At 7:59 p.m. and 50 seconds Pacific Standard Time, as polls on the West Coast were about to close, a countdown appeared on the screen.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six.
Just like New Year’s Eve except the poignance of the moment was real, so much more freighted than the fairy dust of empty resolutions.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
The words “BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT” appeared on the screen and the room exploded with cheers and hugs and kisses and ecstatic smiles and sighs of relief and tears of joy and sky-high expectations.
Most criticisms of Obama come from small and misinformed people on the right who live in a counterfactual alternate universe (“Obamacare is a government takeover!!”) or well-intentioned people on the left who don’t understand how a bill becomes law (“Why didn’t he push single payer? What a sellout!!”), but detractors have some legitimate points.
In the two years in which he had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama wasted precious time trying to play nice with congressional Republicans whose sole aim was to block every item on his agenda. Massive numbers of deportations and raids on medical marijuana facilities continued through Obama’s first term. When punked by obstructionist Republicans in the 2011 debt hike fight, Obama unnecessarily offered major concessions—including cuts to Social Security—rather than try to use his powers under the 14th Amendment to circumvent Congress. Elements of his education policy, such as the push toward charter schools and standardized testing, bore much resemblance to Republican policies designed to undermine public schools. Worst of all, Obama locked into place much of the Big Brother apparatus erected by George W. Bush, from warrantless wiretaps to attacks on whistleblowers, powers which could truly threaten our democracy when placed in less scrupulous hands.
But no president is remotely perfect. Not Mount Rushmore alumni Thomas Jefferson, who owned over one hundred slaves, or Abraham Lincoln, who foolishly chose racist Southern governor Andrew Johnson as his running mate a year before he was assassinated. Not historians’ consistent consensus choice as the best president of the past century, Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, who interned Japanese-American citizens in prison camps during World War II.
To be accurately assessed, presidents must be weighed on a curve, opposite other flesh-and-
blood men who have held the office, rather than judged against an ideal leader who exists purely in our imaginations.
By this objective standard, Barack Obama is clearly the best president in my lifetime.
I was born during Richard Nixon’s first term. Despite his foreign policy success in creating openings with China and Russia, and domestic accomplishments (e.g. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), Nixon is ultimately defined by being the only president to resign in disgrace.
His predecessor, Gerald Ford, achieved little and lost to Jimmy Carter.
Carter pointed the way forward on environmental policy, and worked miracles in the Camp David Accords—where he forged a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Egypt—but was politically ineffectual and too wedded to fiscal conservatism to get much done domestically, despite having Democratic majorities in Congress.
Ronald Reagan had a couple big things to his credit—brisk economic growth and a role in speeding the end of the Cold War—but had a long list of notable failings, from tripling the national debt accumulated by the 39 presidents before him to doing virtually nothing to stop the AIDS epidemic to heading an administration known for its “sleaze factor,” with over 100 officials who were indicted, prosecuted, or resigned under ethical clouds, to enthusiastically pimping the gospel of deregulation which led to the S & L crisis (and ultimately, the great crash of 2008).
Which leaves us with George Bush Sr., George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
Between enabling the worst national security failure on continental soil by ignoring reams of intelligence warnings about Al-Qaeda, manipulating the fear generated by 9/11 (and the trust vested in him) to lie us into a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, gutting and privatizing FEMA and leaving New Orleans for dead in the days immediately after Katrina, and helping to usher in the most devastating economic crash in 80 years by deregulating Wall Street and being slow out of the blocks when the first shocks hit the housing market, George W. Bush is easy to dismiss. The only question is whether W. was the worst president in American history or simply one of the worst.
Bush Sr. signed the Americans with Disabilities Act put forward by a Democratic Congress, and gets some credit for winding down the Cold War. Otherwise he did little of note other than continuing to saddle taxpayers with the crippling deficits of the Reagan years and replacing civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas, arguably the least qualified and most reactionary Supreme Court justice to sit on the bench since the departure of the segregationist judges that stalled Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.
Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, presided over record economic growth, and got our fiscal house in order after the profligate Reagan-Bush Sr. years, leaving the United States on course to be completely debt-free. But major legislation eluded him other than Republican bills such as so-called welfare reform, which stuck it to our most vulnerable citizens while doing nothing to solve the underlying causes of poverty, and The Telecommunications Act, which opened the way to more monopolies (see: Clear Channel’s acquisition and homogenization of one independent radio station after another).
Unlike all of the presidents mentioned above, Barack Obama combined grand accomplishments with little in the way of major shortcomings. Here are 10 of the many reasons Obama was clearly the best president in my lifetime.
