What Has Obama Done? 14 Major Accomplishments

© The Balance, 2018

President Barack Obama entered office in 2009 to fight the 2008 financial crisis. He immediately launched the ambitious Affordable Care Act, despite the backlash. His administration continued battling the Tea Party Republicans after they gained a Congressional majority in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Despite these challenges, Obama accomplished many great things by the time his term ended in January 2017. Here are the top 14 in chronological order.

1. Ended the 2008 Recession

In February 2009, Congress approved Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package. It cut taxes, extended unemployment benefits, and funded public works projects. The recession ended in July 2009 when GDP growth turned positive.

In just seven months, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped $241.9 billion into the economy. That increased growth to a robust rate of 3.9% by early 2010. By March 30, 2011, almost all ($633.5 billion) of the funds were spent. 

2. Modernized the Auto Industry

Obama bailed out the U.S. auto industry on March 30, 2009. The federal government took over General Motors and Chrysler, saving 3 million jobs. It forced the companies to become more fuel efficient and therefore more globally competitive.

3. Received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

On October 9, 2009, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee lauded "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."  He withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011. He reduced the U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile by 10%

4. Reformed Health Care

On March 23, 2010, the Affordable Care Act revolutionized healthcare, in part by creating a program that offered insurance to people with pre-existing conditions who had been shut out of the insurance system. By 2014, the economy benefited from having 95% of the population on health insurance by mandate.

The greater number of people receiving preventive care reduced the number of expensive visits to emergency rooms, slowing the rise of health care costs for everyone. That's because Medicaid reimburses hospitals for emergency care.

Why did health care need to be reformed? Rising costs threatened to take over the entire federal budget. It was also the no.1 cause of bankruptcies. In return, Americans received the worst health care in the developed world. It is the only one of 33 developed countries without universal health care.

President Donald Trump promised to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. As of November 2019, he has failed to pass any legislation. But by eliminating the mandate and reinstituting "skinny plans" that don't cover a slew of expensive illnesses, he is weakening Obamacare even without formal repeal.

5. Regulated the Big Banks

In July 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act improved regulation of eight areas that led to the financial crisis. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reduced harmful practices of credit cards and mortgages. The Financial Stability Oversight Council regulated hedge funds and banks that became too big to fail. The "Volcker Rule" banned banks from risking losses with their depositors' money. Dodd-Frank clarified which agencies regulated which banks, stopping banks from cherry-picking their regulators.

Dodd-Frank directed the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. These regulated the riskiest derivatives, like credit default swaps and commodities futures. Dodd-Frank also asked the SEC to recommend how the credit rating agencies, like Moody's and Standard & Poor's, could be improved. 

Changes to Dodd-Frank under the Trump administration did not gut the act, but raised the size of institutions that fall under it from those with $50 billion in assets to $250 billion.

6. 2010 Tax Cuts

In December 2010, Obama and Congress agreed upon additional stimulus in the form of an $858 billion tax cut. It had three main components: a $350 billion extension of the Bush tax cuts, a $56 billion extension of unemployment benefits, and a $120 billion reduction in workers' payroll taxes. Businesses received $140 billion in tax cuts for capital improvements and $80 billion in research and development tax credits. The estate tax was exempted (up to $5 million), and there were additional credits for college tuition and children. 

7. Eliminated bin Laden Threat and Withdrew Troops from Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

On May 1, 2011, Navy SEALs attacked the al-Qaida leader's compound in Pakistan and eliminated Osama bin Laden. Later that year, Obama withdrew troops from the Iraq War. Three years later, renewed threats from ISIS meant troops had to return. The Sunni-Shiite split within Islam means there may always be wars in the Middle East. 

In 2014, Obama wound down the war in Afghanistan. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reduced annual military spending. At over $800 billion, it was the largest discretionary budget item and one of the leading causes of the budget deficit and national debt.

Instead, spending on the War on Terror remained higher than during the Bush administration.

8. Raised Fuel Efficiency Standards

On August 28, 2012, the Obama administration announced new fuel efficiency standards. He required cars and light trucks obtain 54.5 MPG by 2025. That would reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels, saving drivers $1.7 trillion. It would also reduce the damage of climate change by lowering greenhouse gases.

The Trump administration promised to roll back these standards. But California requires zero-emissions vehicles. Twelve other states adopted the mandate. Major automakers must build cars to meet stricter standards in the European Union and Asia. 

