A Tribute to President Barack Obama

When I was twelve years old, my interests largely revolved around LEGOs, cartoons, and video games. I had just started the seventh and had to deal with the stress of having to go to different classrooms for different subjects for the very first time. Though I enjoyed algebra with Mr. Crain and though I was quite fond of science with Mr. Baldizon, my favorite classes were my English and AVID, both taught by Mr. Reynoso. These class were a departure from the established status quo at times–though for the better, as he was an engaged educator who took a proactive and intuitive approach. We were encouraged to think outside of the box and take dynamic approaches to problems, which fostered teamwork while emphasizing leadership.

My dad, my youngest brother Alex, and twelve-year-old me.
My dad, my youngest brother Alex, and twelve-year-old me.

Around the same time was the 2008 presidential campaign. The hopeful and young Barrack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton a few months earlier and now faced the more conventional and experienced Arizona Senator John McCain. I had started watching the Democratic and Republican debates and soon became enthralled in the world of politics. I wasn’t the only one, as fellow co-founder and writer Izamar Diaz and a few other classmates also shared this interest.

I was captivated by Obama’s rousing speeches and energetic debate performances as well as his message of hope and change. Though I wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, I was quite literally watching history unfold before my very eyes. I remember being so excited to go to AVID the days after the debates because we would discuss and hash out what we saw together as a class.

Eight years later and we have reached the end of this journey. President Obama will leave office on Friday January 20th, 2017 at high noon eastern standard time and–baring any unforeseen circumstances– will be succeeded by Donald Trump as our 45th president. These past eight years have been a roller coaster ride for our nation so let’s take a look back at the legacy of President Obama: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

One of George Bush’s parting gifts for his successor was an economy in free-fall. President Obama and the newly elected, Democrat-majority congress were tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of mitigating the situation and preventing the economy from completely collapsing. In February of 2009, they passed and signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which provided a $830 billion stimulus package to pay for infrastructure, education, health, and energy programs and which also expanded tax incentives for business as well as unemployment and other social welfare benefits. Though bemoaned by Republicans as an outlandish overreach of government powers, the ARRA prevent millions of workers from losing their jobs, kept millions of renters and homeowners from losing their homes, and saved millions of at-risk Americans from descending into abject poverty.

President Obama’s administration and Congress were also tasked with handling the near-collapse of the US auto industry that resulted from the 2008 recession. Chrysler and General Motors–two of the “Big Three” automakers–received a combined $21.6 billion dollar loan to rescue the moribund companies in February, on top of a $17.4 billion loan that President Bush and the previous Congress passed a few months before Obama took office. This bailout helped prevent the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs that many economists believe would have further devastated the US economy.

President Obama speaking to workers at a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 2009. (Getty)
President Obama speaking to workers at a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 2009. (Getty)

Aside from the stimulus package, auto, and bank bailouts, one Obama’s key accomplishments of his first term in office was the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which is most commonly known by the aptonym, Obamacare. For the first time in US history, every citizen was now mandated to have some sort of health insurance or face a fine. Moreover, the ACA prevented insurance companies from denying coverage or raising premiums based on pre-existing conditions, proliferated decent health insurance to millions who never had it, expanded preventive care, health screenings, and contraceptive access for women, and placed a renewed emphasis on preventative services–just to name a few of its accomplishments.

Though he initially supported traditional marriage, Obama soon became one of biggest allies of the LGBTQ+ community. In December of 2010, he fulfilled his presidential campaign of ending the military’s dreaded “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, effectively allowing gays and lesbians to serve our country openly. Two years later, he became the first sitting US president to support the legalization of same-sex marriage. When a Supreme Court decision in 2015 declared marriage equality the law of the land, President Obama hailed the decision as “a victory for America”.

Another one of Obama’s signature pieces of legislation was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave nearly a million undocumented immigrants–most of which were students–temporary work permits and safeguard from deportation. This also allowed many undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges.

As an undocumented student myself, I can’t adequately express my gratitude for the president’s actions. My parents and I took advantage of this immediately and I have largely benefited from this key piece of legislation ever since. I would have been unable to pursue my education or any type of job without it, which would have made my future in this country I call home unsure.