1. Obama saved the United States—and by extension the world—from economic collapse.
The U.S. economy shed 818,000 jobs the month before Obama took office. At the time, it
was far from a foregone conclusion that things would get better any time soon; some feared a return to Great Depression-level unemployment of 25%.
Through Federal Reserve action to lubricate the economy and keep interest rates low, TARP legislation to steady our financial system, stress tests to monitor the stability of big banks, and passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “stimulus” bill), which pumped close to a trillion dollars into the economy, the Obama administration stopped the free fall, saved 8.5 million jobs, and paved the way for a record 75 consecutive months of steady growth, a drop in the unemployment rate from 10%-4.7%, and a net gain of 10.5 million new jobs in eight years—more than three times the number of jobs created in twelve years of father and son Bush.
Obama also went against public opinion (and the braying of many Republicans) to prop up American auto companies, in the process saving 1.5 million jobs and putting the industry on a path to a healthy rebound, with record sales in 2015.
Republicans attacked Obama for the slow pace of the recovery, but the U.S. rebounded more strongly than all other developing countries but Germany, and job growth would have been more vigorous if not for austerity measures imposed by Republican state legislatures, whose Draconian budget cuts sent hundreds of thousands of public sector employees to the unemployment line.
2. In hopes of warding off another economic crash, Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act—with the help of just two Senate Republicans.
Building on the consumer-friendly tenor of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act Obama signed in 2009, Dodd-Frank includes protections for homeowners from predatory mortgage loans and transaction charges, limits on credit card fees, more transparency in derivatives trading, stronger capital requirements, oversight of debt collectors, credit agencies, student lenders, and check-cashing companies, and the right to sue banks who engage in predatory practices.
To set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the heart of Dodd-Frank, Obama chose a then-unknown economic populist by the name of Elizabeth Warren. Alarmed at Warren’s passionate concern for consumer rights at the expense of obscene corporate profits, Republicans blocked her from becoming the permanent head of the agency, so she decided to run for Senate instead.
3. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama cleaned up a Republican fiscal mess.
Advocating a second round of tax cuts for the rich in 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney countered treasury secretary Paul O’Neill’s fiscal objection to the cuts by saying, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Cheney wasn’t claiming that tax cut-driven deficits were without consequence; he was simply pointing out that pissing away trillions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars on windfalls for the wealthy wasn’t a political liability.
Between tax cuts, steroidal defense spending, an expensive and yet inadequate prescription drug plan written by pharmaceutical company lobbyists, and a war of choice in Iraq, the Bush Administration, who had inherited record budget surpluses, left Barack Obama with a 1.3 trillion-dollar deficit.
After pumping stimulus into the economy to keep the bottom from falling out (see #1), Barack Obama reigned in spending and cut the annual deficit by three-fourths, leaving Donald Trump with a vastly better hand than he had been dealt.
4. Obama not only extended healthcare coverage to four million disadvantaged children through the Children’s Health Insurance Authorization Act, but
Critics complain about insurance company rate hikes, but health insurance premiums for
for the Senate Republicans’ filibuster—which forced the bill’s negotiators to reduce subsidies to get the votes of conservative Democrats—and the unwillingness of many Republicans at the state level to put regulatory clamps on insurance companies’ greed.
Meanwhile, the benefits of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) are many. The bill keeps insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and imposes annual and lifetime caps on the amount insurance companies can charge. It has reduced the number of Americans who have died from hospital errors and saved as many as 24,000 lives annually, brought the rate of uninsured young to a record low by allowing children to piggyback on their parents’ coverage up to age 26, decreased medical debt for the poor, forced insurance companies to cover substance abuse treatment, and brought us closer to funding parity for mental and physical health.
American women in particular have been big beneficiaries, as the ACA prohibits discrimination (in the form of higher premiums) against women and extends free birth control and preventive services—pap smears, breast cancer screening, and domestic violence screening—which have helped tens of millions.
Last but not least, Obamacare has provided healthcare coverage to twenty-two million Americans who otherwise would not have it—while lowering healthcare expenditures.
Yes, you read that right. TWENTY-TWO MILLION.
And the Affordable Care Act would cover millions more if it had been implemented as written. Due to Republican Supreme Court judge John Roberts’ decision to allow states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion portion of the bill, and the mean-spirited Republican governors who have refused to participate in the expansion—though the federal government is picking up the lion’s share of the costs—at least 2.5 million American citizens have been denied the human right to healthcare that people in every other first world country have had for decades.
5. According to a report from the Council of Economic Advisors, which findings are echoed in a Congressional Budget Office assessment, President Obama has overseen "the largest increase in federal investment to reduce inequality since the Great Society.”