9. Won 2012 Presidential Re-election

On November 6, 2012, Obama won a second term. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised to repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. Voters were not sure about eliminating health benefits and regulations against big banks. Romney failed to capture the country's imagination by not presenting a new vision for economic growth.

10. Reduced Carbon Emissions

Obama announced carbon reduction regulations in 2014. He enacted the Clean Power Plan in 2015. It reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. It did this by setting carbon reduction goals for the nation's power plants. To comply, power plants agreed to create 30% more renewable energy generation by 2030. It encourages carbon emissions trading by allowing states that emit less than the carbon cap to trade their surplus to states that emit more than the cap.  

In June 2019, the Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency killed the Clean Power Plan and replaced it with the more lenient Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. ACE would lower emissions by the power sector to between 0.7% and 1.5% by 2030.

11. Nuclear Agreement With Iran

On July 14, 2015, Obama brokered a nuclear peace agreement with Iran. Formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it required Iran to have only sufficient enriched uranium for its energy needs, but not enough to build a bomb. JCPOA also instituted inspection requirements. In return, the United Nations lifted the economic sanctions it imposed in 2010. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in May 2018, contending it did not go far enough.

12. World's Largest Trade Agreement

On October 4, 2015, Obama's team negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would have replaced NAFTA as the world's largest free-trade agreement. It would have removed tariffs between the United States and 11 other countries that border the Pacific Ocean. On January 23, 2017, Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement. The other countries are planning to continue the agreement anyway. Japan and the European Union are negotiating their own agreement.

Obama launched the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union.

Obama's term ended before negotiations on the TTIP could be finalized. It would have been bigger than the TPP. President Trump has not made much progress on the TTIP.

13. International Climate Change Agreement

On December 12, 2015, Obama and 196 other countries announced the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon trading. The goal is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Developed countries will contribute $100 billion a year to assist emerging markets. They bear the brunt of damage from climate change. They face increased typhoons, rising sea levels, and more severe droughts.

On October 5, 2016, enough countries ratified the agreement that it went into effect. At the 2016 G20 meeting, China and the United States agreed to ratify the agreement. These two countries are the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. On June 1, 2017, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. 

14. Third-Best Job Creator

Obama is the third-best job-creating president in U.S. history. His policies put 16 million people to work from the depths of the recession in December 2009 to the end of his term. That's because unemployment continued to rise even after the recession ended in July. It takes a few months of economic growth before businesses are confident enough to begin hiring again.

Other Accomplishments

Maintained Continuation of Federal Reserve Policy - Obama appointed Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Janet Yellen to replace Ben Bernanke. She maintained an expansionary monetary policy that created the lowest interest rates in 200 years. This allowed the early stages of the housing recovery and slow but steady business expansion to continue. That's because Treasury yields affect mortgage interest rates.

Deficit Spending - The major mark against Obama is the increase in the national debt. Part of the reason for this increase was the deficit spending he used to stimulate the economy. Deficits fell in his second term. Obama's total deficits were $6.785 trillion, more than any other president.

No Personal Scandal - One achievement has gone unnoticed, but is nevertheless admirable. That's Obama's unblemished personal record. President Obama has served longer than any president in decades without the appearance of the word “scandal” on the front page of The Washington Post

Obama's Advisers

Part of the reason for Obama's success is his first team of economic advisers. Many of them helped formulate the policies he outlined during his 2008 campaign platform, including an aggressive fiscal stimulus plan to put the country back on track. He was applauded for appointing former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker as the head of the Economic Advisory Panel. He named Mary Schapiro head of the Securities and Exchange Commission following the Madoff Ponzi scheme. He was criticized for including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who oversaw repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. By January 2011, infighting had sent Larry Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orszag, and Paul Volcker on their way. 

Obama's Early Years

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. He received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1983 and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1991. He was a professor of constitutional law for the University of Chicago from 1992 to 2004. He published his autobiography "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" in 1995.

He became an Illinois State Senator in 1996. He served until he became a U.S. Senator in 2005. He gained national attention when he spoke on behalf of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He published "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" in 2006. (Sources: "Barack Obama," Whitehouse.gov. "Barack Obama," Biography.com. "Obama's Top 50 Accomplishments, Revisited," Washington Monthly, January 2017.)

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