Politics & Policy

The America Obama Leaves Behind

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
His successor will inherit a mess comparable to the one he inherited in 2008.

The perpetual defense for almost every disappointment of the Obama presidency has been, “Look at what he inherited!” It’s a familiar litany: two wars, a Wall Street meltdown, General Motors on the verge of collapse, an economy plunging into recession . . . 

It’s not difficult to picture Democrats making the same argument a year from now if Obama’s preferred successor, Hilary Clinton, wins. “Sure, people are frustrated, but look at what she inherited when she took office: a slow economy, Obamacare in a death spiral, serious racial tensions, and the growing threat of ISIS!”

Economic growth has been around 1 percent for the past three quarters, not quite a recession but not, by any stretch, robust: 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, 0.8 percent in the first quarter of 2016, and 1.1 percent in the second quarter. The good news for Obama’s legacy is that once the recession officially ended in June 2009, the economy stayed in positive territory. The bad news is that the economy has now failed to reach reach 3 percent growth in any of the past ten years. In other words: For millions of Americans, the recession’s aftermath hasn’t been much better than the recession itself.

The Obama administration’s defenders will point out that the unemployment rate is down to 4.9 percent and has steadily declined since the spring of 2011. But that declining rate — accompanied, it must be said, by a rapid decline in workforce participation — hasn’t created a broad sense of prosperity or economic security. For the past four years, median weekly earnings have increased less than 2 percent a year after inflation. The number of Americans who are working part-time but want full-time work is around 6 million, the highest level in 30 years.

RELATED: Obama’s Legacy Is Already Collapsing

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to be this president’s signature success story, but the news in 2016 is not good on that front, either. Enrollment in the insurance exchanges for Obama’s signature health-care law is at less than half the initial forecast, and insurers are starting to recognize that even with the individual mandate, their new customers are older, sicker, and more expensive than expected. Despite all the promises about customer choice, there’s a good chance that at this time next year, a third of all American counties will have just one single insurer on their exchange, a de facto monopoly.

And more and more patients are finding the Affordable Care Act isn’t that affordable. Premiums are rising this year, with “an average jump of 62 percent for the biggest plan in Tennessee and increases of around 43 percent in Mississippi and 23 percent in Kentucky for large carriers.” The median deductible in an employee-sponsored plan jumped from $1,000 in 2015 to $1,500 in 2016.

If Clinton wins and the state of the country fails to improve, her old primary rival could quickly become her administration’s favorite scapegoat.

Any further attempt to reform the health-care system will carry the burden of Obamacare. The law didn’t just fail to live up to its promises; it demonstrated to Americans that their elected leaders are every bit as dishonest, devious, and arrogant as they feared. No, you can’t keep your plan or your doctor, and very few people who voted for the law give a damn that you can’t.

American views of race relations are at their worst since the Rodney King verdict and Los Angeles riots. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, usually a strong supporter of President Obama, declared: “Obama will leave office without having healed the nation’s festering racial wounds. He will not have made them worse; rather, he will have allowed us to see how deep they remain and how much healing still needs to take place.”

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One might have expected the first African-American president to aid in that healing, helping Americans see the perspective of other groups, building trust, and alleviating grievances. Instead, Obama has somehow ended up with the worst of both worlds. A significant portion of whites, probably encompassing most of Donald Trump’s supporters, see the president as opportunistically exploiting racial controversies. At the same time, more than a few African Americans see Obama as a man who bent over backwards to avoid controversies and placate intolerant white Americans. They see a president who arrogantly lectured the NAACP and other black audiences about their need to take responsibility for their problems, a president who was unwilling to do much beyond talk about incidents in Ferguson and who brought little real change to the daily lives of black Americans. In 2016, everybody’s dissatisfied with the state of race relations, and the next president is likely to have an even tougher time navigating this emotionally fraught minefield.

#related#In 2008, Obama campaigned on a pledge to end the Iraq War, and his most trusted adviser, Valerie Jarrett, still lists “ended two wars” as one of his accomplishments. Sadly, ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups haven’t ended their wars against America. Obama leaves his successor a civil war in Syria that has killed about a half-million people and flooded Europe with refugees. In Afghanistan, after 15 years of American combat, the Taliban, according to the New York Times, continues to “control or heavily influence about a half of the country.” ISIS controls large portions of Libya; the U.S. is conducting airstrikes with helicopters, and most of the public remains oblivious.

For now, Clinton will happily run close to Obama, who remains an effective weapon on the stump, popular with large swaths of the Democratic base. But if she wins and the state of the country fails to improve, her old primary rival could quickly become her administration’s favorite scapegoat.

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.


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