Obama years: the gain and pain

From "Yes We Can" to "So Sue Me", Barack Obama's eight-year span in the White House represents how a powerful slogan can become a powerless dismissal of political realities.

In the 2012 presidential campaign when Barack Obama was seeking re-election, one of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, asked a zealous crowd in a backup speech: Are we better off?

As eight years of Obama administration came to the end, this question is being asked again.

Economic data would say yes. Yet the good data couldn't explain why President-elect Donald Trump's economic populism won over voters.

Affordable Care Act supporters would say yes. Yet the iconic legacy of the Obama era can be repealed at any minute by a Republican-controlled Congress.

African-American rights groups would be cautious on the answer. As the first black president in US history, Obama was seen as the symbol of racial reconciliation, while during his time in office racial tension swept across America together with the "Black Lives Matter" campaign.

International politics watchers feel even more complicated. No one dares to say that the world is safer today than eight years ago. The rise of Islamic State, war-torn Syria, and US-Russia feud, all made the killing of Osama bin Laden forgettable.

The outgoing president chose Chicago as the venue for his farewell speech. The third largest city in the country was where his political career took off and he delivered his victory speech in the 2008 campaign.

Choosing Chicago signified his confidence to testify whether he delivered all the changes he promised here in front of slogan-chanting, high-spirited supporters in 2008.

Now it's time for the verdict. We look in retrospect at what happened within the US and across the globe.

1A recovering economy

When Obama inaugurated in January 2009, unemployment rate hit 7.6 percent.

Obama took office at a time that couldn't have been messier. People who now are getting used to the tumultuous protests in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump could be oblivious to the desperation and hysteria that permeated the American public eight years ago following the worst financial crisis in decades.

The sudden collapse of the global economy, triggered by the subprime crisis, evicted people from their jobs and homes. Facing this great failure of Wall Street, which had long bathed in prosperity and celebration since the 1929 Great Depression, those affected by the financial crisis found themselves angry yet vulnerable.

A solution was a dire need if Wall Street, the assumed best product of US financial architecture, was dilapidated.

The timing was right for a leader who could promote the audacity of hope against eight years of a Republican in the White House whose time in office ended with frustration over a seemingly everlasting war in Iraq and an equally disturbing economic turmoil within the US.

Chanting the slogan "Yes We Can", Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, inheriting a dysfunctional job market of which unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent.

As the crisis fermented, the figure rose to 10 percent in October 2009.

He oversaw the massive bail-out in banking, insuring, and auto industries, salvaging some of America's largest banks and automakers.

Figuring out that Wall Street greed was the target of public outrage, he named a pay czar to slash salaries of executives from the companies that received taxpayers' bail-out aid.

He championed the expansion of clean energy, leading to a robustly-growing sector that has been a steady employer against the backdrop of shrinking hiring in the coal mining industry.

Eight years in his presidency, the unemployment rate was cut to 4.7 percent in December, when US employers added 156, 000 jobs.

The jobless rate, though ticking up from a nine-year low of 4.6 percent, can still be solid statistical evidence that Trump will inherit a better-off America compared to the 2008 crisis.

The statistics, though largely siding with Obama, still had a weak spot. Manufacturing, resuming hiring after four months of job cuts, is still lagging.

This provided a snapshot of why people left out in the job market could buy some of Trump's economic populism rhetoric. In his anti-globalization comments during the campaign, he blamed other countries, such as China and Mexico, for taking jobs away from the US and promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US.

2ObamaCare, and its unknown fate

Repealing ObamaCare would be the "first order of business" of Trump's administration.

There will be war over the ObamaCare repeal.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed "ObamaCare" by its critics, is one of the most important national policies of Barack Obama's presidency.

As a nationwide healthcare reform, ObamaCare has considerably reduced the number of people without medical insurance coverage.

This act was signed into law by Obama on March 23, 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court on June 28, 2012 to insure an extra 32 million Americans and prevent coverage from being refused on the basis of patients' medical histories.

