Politics is the art of the possible. When evaluating the presidency of Barack Obama, one must consider the realistic constraints on his actions. As the first African-American president, Obama endured unprecedented personal hostility, which he withstood with remarkable equanimity and forbearance. For most of his tenure in office, he confronted a malicious and grossly obstructionist Congress. Thus many of Obama's policy initiatives were necessarily executive orders easily reversible by his successor.

Consider President Obama's performance in three critical areas: economy, foreign policy and environment.

Economy: Obama started his presidency with 10 percent official unemployment. He leaves office with a 5 percent unemployment rate. However, most of the new jobs are not particularly good ones. They are part-time, precarious, and/or low-paid. Many job seekers have stopped looking for work. In 2009, 22 percent of working-age Americans lacked health insurance. Today, only 12 percent of this group are without health insurance. But the Affordable Care Act remains an inefficient windfall for the insurance industry, and the associated requirement of buying health insurance remains deeply unpopular. Moreover, after a brief reduction, health care costs are increasing once again.


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The Obama administration vigorously bailed out huge banks whose financial practices engendered the devastating 2007-2009 recession. On the other hand, it did precious little to help ordinary homeowners faced with unpayable housing debts and foreclosures. After undertaking an economic stimulus that proved inadequate to reverse the recession, Obama precipitously switched policies embracing a version of neo-liberal austerity and debt reduction. The derelict financial system was partially modified but not essentially changed. Executive compensation and economic inequality both increased substantially during Obama's presidency.

Foreign Policy: Obama has reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba and achieved an agreement with Iran allowing it to reintegrate with the global economic community. Obama embraces the doctrine of American "exceptionalism" in which exempts the United States from international law and justifies military intervention almost anywhere. The military intervention in Libya reduced that country to chaos. The overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government, endorsed by the Obama administration, has created an enduring crisis in Eastern Europe and fostered dangerous conflict with Russia.

Candidate Obama promised to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has ended neither one. The Iraq war metastasized into a catastrophic Syrian bloodletting toward which Obama's policies have been mercurial or even contradictory. Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama authorized hundreds of deadly and illegal drone attacks throughout the Middle East. Some of these attacks have killed American citizens. Obama sometimes expresses a desire for a world without nuclear weapons, but he recently approved a trillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Environment: Obama certainly understands the climate change crisis, yet he has been reluctant to attack the powerful fossil fuel industry. Renewable energy and vehicle fuel efficiency have increased since 2009, but not nearly enough to address the climate change emergency. Obama successfully negotiated an agreement with China committing both countries to major emissions reductions. This accord enabled the subsequent global climate agreement reached in Paris. These covenants, though notable steps in a positive direction, are strictly voluntary.

Obama sometimes responds favorably to public environmental pressure as in the Keystone XL pipeline and Standing Rock cases. He has been largely unwilling, however, to use the presidential "bully pulpit" for mobilizing Americans about the dire threat of climate change.

Crises present invaluable opportunities for social change. Obama became president during a severe crisis of the global neo-liberal capitalist order. He disregarded the opportunity to transform the neo-liberal economic system in a fundamental way. Obama chose instead to restore the status quo ante with relatively minor modifications. This choice defines his major historical legacy.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.