As America slowly climbs out of the dank, shadowy pit dug by 40 years of neoconservative, supply side policies — made even gloomier by George W. Bush’s coup d’état and subsequent eight-year-long disastrous rule — it’s easy for progressives to feel discouraged and overlook how much Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats have actually been able to accomplish. Although our president isn’t nearly as liberal as many of us would like, he’s an astute politician who plays a long game, and who has managed to get a lot done in areas that we progressives care most about, including civil rights, economic recovery, fighting poverty, healthcare reform, consumer protections, education, finance reform, energy, and the environment. On top of that, Obama’s no slouch in the foreign policy or government/fiscal responsibility arenas — for which Republicans have traditionally claimed superiority.
Even before publicly embracing marital equality during his celebrated interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts on May 9th, 2012, Obama has championed civil rights for women, gays, Latinos, and other Americans, in addition to providing inspiration as our first African-American president.
- The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act For Women: Named after a 70-year-old retiree who sued Goodyear Corporation for pay discrimination, this long-overdue amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 establishes that the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit for pay discrimination resets each time a new paycheck is issued. According to Obama, who signed the legislation on January 29th, 2009, the legislation sends “a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody … there are no second class citizens in our workplaces.”
- Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act: Passed in honor of two young men who were brutally murdered — the first for being gay, and the second for being black — this legislation explicitly protects people from hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation, religion, color, gender identity, or disability. At a reception commemorating the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, on October 11th 2009, Obama said, “You understood that we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear. You understand that the rights afforded every citizen under our Constitution mean nothing if we do not protect those rights.”
- Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act: Ended the prohibition of openly gay and lesbian people serving in the US Military. At the signing, on December 22nd, 2010, Obama declared, “your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known.”
- Executive Order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: When Congressional Republicans voted against passing the Dream Act — to help immigrants who arrived in the US as minors, but faced possible deportation as young adults — the president swiftly used existing legal authority to halt the deportations for young adults who arrived before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, have no criminal record, and are students, high school graduates, or military veterans in good standing. While signing the order on June 15th, 2012 Obama explained, “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
- Appointed two women (one of whom is also Latina) to the Supreme Court: Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court on August 6th, 2009, to replace David Souter. She is the 111th justice, the first Latina justice, and the third female justice. Elena Kagan was appointed to the Supreme Court to replace John Paul Stevens on August 5th, 2010. She is the 112th Justice and the fourth female Justice. These appointments enabled the two seats to remain liberal, and hopefully Obama will have opportunities to tip the balance with additional appointments during his second term.
- Civil Rights History Project Act: On January 15th, 2009, Obama signed legislation directing the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute to work with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture to collect and archive writings, images, testimonies, video, audio recordings and other artifacts to document the history of the American civil rights movement
- Directive Extending Spouse Benefits for Gay Federal Employees: On June 2nd, 2010, Obama signed a directive extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, saying that it was an “important step on the path to equality.” This was in addition to a Presidential Memorandum declaring the rights of gay couples to visit each other in the hospital — like straight couples — and make medical decisions for each other earlier that year in April, 2010; and hiring more openly gay (out-of-the-closet) Federal appointees than any other president in our history.
- First-Ever Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy position: To ensure representation from the disabled at the top levels of government, the White House created this new position . To show he was serious, Obama appointed long-time disability advocate Kareem Dale (who happens to be legally blind) on February 12th, 2009.
- Created a White House Council on Women and Girls: With this executive order, signed on March 11th, 2009, Obama made a first step towards coordinating the federal government’s ability to respond to issues that effect women and girls — all female persons — in the US. Obama also expanded funding for the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
Economic Recovery And Fighting Poverty
Despite a stubborn economy and — as of 2010 — an intransigent Republican House of Representatives determined not to let Obama or the Democrat-led Senate do anything to help an American public slammed by a recession created by Bush II and his supply side administration, the president managed to accomplish a great deal towards stopping the downward slide and getting America on the road to recovery. In 2010 alone, the United States created more jobs than in the entire eight years of George W. Bush’s supply-side administration (as per Ole Ole Oleson’s detailed analysis for NewsJunkie.com).
- Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act (“Auto Bailout”): As a Senator (D-IL), Obama supported and voted for the bill, signed by his predecessor George W. Bush on December 10th, 2008. As president, Obama implemented this highly successful economic aid package which saved at least 1.14 million American jobs while revitalizing the US auto industry.
- The Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry: Obama created this task force of experts to oversee the Auto Bailout and make recommendations to Chrysler and General Motors after lending $25 billion to these iconic auto companies. The task force first met in February 2009. By July 2009, both companies had emerged from bankruptcy.