The Affordable Care Act, which received much of its funding from cuts to corporate welfare
|A president of the people|
Rather than follow Ronald Reagan’s lead by sticking it to Americans in the bottom half of the economic ladder with grim budget cuts in the middle of a recession (when government assistance is more necessary than ever), Barack Obama helped tens of millions of struggling Americans in his first year through both the stimulus bill and his opening budget proposal, which was called a “Robin Hood budget.”
Included were child tax credits, tax credits for higher education, and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, big boosts in funding for school lunches, the Women and Infant Nutrition Program (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), senior nutrition programs, and childcare block grants to the states, and $60 billion to support cash-strapped local schools and reduce pink slips around the country.
Over the course of his presidency, Obama allocated generous amounts of money for early
childhood education, doubled Pell grants for college students, instituted income-based repayment of student loans and a program that forgives loans for people who go into public
Obama cut the number of homeless veterans in half and created federal rules to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors, regulate drug prices, and give overtime pay to millions of Americans who otherwise would have been shortchanged by their employers.
His Labor Department increased collection of back pay from unethical businesses by one third while his National Labor Relations Board consistently supported the right to organize, to howls from Republicans.
His FCC appointees fought state laws allowing monopolization of broadband networks, expanded government subsidies to bring Internet service to the poor, and protected net neutrality, which keeps telecom companies from discriminating against average ratepayers and small businesses.
Between taxes levied on the wealthy to fund the Affordable Care Act and a 2013 budget deal with Republicans that raised the estate tax and increased the income tax rate on Americans making over $450,000 annually, the most privileged Americans now pay the highest rates since before Reagan slashed their taxes.
Unlike Republican economic plans, the results of Obamanomics have truly trickled down. As cited in a recent feature article in The Atlantic Monthly, “This month's Census data, one of the final report cards on Obama’s presidency, was historic in its optimism. It found that real median household incomes rose by 5.2 percent in 2015, also a record. Poorest Americans are seeing the fastest wage growth of all groups, not to mention the fastest wage growth they’ve ever experienced. After years of stagnation, average real wages are up nearly 6 percent since 2012, ‘more than all wage growth from 1973-2007.’”
And Obama did all of this despite unprecedented levels of obstruction from the GOP. Had Republicans not blocked numerous Obama proposals—such as a minimum wage increase, a proposal to create 1.9 million jobs, free community college, federal money for maternity leave, a national childcare program, and unemployment extensions—his already-historic record of investment in everyday Americans would be even more impressive.
6. Though major cap-and-trade climate change legislation was killed by Senate Republicans, Obama amassed a formidable environmental legacy.
Unlike the administration of George W. Bush, who chose extraction industry lackeys for environmental “protection” posts, Obama appointed a "green dream team" of top-notch
consumption, and used the auto bailout as an opportunity to force automakers to double gas mileage in most cars and light trucks by 2025. He also invested $94 billion in green energy through the stimulus bill, half of which was matched by private money at a 2-to-1 ratio, adding up to a record $200 billion investment in green energy.
Over the following years, Obama reversed one Bush policy after another, allowing the regulation of carbon dioxide, smog, mercury, methane, and fracking. His Environmental Protection Agency was very busy—protecting waterways, reducing the amount of sulfur in gasoline, forcing emissions reductions from semis, buses, and planes. He made states who received federal disaster relief come up with climate change plans, initiated stricter standards for development on public lands through passage of the Public Lands Management Act, his “no net loss” policy, and an aggressive push to create national monuments, including “the largest protected place on the planet,” in his home state of Hawaii. He blocked drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the expansion of the Keystone pipeline and the pipeline that would have plowed through a sacred Indian burial site at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
On a bigger scale, Obama played a key role in both the international agreement to ban hydrofluorocarbons and the Paris Agreement, a multilateral effort to lower the level of greenhouse gases, mitigate the impact of climate change on civilization, and incentivize a switch to sustainable fuels. As part of the Paris talks, Obama joined other world leaders in a green investment agreement with Bill Gates similar to the public-private partnership model used in the stimulus bill.
The pivot from the toxic fuels of yesterday to the clean fuels of the future has been swift and revolutionary: when Obama took office, the United States got roughly half of its electricity from coal and only ten percent from renewables; today, the two are at rough parity, with renewables set to become our main source of electricity.
In the words of Rob Sargent, the energy program director for the advocacy group Environment America, “President Obama and his Administration deserve tremendous kudos for jumpstarting America’s clean energy revolution. Today we have 20 times more solar power and three times more wind energy compared to when he took office eight years ago, and energy efficiency is now more than a ‘personal virtue’—it’s the basis for our energy policy. History will judge the Obama years as the turning point in America’s shift to 100% renewable energy.”