Under the law, the percentage of Americans with healthcare insurance is up and the growth of healthcare costs is down, which is good news for the middle class and America's fiscal future.

Federal data show that since the 2016 general elections, enrolment in ObamaCare has risen, with 8.8 million Americans signing up so far for 2017, compared to 8.6 million at this point last year.

However, at the heart of the act, lies the individual mandate that since 2014 requires every US citizen to take out health insurance or be subject to a fine.

Fifty-six percent of people were against the healthcare overhaul and 44 percent favor it, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in 2012.

Sixty-one percent of Americans are against the mandate, the issue at the center of the Republicans' contention that the law is unconstitutional, while 39 percent favor it.

Since the law was enacted, Republicans in Congress have voted more than 50 times to try to repeal all or part of it and conservatives have filed suits to try to invalidate it.

Now, Obama exhorts fellow Democrats to preserve his legacy-defining healthcare law as Republicans move ahead with their long-sought bid to scrap it in what Vice President-elect Mike Pence calls the "first order of business" of Donald Trump's administration.

Trump vowed to repeal the law during his campaign.

3Racial tension

Michael Brown, a unarmed black teen was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

America is more racially split than ever.

Obama rewrote history by becoming the first African-American president of the United States. Many expected he would improve deteriorating relations between whites and blacks and lead poor black communities out of lower social strata, but he leaves a county that is more racially split than ever after his eight-year presidency.

In his landmark speech, I Have a Dream, civil rights leader Martin Luther King voiced his strong aspiration for equal rights for black people in US society. Fifty years later, that dream has been partially realized. African-Americans living in the United States today are enjoying elevated political and social status.

However, despite the progress, the racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic pain that kept tearing US society apart during the past eight years.

Cases of African-Americans being killed by police occurred repeatedly.

Protests over the police killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 forged a new national civil rights movement.

The death of the 25-year-old black detainee was among the high-profile deaths of black suspects at the hands of U.S. police that have made police officers' treatment of minorities into national headlines. It also fueled the rise of the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter.

The police-related violence unveiled the hard-healing wounds of American society - racial inequality and violent policing.

Americans' view of race relations was at a two-decade low. A poll jointly released by the CBS News and The New York Times on May 4, 2015 showed that 61 percent of Americans characterized race relations in the United States as "bad, " including a majority of white and black respondents.

4Gun control: strong support but little change

Altogether 476 mass shooting cases were recorded in the US in 2016.

President Obama has been a firm supporter of gun control, before and during his presidency; however, his consistent efforts have been thwarted by an uncooperative Congress and powerful gun-rights advocates.

Obama vowed as president to respect the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens, while at the same time make children "gun-proof". He also supported banning transfers of firearms at gun shows, and permanently re-instating the expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

The mass shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012, which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six staff members, was described by Obama as "the worst day of my presidency". The horrific crime spurred him to propose stricter firearm laws.

One month after the shooting, Obama outlined 23 executive actions to reduce gun violence. The initiatives included both legislative proposals that would need to be acted on by Congress and executive actions he could implement on his own.

The changes included introducing background checks for all gun sales and bans on assault weapons, magazines that hold 10 or more rounds, and armor-piercing bullets. The plan also included proposals to make schools safer and improve mental health services.

Unfortunately, the president was unable to get the necessary support from Congress for the new gun control laws.

Action on firearms has stalled amid opposition from the gun lobby, with Congress not approving major gun-control legislation since the 1990s. Gun owners, represented by the powerful National Rifle Association, have successfully fought Obama's legislation, even though polls show broad support for a tougher approach.

Frustrated by Congress' inaction on gun control, Obama even considered trying to reduce gun violence through measures that didn't require congressional approval.

The US was still gripped by gun violence last year, from a massacre at an Orlando nightclub in Florida to a spate of police shootings.

Altogether 476 mass shooting cases were recorded in the US in 2016, with 604 dead and 1, 779 wounded, according to Mass Shooting Tracker.

