To start, I’ll be honest and say that I do not have the depth of knowledge one would need to determine which presidents are better or worse than others. I am a novice at best in this realm, and the following assertions and opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m a layman of presidential history (and all history for that matter) at a very generous best.
I’ll also let you know that I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the first two presidential elections I was of age to participate in. I was fairly excited at the thought of Obama as president the first time around, and begrudgingly decided to cast a ballot for him in 2012 after Ron Paul was knocked out of the GOP race. I regret voting for Obama, but am not exactly tormented over voting against John McCain and Mitt Romney, McCain in particular. If I could go back, I’d cast a ballot for the Libertarian Party nominee each time.
Having said all that, I believe there is empirical evidence and intuitive reasoning one can follow to determine that Barack Obama may be the worst president in recent American history. By recent, I mean the past hundred years or so, and by worst, I mean the worst of a great many who have kept America on top of the world for decades. As I critique Obama throughout the ensuing piece, it should be kept in mind that I in no way believe America is on the verge of collapse, and I acknowledge that life is still good in the USA. Even if I’m right about Obama’s ineptitude, these are failings only in a relative sense, and have not led to some sort of American apocalypse. America has yet to have a Stalin, Hitler, or Mao, and I see no room for debate there.
Lastly, having reread the ensuing list of Obama’s failings and thinking about 9/11, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, No Child Left Behind, the TSA, NSA wiretapping, the Patriot Act, ethanol fuel promotion, and a true doubling of the debt, I’m beyond comfortable saying George W. Bush was ultimately worse than Obama. But clearing a bar that low should not give our outgoing president solace.
- Nowhere to Grow
There is no doubt that Obama walked into a real challenge economically when he was inaugurated in 2008. Just a few months earlier, the housing bubble burst, and a global recession as bad as any since the Great Depression took hold (though it should be kept in mind that our material quality of life is so tremendous that the relative consequences were benign compared to 1929). It’s certainly understandable that Obama wound up presiding over some tough economic times, and there is likely very little he and Congress could have done to radically change that.
However, booms typically follow busts. The workforce catches up to advancements in technology, and investors figure out where the economy is headed. The result should be major growth that throttles the economy back towards homeostasis and beyond. This did not happen under Obama. Many have called his recovery the worst in American history, and it’s not an outlandish claim. While the deceptive unemployment rate has returned to pre-recession levels, the workforce participation rate is at its lowest in decades.
The most telling statistic is the primary one used to judge a nation’s economic achievement: GDP growth rate. Since the Great Depression ended, there have been twenty-two years in which the USA’s GDP growth was below 5%. Seven of those years (about a third) occurred with Obama in the White House (and 2016 will likely be his eighth). Even if we forgive Obama for his first and worst year, 2009, average GDP growth has been a meager 3.8% during his time in office. This is a uniquely low number, especially when considering the amount of money our government has spent to stimulate the economy in those same years (more on that next).
After adjusting for inflation, it can also be stated that Obama has not had a rate of 3% GDP growth, which essentially tells the same story.
To be perfectly honest, I do not believe presidents should bear much of the blame or get much of the credit for a nation’s financial situation. Aside from instances of radical policy change (like the Sanders-ian disaster currently taking place in Venezuela), the market basically does what it does. Obama has certainly been a regulatory hawk, and that has stifled wealth creation. But it has not been so severe that we missed out on some kind of pot of gold; no serious person imagines GDP growth would have been 10% per year with Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich in office.
Nevertheless, if we dissociate Obama from our GDP growth, we must do the same for all presidents across the board. If not, Obama goes down as an anomaly of economic stagnation in our otherwise prosperous history.
- Debt End
If Obama had simply failed to generate a great deal of wealth during his time as president, equating him with our worst presidents would be going a bit overboard, particularly following the aforementioned recession. But not only have we not become much richer as a nation, we have also established an inconceivable colossus of likely permanent debt.
Nearly $8 trillion of the $20 trillion we owe has been accumulated under Obama’s watch.
To be fair, George W. Bush oversaw a near doubling of the debt too. But on the contrary, while I’m confident in saying it was a mistake that solidifies him as the true worst president in recent history, Bush was authorized to go to war twice after September 11th, the worst terrorist attack in American history. Those wars are still unpaid for and were not cheap (not to mention the egregious and unnecessary loss of human life). But at least we (we being Hillary Clinton and a voting majority in Congress), along with much of the international community, believed that invading Iraq and Afghanistan was in our best interest.
Policies enacted under Ronald Reagan also resulted in huge deficits and, at the time, unprecedented levels of total public debt (excluding WWII). The difference between Obama and Reagan in this regard is that GDP growth during the Reagan years averaged nearly 8% (twice as high as the Obama years), and we managed to rebuild our military to boot. The military has, arguably, been downsized under Obama.
Our total public debt currently stands at nearly $20 trillion. That number is too big to elicit an appropriate reaction because our brains aren’t complex enough to comprehend such figures. Our deficits add roughly another half trillion dollars every year, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This problem will not be going away any time soon (if ever).