7. After hemming and hawing on the campaign trail in 2008, Obama fully embraced gay rights as president.
During his first year in office, Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extended federal protections to the LGBT community. In 2010, Obama repealed Bill Clinton’s brainchild, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (the Pentagon, at Obama’s urging, would later
In Obama’s second term, the administration supported the Employment Non-Discrimination bill, but the legislation was killed by the GOP. Faced with congressional
Republicans stuck in the deep, dark closets of 1950’s America, Obama used executive action. Among other things, he extended Social Security benefits to same-sex couples and signed an executive order outlawing discrimination against LGBT Americans among federal contractors. His Justice Department gave police instruction on how to sensitively handle transgender Americans while his Employment and Opportunity Commission ruled that discrimination against transgender employees violates the Civil Rights Act. When the Supreme Court took up gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, Obama’s Justice Department sided with the plaintiffs; both judges he appointed voted for marriage equality, and when SCOTUS ended institutional bigotry against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, the Obama Administration celebrated by lighting the White House up in rainbow colors.
And all through his presidency, Obama appointed a record number of gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans to federal posts, including the first transgender White House employee and the second openly lesbian black judge, Staci Michelle Yandle.
8. Obama markedly improved the diversity and ideological bent of the federal judiciary.
Obama appointed more female judges than any president in history; among them were Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic SCOTUS judge. He also appointed the first openly gay black judge, the first Native American woman, and the first Asian judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
In all, Obama appointed one-third of the judges now on the federal courts, making for a much more just and forward-thinking judiciary than the one that existed when Obama took office, i.e. a court system more protective of a woman’s right to choose, gay rights, environmental protections, consumer rights, voting rights and civil liberties, and more responsive to the needs of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and people who work for a living.
9. Barack Obama restored sanity to U.S. foreign policy and repaired America’s image abroad.
While running for a first term, Obama set the tone for his future presidency (and subjected himself to a lot of cheap criticism) by saying that he would be willing to negotiate with Iran without preconditions.
On his first day in office, Obama rescinded George W. Bush’s policy supporting torture; soon
after, he ordered the closing of black sites abroad which had been used for “enhanced interrogation.” He chose an Arabic television station for his first TV interview, and signaled his radical turn from Bush’s warmongering by admitting that when it came to policy in the Middle East, “all too often the United States starts by dictating.” In March of 2009, he followed through on his “controversial” campaign promise by publicly expressing a wish to put historical differences aside and engage with Iran, and in June, he gave a major speech in Cairo in which he said, “The United States is not and will never be at war with Islam.” In October, less than nine months after taking office, Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Where Bush and his Republican Party supplicants and media jackals consistently used jingoistic terminology such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamofascism,” Obama spoke quietly but carried a big stick. Going against his advisers, Obama ordered the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden, who had gotten off scot-free in seven years of Bush the Younger. Obama also killed a long list of other Al-Qaeda functionaries, pulled us out of the quagmire of Iraq, ended Iran’s nuclear threat—first with international sanctions which coaxed Iran to the negotiating table, then through a historic peace agreement—reduced nuclear armaments through a new START treaty with Russia, and deep-sixed a long-outdated Cold War freeze-out of Cuba. The improvement in America’s image abroad from the Bush years speaks volumes.
10. In addition to saving the U.S. (and the world) economy from collapse,
regulating Wall Street, cleaning up another Republican fiscal mess, giving us a national healthcare system (finally!), routinely going to bat for poor and working-class Americans, protecting the environment domestically and taking on global climate change, treating LGBT Americans like actual human beings, vastly improving the federal judiciary, repairing America’s image abroad with shrewd foreign policy, and leaving the country infinitely better off than it was when he found it in just about every way imaginable, Barack Obama restored honor and dignity to the White House after the scandal-saturated administration of George W. Bush.
Unlike other recent popular presidents Ronald Reagan, who broke the law by trading arms for hostages and then lied to the public and Congress about it to cover his ass, or Bill Clinton, who jeopardized his whole presidency with unseemly personal behavior, Barack Obama did not have a single real scandal or substantial ethical lapse. For eight years, he was a model in class and dignity and honor, a living, breathing example of the best America has to offer.
On behalf of informed and enlightened citizens of the world: thank you, Obama.
More political writing by Dan Benbow:
178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)
178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)
The Master of Low Expectations: 666 Reasons Sentient Citizens
are Still Celebrating the Long Overdue Departure of George W. Bush