Despite the defeat, Obama has promised to continue to work on gun violence prevention after he leaves office.

The future of US gun control remains to be seen, as President-elect Donald Trump, also a vocal opponent of any more limits on American gun ownership, has already vowed to reverse Obama's executive orders on gun control.

5Same-Sex Marriage: Historic ruling

Love wins.

Obama repeatedly took action to level the playing field for people who have historically suffered from discrimination related to their sexual orientation.

In a 5-4 ruling in June, 2015, the United States Supreme Court determined that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, thereby legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 US states. Obama himself then became the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality.

In a speech that day, Obama paid tribute to the countless small acts of courage of millions of people. "Progress on this journey often comes in small increments, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, sometimes two steps forward, one step back, propelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens, " he said. And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt."

At the time of the Supreme Court ruling on June 26, same-sex marriage was allowed in 36 states.

The ruling adds the US to the list of countries that allow gay marriage, including Britain, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

The ruling, not surprisingly has been condemned by conservative religious groups in state houses and Congress. Republicans in the White House claimed that Obama opposed gay marriage until 2012 and "cynically" changed his mind.

A handful of public officials so repulsed by gay marriage are defying the US Supreme Court ruling and refusing to issue a license to anyone, gay or straight. Some clerks resigned, rather than have to sign the licenses of gays and lesbians. Other reluctant clerks gave up the fight later on.

The White House was illuminated with rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, and the accomplishment looks set to survive the Trump presidency, as Trump says he's "fine" with it.

6The climate change president

US and China, the world's two largest emitters officially joined the Paris Agreement.

Obama took a major step forward in the global effort to combat climate change. In Sept 2016, US and China, the world's two largest economies and largest emitters officially joined the Paris Agreement, the most ambitious climate change agreement in history.

The Paris Agreement, within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in 2020, aimed to "hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels".

For the agreement to take effect and enter into force, at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions need to formally join.

The action by the US and China to ratify the Paris Agreement together marked a significant contribution towards the early entry into force of the agreement as the two countries represent approximately 40 percent of global emissions.

After several European Union states ratified the agreement in October 2016, the "55 countries 55 percent" requirement was met, like Obama said "the world has officially crossed the threshold for the Paris Agreement to take effect."

According to the president himself, one of the reasons he ran for the White House was to make America a leader in the counter-climate change mission. In 2009, he salvaged a chaotic climate summit in Copenhagen, establishing the principle that all nations have a role to play in combating climate change.

7Iran Nuclear Deal

Tehran accepted strict limits on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Drawing lesson from his blundering predecessor George W. Bush who left a convulsed Middle East, Obama showed more humility and restraint when dealing with issues in the district.

The Iran Nuclear Deal, reached in July 2015 between Iran and a group of world powers (P5+1 and EU) led by United States, is one of Obama's most significant diplomatic achievements.

According to the deal, Tehran accepted strict limits on its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The 100-page-plus agreement would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon after 20 months of marathon negotiations by top diplomats from the world's major powers.

Obama made it abundantly clear that he would fight to preserve the deal from critics in Congress, declaring, "I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal."

The deal has drawn harsh criticism as it left some open areas. It preserves Iran's ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wishes after Year 15 of the agreement, and allows it to conduct research on advanced centrifuges after the eighth year.

Moreover, the Iranians won the eventual lifting of an embargo on the import and export of conventional arms and ballistic missiles. Its harshest critics said it would ultimately empower Iran rather than limit its capability. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called it a "historic mistake" that would create a "terrorist nuclear superpower."

Whether it portends a new relationship between the United States and Iran - after decades of coups, hostage-taking, terrorism and sanctions - remains a bigger question.

8Troop withdrawal and rise of IS

Obama himself admitted that the US "underestimated" the threat posed by the IS.

Deaths and losses in the Iraq War since 2003 have been such a trauma for collective memory in the US that after the Iraq war any US military decision in that area tried not to make history repeat itself, and it failed.

