When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I remember watching in my family room with my parents.
I had been politically engaged for a few years, but as a junior in high school, the tears running down their faces still didn't connect with me. Both of my parents — one a liberal, recovering hippie who couldn't go to her high school dances because she was a Jew and the other a liberal, still hippie Quaker whose parents were political activists — had lived through and participated in the civil rights movement; what they were watching was something neither of them ever expected to see.
And so, as Obama's presidency began, it was with tears of optimism, hope, and amazement streaming down the faces of millions of Americans. And as his presidency ends, we're also left wondering whether he achieved what he set out to do.
Did he change this country for the better? Did he give hope to the hopeless? Did he reform medical care, the education system, Wall Street, and clean energy? Did he avoid another costly war? Did he improve race relations and help bridge political divide like he promised to do?
In many of those cases, the answer is an unequivocal "yes."
When discussing President Obama's legacy, one would be remiss to not begin with the policy bearing his very name: Obamacare.
Rolled out with all the grace of a George W. Bush speech, Obamacare was thrust into the public eye with website issues, a policy advisor caught saying voters were too stupid to understand it, and the lie that if you liked your insurance plan you'd get to keep it. Even within the last week, news broke that Aetna — one of the largest insurers in the United States — was pulling out of 11 of the 15 states in which it offers plans, leaving many people with just one option for health insurance.
But when the depth of Obamacare is truly understood, these headline-grabbing issues seem like superficial wounds on a policy behemoth.
Let's start with the basics: In the three years since Obamacare took effect, more than 20 million Americans who didn't previously have health insurance got it. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says there's been a 17 percent decline in hospital-acquired conditions since Obamacare incentives — which reward or punish hospitals for the quality of their care — came into practice in 2010. HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said the partnership between hospitals and health care providers made patients safer, reducing things such as preventable infections, adverse drug reactions, and pressure ulcers, which saved 87,000 lives and nearly $20 billion in health care costs. On top of that, Obamacare eliminated co-payments for birth control pills, screenings of sexually transmitted infections (STI), HIV screening for adults at high risk, quit-smoking programs, depression screening, alcohol-misuse screening, high-cholesterol screening, and screening for various forms of cancer, among other things.
Then, of course, there's all the stuff one Obamacare architect — Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jonathan Gruber — may have been thinking of when he openly criticized the "stupidity of the American voter."
More than access, Obamacare was about solving the future of America's financial issues, which largely orbited around health care problems. Obama wanted to slow the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid, and balance the inflation of U.S. health costs, which were sprinting past those of general inflation.
To make this happen, he used more than half of the bill not to tackle access, but to institute a "smorgasbord of just about everything people thought could conceivably help" cut costs, former Obama budget director Peter Orszag told Politico.
The result went beyond even the White House's wildest dreams: Medicare's solvency added 13 years and the Congressional Budget Office cut its projection for government health spending by $175 billion in 2020.
Republican talking heads will harp on the rising costs of health care, but that's a trend that started long before Obama got into office and has slowed dramatically since Obamacare became the law of the land. Medicare patients have also been given the freedom to move away from the fee-for-service model that incentivizes quantity of care and not quality of care, and so far a fifth of them have exercised that freedom.
Of course, the net positive economic implications of Obamacare is the smaller of the two huge economic wins of his presidency. The Big One, the one that seems to have been quickly forgotten by the American voter in a time of Clinton email scandals and Donald Trump tweets, was his $800 billion economic stimulus package that resuscitated an economy losing 800,000 jobs a month. In 2010 alone, Obama created more jobs than George W. Bush had in eight years.
It is now widely credited by economists with helping to end the Great Recession with short-term economic adrenaline: record aid to the vulnerable that directly boosted 13 million Americans out of poverty; record aid to states that averted 300,000 teacher layoffs; hard-hat projects that upgraded 42,000 miles of road, 2,700 bridges and 6,000 miles of rail; and roughly $300 billion worth of tax cuts for businesses and families …
But many of those tax cuts weren't seen or understood by Americans. The $800 tax cut from Making Work Pay was given back to workers through a few dollars here and there over several paychecks because Obama knew studies had shown people were less likely to spend the money if they knew they were getting it. His advisors wanted him to make a theater out of cutting taxes, let the people know who was responsible for their new vacation money. Obama opted for the decision that helped the economy and not his legacy. Now, less than 10 percent of the American public knows Obama cut their taxes.
