama administration, his domestic policy record is perhaps more enviable. He successfully broke the mould for healthcare reform and has achieved some economic growth. Unemployment has also dropped. His foreign policy is less positive. The Middle East has been destabilised from a lack of action, either through diplomatic means or through sustained military action rather than minimal military action without long term planning. Much of these issues have continued from the last administration, but Obama has made them worse and not better. The Paris Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal soften his failures to an extent, but it’s hardly a record to applaud. This record is worsened when you consider the Commander in Chief has more foreign policy power than domestic policy power in real-terms, as is the nature of the US political system.

Of the few successes Obama has had over his tenure in the White House, many look like being repealed by Donald Trump. The Affordable Care Act may survive, but in a watered-down guise; The Paris Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Deal may not survive at all. Obama didn’t fold up instantly, but he most certainly seemed to go round and round in circles.

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