“How’s all that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?”
Sarah Palin’s folksy twang has faded out of earshot. Yet her criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency has been less discredited than most of her words. Even as Obama prepares to be re-inaugurated for his second term, his presidency is still widely seen as underwhelming. But the reality is that, even in only four years, Obama has already had a profound effect on America.
Yes, Obama hasn’t governed as the idealistic outsider of 2008; he has governed to get things done. Rather than seek glory in losing battles, Obama’s interest has been in what works. Pragmatism and data-obsession may not sound glamorous, but they are what make good policies.
The $787 billion Recovery Act, which Obama signed in February 2009, remains the clearest indication of this. Rather than aimlessly throwing money at the economy, it was amongst the ‘cleanest’ bills in recent American history, bereft of pork barrel spending. Joe Biden blocked over 250 Recovery Act programmes that didn't pass his ‘smell test’, while voters can see online how each dollar of the bill is being spent. The stimulus created at least 2.5 million jobs.
Amidst complaints about America’s growth rate it is often forgotten just how bad things were. The economy shrunk 8.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and a further 5.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2009, during which Obama was inaugurated: the first consecutive quarters of contraction of over 5 per cent since the Great Depression. Within this context, annual growth rates of over 2 per cent since mid-2009 appear rather different, as do 26 consecutive months of job growth. The UK has had a double-dip recession, and a third of America’s rate of economic growth, in this time.
Obama has also prevented the economic crisis leading to a rise in social deprivation. ‘Hooverville’ slums came to define the 1930s in America. In the UK, the number of new homeless people was one-third higher in the third quarter of 2012 than of 2009. Obama has prevented something similar happening in America. Homelessness, though it remains over 600,000, has fallen under his presidency, something seldom the case during economic crises. Obama’s 60-fold increase in funding for the Homeless Prevention Programme has helped house over 1.2 million Americans in crisis. The Recovery Act’s transfer payments have also lifted at least seven million Americans above the poverty line.
As the fiscal cliff was the latest reminder of, American politics stumbles from one crisis to the next, riddled by short-termism. Yet, Obama has already created a formidable legacy. The first bill he signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was a landmark in ensuring men and women receive equal pay for the same jobs. Obama also appointed the first Hispanic, Sonia Sotomayor, to the Supreme Court. The reduction in 'mandatory minumum' sentences for crack cocaine is a welcome nod towards sanity in the destructive War on Drugs.
Then there is the Affordable Health Care Act, mocked as ‘Obamacare’. Though compromise was necessary to get it through Congress, it is nevertheless the only significant healthcare act since the 1960s. By 2012, 33 million otherwise uninsured Americans will have health coverage. As Medicare and Medicaid did before it, Obamacare will become institutionalised. And by making workers less fearful of switching jobs and so risking their healthcare coverage, it may also reinject dynamism in the US economy.
Obama’s presidency has invested $90 billion in a smarter electrical grid, cleaner coal and energy efficiency. Whilst tackling climate change, the investments were also designed to allow the US economy to gains jobs from the growing global demand for green energy. Support given to the US battery industry means that the the US share of the global battery market will rise from 1% in 2008 to an estimated 40 per cent in 2015.
Of course, as Obama himself admits, he has been an “imperfect president”. Foreign policy has had successes - the strategic shift to Asia and, more controversially, the killing of bin Laden – but his response to the Arab Spring reeked of indecision. Iraq and Afghanistan remain in turmoil; Guantanamo Bay remains open. Perhaps most egregiously, Obama has sanctioned drone bombing. Domestically, he hasn’t moved on gun control (though that could now change); George W Bush’s assault on US civil liberties remains unchallenged.
Oddly considering his reputation as a supreme orator, Obama has too often proven a poor communicator. The first US debate was one example of this; so was his failure in explaining to the electorate the achievements of the stimulus package. Most Americans at work got $16 a week in extra pay, but polls showed fewer than 10 per cent were aware of this. And, even allowing for Republican obstructionism, Obama has not distinguished himself in his relations with Congress, too often giving off the impression of aloofness.
Yet, for all Obama’s failings, he has presided over steady economic recovery, while protecting the most impoverished and helping America prepare for the challenges of the 21 Century. "Hopey-changey stuff" has not been discredited in the way Sarah Palin might imagine.