While Obama's adversaries shouted about wasteful government spending and threw snowballs on the Senate floor to prove climate change wasn't real, he downsized the federal deficit to the tune of $1 trillion and poured $90 billion dollars into renewable energy. His reward?
Democratic voters didn't show up to the voting booth in the 2010 midterms, and the House was handed to the GOP in a dominant Republican performance. So for the final six years of his Presidency, Obama was left to his own devices as he tried to push forward his vision of America.
And push he did.
Through clever regulatory policy and investment, Obama re-wrote the future of America's relationship with its environment and energy sector. He tripled the U.S. capacity for generating energy from wind power and saw 400,000 electric cars hit the road during his presidency. Oil imports are down 60 percent. Solar installations increased by 2,000 percent, and every three weeks the U.S. brings on as much solar power as they did in all of 2008.
You've probably heard of Solyndra, the solar company that took a failed $535 million loan from the Obama administration and went under in 2011, and left taxpayers to cover the loss on their way out. Bad news makes good headlines. But what you don't know is that before Solyndra went under, it helped build nine of the world's 10 biggest solar farms.
You also probably didn't hear about the new standards for appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners that will slash 3 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2030, or "the equivalent of taking every car off America's roads for two years," according to Politico. In all, 6 billion metric tons of carbon emissions will be avoided by 2030 as a result of Obama's Climate Action Plan, and that's not including the leverage those cuts gave Obama to push the Paris climate agreement, which bound 195 countries to the first-ever universal global climate deal.
And there are countless more changes he made that will be felt by Americans and Americans alone.
He has put for-profit colleges in a headlock and is slowly but surely helping my generation forgive its student debt if they don't find gainful employment or high enough wages, all while simultaneously attacking the multibillion-dollar for-profit college industry from every angle. He's already taken $36 billion from Sallie Mae and other private lenders, then moved the savings to Pell Grant expansions for low-income undergraduates, and helped transfer student debt from borrowers to taxpayers.
Obama, alongside progressive allies such as Elizabeth Warren, also helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has given $11.4 billion back to more than 25 million American consumers who were conned by financial traps like predatory payday lending, which I wrote about last April. They've regulated tobacco sales (smoking adds $100 billion to health care costs every year); are pushing a fiduciary standard for financial advisers of retirement accounts that forces them to act in their clients "best interest," not simply a "suitability" standard; have instituted net neutrality rules that will stop your providers from intentionally degrading your service; and helped bring doctors and hospitals into the digital age.
He's also put into practice many of the most progressive ideals of acceptance that he preaches: he opened the door for gays in the military, appointed the first woman to the chair of the Federal Reserve, the first trans staffer in the White House, and a drug czar who was a recovering addict.
He's had his failures, too:
His legacy that exists abroad, outside of the United States, where Obama is widely trusted and viewed far more favorably than his predecessor, will be in spite of some obvious blemishes on his foreign policy record: the drone program in Yemen, a war against ISIS that we are winning but cannot close the door on, and bubbling tensions with Russia and North Korea.
Here in the States, despite pushing several gun control bills, the most recent an expansion of federal background checks, he's been unable to find the votes in Congress. He hasn't been able to overhaul the immigration system how he wanted, but he did help grant more than 2 million immigrants amnesty by 2017. Obamacare still faces great obstacles and, of course, every tidbit of success in this column that you hadn't heard of is a reminder that he hasn't done a great job selling his wins to the American public.
But in the final months of his presidency, Obama is still churning out historic landmarks: his administration announced the end to another for-profit blemish on American history last week when it announced a federal government divorce from private prisons. Those relationships, which have been in existence for a decade, proved to leave prisoners and prison employees in worse environments that produced more violence and no improvement in recidivism rates.
Many would argue that race relations have regressed, but there's also a good case that the presence of tension is a better sign of progress than a general population ignoring the blight and horror of bigotry that still exists in our society, specifically the justice system.
As Obama packs his bags to leave, his approval rating here in the United States hovers above 50 percent for the first time since 2013, and he may leave office as one of the most-liked presidents in post-World War II history. While that may signify a uniting of some voters, it's also easy to make the case that one of Obama's biggest goals — helping America rid itself of partisan division — has failed more miserably than any of his other grand plans.
Perhaps if we took a moment to appreciate his accomplishments, we could help him reach that goal, too.
Isaac Saul is a reporter and columnist for A Plus, where he writes his weekly column "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter here.
Cover photo via Flickr