And to counter the president’s claim that he lowered the deficit, keep in mind that he lowered it from his trillion-dollar-plus deficits from 2009-2012. These were the highest in our history.
From an economics standpoint, Obama’s legacy is combining unimaginable debt with historically-unparalleled stagnation. It’s damning, and it should put him in the running for worst American president from the get-go.
From Nobel to No-Peace
- Endless War
Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize the year he was elected. He promised “hope” and “change” and, more specifically, an end to our wars and the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
The Nobel Prize commission might want a Mulligan on their 2009 selection.
While the press doesn’t mention it very often, Barack Obama is the first American president to be at war throughout his entire two-term stint in office. He surpasses Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, and all the rest in this arena.
It must be noted that Obama’s wars have not been exceptionally deadly or dangerous to our men and women in uniform. The number of American personnel overseas is drastically lower than it was when he was elected, and we rarely see our compatriots brought home in Old-Glory-draped coffins anymore, something that all Americans should be happy about.
What makes Obama’s military record suspect is how vigorously he swore to end our wars during his campaigns. He failed to stop the violence and betrayed his base, though I believe they were set on forgiving him from the start.
Guantanamo Bay remains operational, too.
- Unauthorized War
Regardless of how civil Obama’s wars have been, he has not followed the separation of powers established in our Constitution.
It may well be the case that our military actions against ISIS have not only been essential, but even wildly successful, to the Obama administration’s credit. But the commander-in-chief is not supposed to have the authority to attack a foreign body without a formal declaration of war from Congress. The president is only supposed to command the military when Congress gives consent. This is how a system of checks and balances intends to prevent our presidents from becoming kings.
Many Obama supporters would argue that the president is trustworthy, competent, and level-headed enough to handle enhanced executive duties, and that they trust his judgment enough to allow him to go it alone. The problem for all of us is that these sorts of actions pave the way for his successors to do the same, and that will be Donald Trump as of next week.
- The Rise of ISIS
Speaking of ISIS, it’s hard to deny at this point that Obama is, at least in part, the unintentional creator of the radical Islamic group. He is not literally their founder, as Donald Trump has brashly asserted, but his actions seem to have jumpstarted the Jihadist militants.
Against the advice of many experts, Obama (sort of) ended the war in Iraq, and left the newly Democratic state to its own devices. To everyone’s chagrin, removing our troops created a power vacuum that was briskly filled by Al Qaeda on steroids.
For the past several years, ISIS has committed weekly acts of terror by bombing, firing upon, and driving over unsuspecting civilians throughout and outside the Middle East and slaughtering innocents within their so-called Caliphate.
The icing on the cake is that Obama, in an unwise attempt to support the rebels in their uprising against Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad, armed ISIS with American weapons himself. What was supposed to be a helping hand to foster Democracy into a highly undemocratic place turned out to be an unintentional invigoration of one of the most heinous terrorist groups the world has ever known. His initial support of going to war with the rebels against Assad may have given them the courage to forge such a hard-fought and deadly battle over the course of so many years. It can be speculated that a less vocal approach could have prevented the emboldening of the rebels and ended the campaign far sooner.
Rather than the president of hope and change, Obama will go down as just another man in a suit on our conveyor belt of war-mongering heads of the executive branch.
The number is seven.
That’s how many nations our Nobel Peace Prize winning president has dropped bombs on. The list is comprised of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
For juxtaposition, George W. Bush only bombed four countries.
To be fair, these nations are not exactly our best pals, and perhaps the bombing campaigns were necessary and made the world a safer place. But when a politician rides a wave of peace, love, and understanding to the Oval Office, you have to question his sincerity, true mission, or at least ability to accomplish his stated mission, especially when over 26,000 bombs are dropped on his watch during his final year in office.
- Droning On
Through his presidency, President Obama has ordered drone strikes that have killed nearly 2,500 individuals. These were by-and-large terrorists and other enemy combatants, but at least 60 and up to over 100 of them were non-military. If the highest estimates are accurate, nearly one in twenty droned by Obama were civilians.
Obama has also killed American citizens via drone strikes, and these individuals, while likely traitors and threats to the US, died without their constitutionally guaranteed due process of law.
Our presidents can now kill Americans with drones without giving them a fair trial.
Obama vs. The Constitution
- Pressed Freedom
When Reporters without Borders released their first Word Press Freedom Index, the United States ranked 17th. Considering the first Rights Americans are born with include the freedom to publish information for public viewing, this should have been concerning fourteen years ago.
Under Barack Obama, the United States press has fallen to the 41st freest in the world circa 2016.
The main reasons for the low ranking under Obama are his administration’s persecution of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
The Obama administration was also caught collecting the phone records of Associated Press reporters without a warrant. This violates both the First and Fourth Amendments.
- Supreme Court Smackdown
Historically, the government has a roughly 60% win percentage in Supreme Court cases. President Obama, a former lecturer of constitutional law, has won just 45% of his.
For perspective, George W. Bush won the average 60% of his cases and Bill Clinton was three percent better.