In 2014, President Obama tried to expand this program to parents of citizens and legal residents by creating the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program, but a split four to four Supreme Court ruling in 2016 rendered the program beyond the power of the executive branch, effectively shuttering the hopes of nearly 5 million undocumented parents.

Obama has arguably been the greenest president in history. During his presidency, Obama created or expanded 34 national monuments–protecting more nature and wildlife than any other president, including the famed naturalist Teddy Roosevelt. He expanded environmental regulations on big polluting companies while also encouraging the development and usage of alternative energy sources by providing subsidies to companies and tax breaks to consumers. Obama’s key accomplishment when it comes environmental protection, however, was the pledge he made with 55 other countries–including China and India, two of the biggest polluters–to greatly reduce carbon emissions during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) in Paris. It was refreshing to see a president who showed such regard for our climate and ecosystem, especially considering his successor has denounced the threat of climate change as a hoax.

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.
President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of the UNCCC in 2015.

Obama has also curtailed the growth and reach of the prison industrial complex. The Obama administration has not only championed extensive criminal justice reforms, but has also pardoned or commuted the sentences of more inmates than any other previous president. He has granted clemency to over 1,715 inmates, most of who were non-violent drug offenders sentenced to lengthy prisons stays due to minimum sentencing laws. This includes 330 commutations he dished out today in his final day in office–more than any other president has done in a single day. Two of the most prolific pardons he granted were those of Chelsea Manning, the Army private who served 7 out of a 35-year prison sentence for stealing and leaking classified diplomatic and military secrets to WikiLeaks, and Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist who served 35 years in prison for conspiring against the US government.

The Bad

However, there have also been various instances throughout his tenure in which Obama supported or implemented policies which contradicted the same progressive values that many of his supporters expected from him. Some of these actions have left entire groups feeling betrayed while others have been overlooked or ignored by his most apologetic supporters.

Latinos and Hispanics turned out in droves to vote for Barrack Obama both times, many with the hope that he would renovate our broken immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people already living in the country. However, Obama’s relationship with the Latino and immigrant community has been somewhat bittersweet during his time in office.

He took a step in the right direction by implementing the aforementioned DACA and DAPA, but he failed to sign any comprehensive immigration reform into law–though one could arguably assign a large portion of the blame on Congress. One thing can’t be largely blamed on Congress, however, and that is the massive deportation regime carried out by the president. Under President Obama, 2.8 million undocumented immigrants have been deported–more than the previous twenty presidents combined.

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The number of deportations increased during Obama’s second term, reaching its crescendo in 2014 when an influx of immigrant children poured across our southern border as a result of social, civil, and economic strife in Central and Southern American countries–issues previous and current American foreign policy in the region helped create or spur. Though the majority of those caught at border during this period were unaccompanied minors who were fleeing civil war or massive gang violence, only the few that had access to legal representation stood any chance at securing asylum in the United States. Most did not and were deported back to their countries of origin, where they are preyed on by drug cartels to serve as drug runners, lookouts, and even as customers.

Two girls watching a World Cup soccer game from inside an immigration detention center in Brownsville, Texas. (Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty)
Two girls watching a World Cup soccer game from inside an immigration detention center in Brownsville, Texas. (Ross D. Franklin-Pool/Getty)

Obama’s treatment of these children was disgracefully benevolent. He supported Congressional Republican’s plans to expedite the deportation of these children by removing special protections they receive under the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). But deportations will not and have not solved the problem. They have failed to address the underlying roots of the crisis and instead, have contributed to the vicious cycle of perpetual violence, corruption, and destitute that has plagued Central and South America since the Cold War.

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Though President Obama hailed his administration as “the most transparent administration in history,” some of his actions as president have indicated otherwise. During his two terms in office, the Obama administration significantly cracked down on whistle-blowers, most famously Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and has prosecuted more of them through the Espionage Act than any other president combined. These prosecutions were not all created equal, however, as higher-level officials caught leaking secrets typically received a slap on the wrist while lower-level employees would often get the book thrown at them. Obama’s crackdown on whistle blowers has also created a chilling effect on journalists who investigate and report the leaks.