After a dictator was toppled down, lack of further plans would lead to chaotic power struggles. This happened at least twice - after the fall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Obama announced his withdrawal plan from Iraq in Feb 2009, one month after he took office. The last batch of US troops left Iraq in 2011, leaving a power vacuum that led to the growth of terrorism.

The Islamic State took advantage of the chaos after the US left and expanded in a very short time, dragging the US back to the hotspot district. Critics blamed the fast rise of IS on Obama's hasty decision and the withdrawal, left an awkward chapter in his presidency.

The withdrawal plan from Afghanistan was another major move by Obama, who aimed at ending the "longest war" in US history.

The president announced in May 2014 that the US was going to withdraw most armed forces in Afghanistan and maintain 9, 800 troops there at the end of 2014. All troops were expected to leave at the end of 2016.

In July 2016, facing deteriorating security conditions, the US postponed the withdrawal until December 2016 and decided to maintain a force of 8, 400 troops due to a Taliban resurgence attempt.

The complex situation and resurgence of terrorism cast a shadow over Obama's peace expectations in the Middle East. A series of aggressive and anti-humanity actions by the notorious Islamic State posed one of the biggest counter-terrorism challenges to the US.

Obama himself admitted during an interview in Sept 2014 that the US "underestimated" the threat posed by the Islamic State and overestimated the Iraqi army's capacity to defeat the militant group.

Hundreds of US troops were sent to Iraq again, serving as trainers and advisers, in an attempt to help the country win the battle against IS militants. The US-led international coalition has been conducting air raids against IS targets in both Iraq and Syria.

It's been over two years since air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS extremists started in August 2014. Though the Islamist State has been mauled heavily and lost over 50% of its previously controlled district, and coalition forces are about to win a key battle in Mosul, the last major stronghold of IS in Iraq that has been under its control since June 2014, the US and its allies are far from their original goal in terminating the IS once and for all.

Relentless air strikes, extending from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Libya, cost a lot but gained little. Civilian casualties caused by the strikes drew worldwide criticism to the US. The humanitarian disaster in Mosul is another embarrassing issue for Obama.

9Killing of Osama bin Laden

The death of Bin Laden was Obama's most undisputed counter-terrorism achievement.

The killing of Osama bin Laden may be the most comforting news for Obama who didn't perform well in the anti-terrorism field. Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, was killed by United States Navy SEALs during a raid on his compound hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

The death of the al Qaida founder thrilled the whole world and was without a doubt Obama's most undisputed counter-terrorism achievement. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda", Obama addressed the nation when announcing the news.

10Split with Israel

To Israel, the Obama administration's inaction at the UN is a total betrayal.

Obama may be the most unfriendly US President (besides Jimmy Carter) in the eyes of its longtime ally, Israel.

Ignoring the Israeli government's strong objection, he used the 'president's veto power to make sure of the implementation of the Iran Nuclear Deal, a deal that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "historic mistake".

Last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The US, which used to defend Israel's rights in the UN by using its veto power, abstained from voting, leading to the passing of the resolution by a 14-0 vote.

Resolution 2334 demands that Israel cease construction in all areas it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and describes the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory.

The White House responded that the US abstained on the resolution because it "expresses a consensus international view on Israeli settlement activity".

To Israel, the Obama administration's inaction at the UN is a total betrayal. Netanyahu said Obama broke a long-standing US commitment not to allow the UN to impose conditions on Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and he accused the Obama administration of initiating and standing behind the resolution. Israel claimed it provided detailed, sensitive information to Donald Trump's incoming administration about the US role as a covert partner in the UN Security Council resolution.

The American public appears to show more support on Obama's Israel policy. A recent Brookings poll finds that nearly two-thirds of Americans favor UN resolutions demanding a halt to settlements and that a majority of self-identified Democrats support some form of sanctions towards Israel to bring about peace.

11Charting a new course on Cuba

In March 2016, Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

Since Cuba and the US announced on Dec 17, 2014 their decision to start restoring ties, they have exchanged 24 high-level visits and signed 12 agreements, with more on the way.