What’s especially embarrassing for the outgoing president is his number of 9-0 losses. Bush and Clinton lost unanimously in the Supreme Court 30 and 31 times respectively. Obama suffered 44 shutout defeats. Not only does this show that Obama’s proportion of wins and losses is messy, but his total losses and the spread of those losses are abysmal too.
Failure to Communicate
- Racial Divide
The American people on the whole proved that being Black in America is no longer a serious burden by electing Barack Obama to head the executive branch… twice. What would have been unheard of several decades earlier became something to shrug one’s shoulders at. Obama’s race has never mattered to any noteworthy portion of the American public.
While dreams of a post-racial America seemed to have been realized, race relations have turned sour towards the end of Obama’s reign.
The most obvious example of resurgence in racial segregation and distrust is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. While it’s hard to pin the group down due to its lack of organization, the uniting message of BLM is police reform. Although only a tiny portion of cop-on-black killings have been deemed unjustified, the narrative of young, unarmed black men being gunned down in the streets by cops has persisted throughout much of Obama’s second term.
Race is now everywhere. Movies, media, social media, academia, and the rest are saturated with cries of racism, reverse racism, and overall inequality. It is not as easy to measure race relations as it is to measure a budget deficit, but 61% of Americans of all races believe that Obama has tried but failed to address racial issues adequately, made race issues worse, or not addressed them enough at all.
That fact that none of us wants this must be the hardest pill to swallow for President Obama.
- No Leaving in London
President Obama, famous for his diplomacy with foreign allies, traveled to the UK to appear alongside then Prime Minister David Cameron to try and convince the British people to vote to “remain” a member state of the European Union. He explained that should they vote to “leave”, the Brits were going to wind up “at the back of the queue” (queue being the British version of line) on trade deals with the US.
Although polls projected the British to side with Obama throughout the referendum debate, they ultimately wound up voting to “leave”.
- Decimated Democrats
Obama’s political losses did not only occur abroad. Back home, the Democratic Party lost a whopping 1,042 seats in state legislatures, governorships, and Congress through his eight years in office. These are not appointed officials, but elected officials voted on by the people of the United States.
Even if we give the benefit of the doubt and say Americans essentially approve of Barack Obama, his leadership was not enough to convince them to support his ilk to represent them.
- Rising Murder Rates
I do not believe it is the president’s job to prevent murders or individual crimes at all. That is not in the constitutional job description, and it does not make much sense to put all of this on Barack Obama.
But if we are simply looking at the state of affairs in Obama’s America, an uptick in murders cannot be ignored.
What exactly does this say about Obama’s policies and leadership? It’s hard to tell. But more Americans killing each other is not a legacy any president would want to leave behind.
- The Populist Uprising
What is Obama’s true legacy? Above all, it is Donald Trump.
This is nearly identical to the way Barack Obama’s election was largely a response to the failings of George W. Bush. Bush led us to war; Obama promised us peace. Bush left our economy in tatters; Obama promised to rebuild it. Bush gave tax cuts to the rich; Obama pronounced they would soon pay their fair share. Bush was a rich, white, uncultured son of a president; Obama was a well-traveled, half-African son of a single mom.
For every contradiction Obama represented to Bush, Donald Trump has an additional ten divergent qualities compared to Obama. The president-elect will now claim the throne the current president procured from a different but equal kind of oppositional force.
Not only is Trump’s rise a signal of the disdain so many Americans feel for the 44th president’s performance, Bernie Sanders’ run at the Democratic nomination let us know that millions of Americans believe Obama did not go far enough. Sanders had no intention of stabilizing Obama’s America and preserving his legacy as Hillary Clinton would have. The Vermont Senator created a movement to overthrow the status quo.
In the end, 66 million Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to, for the most part, carry the Obama torch for another four years. But 69 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin. If we, in a not-so-scientific experiment, take Bernie Sanders’ 13 million primary votes from Clinton and add them to the opposition (minus the million who voted for the more Sanders-ian Stein), we might be able to conjecture that only 53 million Americans voted for more Obama while 81 million voted for substantial change.
Throughout this analysis, I have attempted to remain as non-partisan as possible, though I am aware that my biases are still present. Financial woes, violence, lawlessness, and social/political failures are generally disliked by us all.
Liberals may be upset that marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic, that no firearm restriction laws have been passed, that no immigration reforms have been achieved, and that Obamacare is likely to be repealed soon. Conservatives may be upset at Obama for federally banning access to over half a billion acres of land, for entering the Paris Climate and Iran Nuclear Deals, for allowing Russia to win in both Syria and Crimea, for presiding over the birth of marriage equality, and much, much more.
What is most notable about Obama’s record, outside the partisan gains in environmental protection, is its utter lack of meaningful improvement or accomplishment at all. It’s easy to say that America is better off at the end of eight years because of the recession taking place when Obama took office, but recessions have happened, and life has gone on in the past too. I guess one can only ask oneself whether things have gotten better or worse with Barack Obama as president. Sadly, only history books that are out of our hands and our interpretations will tell.