Domestically, Obama has largely been mum on the mass collection of private information carried out by the National Surveillance Agency (NSA).  He continued the encroachment and suspension of civil liberties as stipulated in the PATRIOT Act when when he signed into law the USA Freedom Act in 2015, a House-passed measure that kept the “most vital” parts of the NSA’s collective programs while reforming other parts. In his final two weeks in office, President Obama has further broadened the NSA’s ability to circumvent privacy protections and share intercepted communications with all 16 other governmental intelligence agencies, including personal emails, phone calls, and emails.

Though Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” his administration has sold more weapons to foreign countries than any other president–over $200 billion worth. A large chunk of this–$94 billion–has been given to Saudi Arabia, a country which is suspected of committing war crimes in neighboring Yemen with US-supplied weapons and which also bears a deplorable domestic human rights record. Aside from this, Obama has also increased the number of unmanned drone attacks in these Iraq and Afghanistan as well as five others that are “outside areas of active hostilities”–Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen.

The aftermath of a Saudi-led bombing on a funeral in Sana'a, Yemen (Associate Press/Osamah Abdulrhman).
The aftermath of a Saudi-led bombing on a funeral in Sana’a, Yemen (Associate Press/Osamah Abdulrhman).

As a method of preserving their pacifist façade, the administration has been reserved when it comes to addressing civilian casualties incurred by these legally unaccountable drone strikes, initially claiming that the number was in the single-digits. A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that out of the 473 strikes that took place between 2009 and 2015, as many as 2,581 combatants and 116 non-combatants were killed. This contradicts a report released by a group of esteemed investigative journalists which claims that 528 strikes had occurred during that time, killing 3,715 combatants and 474 civilians.

The so-called combatants killed in these strikes are not allotted any special treatment, such as a criminal trial, and many are killed on simple suspicion that they might be terrorists or affiliates. President Obama has also worryingly used his power as Commander-in-Chief in the extrajudicial killing of eight American citizens abroad, only one of which was “specifically targeted”. This is in clear violation of the protections granted by the fourth and fifth amendments.

Though often painting himself as an ally of the working class and small business, President Obama has been an ardent supporter of neoliberal policies and trade deals that benefit multinational corporations at the expense of working-class Americans, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. In addition, the Department of Justice has failed to convict a single banker that had a role in the economic collapse of 2008 for their scrupulous actions, failing to set any precedent that might deter future precarious dealings. The poverty level remains at 14.5 percent–higher than before Obama took office (13.2). Though the current unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, millions of people remain chronically underemployed or have dropped out from the labor force all together. Almost all of the new income that was created during his time in office was siphoned to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.

The Ugly

Many saw President Obama’s 2008 election and subsequent re-election as an indicator that our country had surmounted its racist past less than half a century after it gave voting rights to all regardless of race or ethnicity. To them, Obama’s election atoned for all the wrongs and injustices of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism that took place in the preceding 500 years. However, President Obama’s time in office has truly shed some light on the prejudice, racist elements that still permeate a sizable portion of American society.

Though he won both elections handily, Obama still faced an onslaught of doubts over his legitimacy, with many on the losing side denouncing him as not being their president, presumably because her was the first African American president. Moreover, he weathered a myriad of conspiracies and skepticism regarding his religion, his nationality, and his patriotism–many of which were spouted by media pundits with massive followings. They expressed their hopes that he crash and fail so that he might be a one term president. They shouted that Obama would spread Sharia law and communism throughout America, that he would take everyone’s guns, and that he would let in hordes of illegals and other undesirables into our country.

His family was not exempt from these insults and were also subject to racist and demeaning stereotypes and comments, such as when a West Virginia nonprofit director called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels” or when a senior GOP staffer suggested that first daughters Sasha and Malia “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar”.

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Our soon-to-be-president Donald Trump more or less launched his own political career with claims that Obama may not have been born on US soil, insinuating that he is an illegitimate president. Though Trump’s assertions were later proven false when the President released his birth certificate in 2008, Trump maintained his skepticism and in fact, doubled down on his claims by insisting the birth certificate was fake.

It wasn’t until September of 2016 when Donald Trump finally admitted that President Obama was indeed born in the United States. When pressed about it during the first presidential debate a few weeks later however, Trump somehow twisted the whole birther issue to make it seem as if he did our country a favor by cajoling Obama to release his birth certificate.