On May 29, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry rescinded Cuba's designation on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, another step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between the United States and Cuba.

And on July 20, 2015, the Embassy of the United States of America re-opened in Havana and the Cuban Embassy re-opened in Washington, D.C.

In March 2016, Obama arrived in Havana with his wife, daughters and mother-in-law, as well as 40 members of Congress and a business delegation.

By making the historic trip, Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba in 88 years. And later that month, hundreds of tourists and a handful of Cuban-Americans arrived on the first US cruise ship to sail to Havana in decades.

While the US-led trade embargo against Cuba remains in place, the White House has relaxed some restrictions, mainly in travel between the two countries.

Thousands have taken advantage of the thaw. In the first half of the year, 136, 913 US travelers came to Cuba, almost 80 percent more than in the same period the year before, according to Cuba's national bureau of statistics.

In November, the first US-Havana commercial flight landed amid uncertainty about Trump's Cuba policy. Later, regular commercial flights between Cuba's capital and several US cities were re-launched.

As both sides are aware that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump may be less than supportive of the bilateral rapprochement, they have stepped up the effort to normalize ties.

12US and Russia: From Reset to Freezing

In late 2016 US-Russia relations were commonly seen plunging to new low since the Cold War.

Back in his first months of administration in 2009, President Obama started to reset relations with Russia and reverse what he called a "dangerous drift" in this important bilateral relationship. But in late 2016 US-Russia relations have been commonly seen plunging to their lowest point since the Cold War. What has happened in just 6 years? There are clearly three major incidents to blame.

Russia's intervention and annexation of the Crimea stirred a diplomatic crisis between the two nations, and it is also seen as one of the most challenging diplomatic tests for President Obama. In 2014, Obama has ordered a ban on the export of goods, technology and services to Crimea, as well as a series of sanctions on individuals responsible for Moscow's military intervention.

Russia's assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assadalso ignited the US, which vowed to overthrow the regime.

A possible turning point came in late December when US officials revealed that the US and Russia started to trade information on their separate flights against the Islamic State Group in Syria. More progress was made this January as Russia said it is reducing its military presence in Syria with the withdrawal of its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from the Mediterranean.

However, ties soured recently as Russian hackers were accused of interfering with the 2016 US election in an effort to help President-elect Donald Trump win, according to the latest CIA, FBI and National Security Agency report released on January 6.

In the wake of the election hacking, Obama kicked out 35 Russian officials and closed down two Russian-owned compounds as a sanction against Russian intelligence services. It was by far the strongest action the Obama administration has launched to retaliate for a cyber attack.

But the Kremlin is now looking forward to welcoming Donald Trump to warm up their bilateral relations. Trump has repeatedly addressed the importance of keeping good ties with Russia and praised Putin's leadership style. His pick for Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is also regarded as a way of showing goodwill towards Russia.

13"Pivot to Asia" remains uncertain

Obama has made some breakthroughs in promoting ties with Asian countries.

It all started when Obama spent four years of his boyhood in Indonesia. The Obama administration firmly believes that Asia, with nearly half of the earth's population, one-third of global GDP and some of the world's most capable militaries, is gaining much more importance to US national interests.

In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that the US was embarking on a major shift in its foreign policy - with a pivot to Asia (or as Washington puts it, "Rebalance").

In fact, the Asia pivot idea was easier said than done. On top of that, President-elect Donald Trump has promised to withdraw from the 12-nation, China-excluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the pillar for Washington's "Rebalance". Trump's promise, if delivered, would put a shoddy end to Obama administration's Asia strategy.

Regional observers are suggesting that the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, also known as FTAAP, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could serve as better choices for the Asia Pacific region than the TPP which faces an uncertain future.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the outgoing US president has indeed made some breakthroughs in promoting cooperation with Asian countries, including China.

The page is best viewed using IE version 8 or above, and other browers including chrome and baidu.

Copyright 1995 - 2015 . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form.