It’s typical to expect the opposition party to, you know, oppose, but the level of obstructionism that Obama has faced from Republicans is simply unprecedented. From the beginning, they made it their goal to stonewall and sabotage his presidency, making it as difficult as possible to pass legislation.

In a 2012 interview with the National Journal, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) revealed that “The single most important thing we [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” following the significant gains they made in the 2010 midterm election. They engaged in scorched-earth tactics against the Obama administration and Democrats, entirely opposing many of their trademark accomplishments such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the $800 billion stimulus packaged–though they were able to pass both.

For over two weeks in October of 2013, the US federal government shut down over the lack of funds resulting from Congress’ inability to compromise on a budget. House Republicans included resolutions in the 2014 budget that would defund the Affordable Care Act while Senate Democrats were insistent on removing these measures. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) led the charge to shut down the federal government and accomplished his goal after giving an astounding 21-hour speech on the Senate floor in which he argued for the merits of defunding Obamacare. Cruz has since threatened to shut down the federal government over funding and budgetary issues a few more times.

Though a 2012 Supreme Court decision upheld the most crucial part of the law, the individual mandate, Republicans continued to fight the ACA after its passage and implementation. From 2010 to 2014, the House of Representatives voted to defund or otherwise restrict the ACA on 54 different occasions, all of which failed.

However, with a newfound control of both the legislative and executive branches, Republicans will now be able to get their long sought after dream of theirs. Last week, Congressional Republicans passed a budget resolution aimed at defunding the ACA–the first of a three-step process to fully repeal it. Republicans seemingly hate the Affordable Care Act so much that they are willing to repeal it without having an adequate replacement, thereby leaving millions of Americans without health insurance.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, Republicans refused to have any confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, for nine months–the most a Supreme Court nomination has had to wait. Republicans held the process hostage with the insistence that Obama should not be allowed to assign a Supreme Court in his final year in office. Just thus week, Garland quietly returned to his former position as federal appeals court judge.

Despite this opposition, Obama remained steadfast and never showed signs of defeat. Not even dealing with some of the worst tragedies to rock our country and world in modern times made him waver from his resolve. He valiantly addressed our nation on 15 different occasions in response to horrific mass shootings–more than any other president–, including the Sandy Hook massacre that took the lives of twenty young children and six teachers and also the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando which killed 49 people and injured 53 more. He addressed the international community in response to terrorist attacks in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Nice as well as in response to civil strife in Syria and Ebola epidemics in West Africa. Each time, rather than preying on the fears and worries of the people, he provided reassurance and confidence in times of great turbulence.

Final Thoughts

There was a lot left to be desired from an Obama presidency. For most folks, the economy is stagnant at best. Our immigration system is still broken. Student debt continues to steadily climb with no summit in sight. Income inequality is burgeoning. Our country is arguably the most divided it has been in modern times. On a global scale, it might be too late to prevent large-scale environmental disasters. The Middle East is still in shambles if not more so. Civil and economic strife worldwide bubbles underneath the surface, seemingly ready to burst open. Fascism and authoritarianism is becoming increasingly popular, especially in Europe. We face new challenges to our global hegemony from both rising powers and rogue states. The future is uncertain.

But President Obama, a community organizer from Chicago who once considered quitting politics all together,  showed us what can be possible if we each do our part and look after each other. Though much of Obama’s key accomplishments are now threatened by Republicans and Donald Trump, his legacy, strength, and wisdom will long live on in the hearts and minds of the millions of people he has inspired worldwide.

President Obama's before and after picture. (Dan Winters)
What eight years as president does to a person. (Dan Winters)

Aside from being the coolest president, Barrack Obama will undoubtedly go down in the annals of American history as one of the most well-spoken, influential, and transformative presidents of all time. The poise that he showed while navigating our country through uncertain times was simply remarkable. He provided inspiration, hope, and resilience when the outlook was bleak and despair was nigh. He reminded us that the bonds we share are stronger than the differences that divide us. He served as a role model for millions of young Americans, including myself. President Obama, though you will likely never read this post, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart nonetheless–for being my president and for being one of my greatest influences.

President Obama's touching final letter to the American people.
President Obama’s touching final letter to the American people.

 

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