- American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“Stimulus Bill”): This largest-ever economic stimulus package stanched our economy’s bleeding red ink, and saved jobs by investing $787 billion in infrastructure, energy, health, education, tax incentives, and expansion of unemployment benefits. Obama signed this legislation on February 17, 2009. According to Reuters, the stimulus bill “boosted the economy by up to 3.5 percent and lowered the unemployment rate by up to 2.1 percent.” The Stimulus Bill also saved 300,000 education jobs, increased the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) by $30 billion, provided $2 billion in new Neighborhood Stabilization Funds and $1.5 billion in Homelessness Prevention Funds, invested $3.95 billion in job training, increased unemployment benefits, and more (for a complete list, visit WhiteHouse.gov).
- Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act: On April 21st, 2009, the president signed legislation that tripled the size of Americorps, and expanded national service programs to encourage and fund community-based volunteer efforts in critical areas of need. These programs have included disaster relief, infrastructure improvement, environmental and energy conservation.
- Car Allowance Rebate System (“Cash for Clunkers”): On July 1st, 2009, Obama signed this $3 billion federal program to encourage citizens to cash in old automobiles and buy newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles into law. The program boosted auto sales and also probably pleased an awful lot of people who no longer had to endure the sight of their neighbors’ rusty old clunkers.
- Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP): Although Obama entered office with this controversial legislation bailing out the “too big to fail” banks already signed into law by his predecessor George W. Bush on October 3, 2008, he made the best of it. His administration forced deep pay cuts for top executives, (see Kate Phillips’ post for The New York Times) and recovered almost all of the loans by 2010.
As Rachel Maddow said shortly before Obama’s re-election, “After decades and decades of trying and failing, President Obama and the Democrats have achieved what was long thought unachievable: Real, comprehensive health reform in a country that had no health system whatsoever.”
- Expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): Reauthorized SCHIP and expanded health coverage by four million for a total of 11 million children whose families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. January 30, 2009.
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”): The PPACA combines individual mandates, government subsidies, and tougher regulations on insurance companies towards ensuring universal health coverage for all Americans. When Obama signed this historic legislation into law on March 23rd, 2010 he declared that it strengthens “the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.”
- Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act: This comprehensive amendment to the PPACA — signed by Obama on March 30th 2010 — is the biggest overhaul our healthcare system (or lack thereof) has undergone since the enactment of Medicare in 1965.
- James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (“9/11 Health Bill”): Named after a police officer who died from a respiratory disease following rescue operations at Ground Zero on 9/11, this legislation funds ongoing health monitoring for all Ground Zero workers. Upon signing the bill on January 2nd, 2011, Obama said, “We will never forget the selfless courage demonstrated by the firefighters, police officers, and first responders who risked their lives to save others. I believe this is a critical step for those who continue to bear the physical scars of those attacks.”
Consumer Protection And Financial Reform
Public outrage over the abuses of the financial industry — after four decades of deregulation — gave Obama leverage for getting congress to enact key reforms and protections for consumers. Although we still have a long way to go until consumers’ rights and regulation of the financial industry are as strong as they were prior to the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ the following reforms are steps in the right direction.
- Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act: On May 22nd, 2009, the president signed this bill to “establish fair and transparent practices relating to extending credit under an open end consumer credit plan, and for other purposes.”
- Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act: Passed as a rider for the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act on March 30th, 2010, this legislation ended federal subsidies to banks and private lenders, and replaced subsidized private loans with direct government loans.The rider also increased Pell Grants.
- Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act: On July 21st, 2010, the president signed into law sweeping financial reforms to protect consumers from abusive lending practices, end “too big to fail,” and improve transparency and accountability in the financial services industry. At a press conference, Obama said these are “the strongest consumer financial protections in history.”
- Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act: Enacted on June 22nd, 2009, this legislation increased regulations on the Tobacco industry — including advertising and warning labels on packaging — to reduce numbers of minors and young adult smokers.
- Food Safety Modernization Act: On January 4th, 2011, Obama signed this comprehensive overhaul of our country’s food safety system into law. The FSMA expands the Food and Drug Administration’s powers, adds provisions for preventing (rather than just responding to) food contamination, improves collaboration and communications between food safety agencies, upgrade training for food safety personnel, increase oversight for imported foods, and give the FDA authority to issue mandatory food recalls when necessary.
- Home Affordable Mortgage Act (HAMP): Enacted in 2009, this program was intended to stem the tide of foreclosures, and keep more economically stricken individuals in their homes by requiring banks to restructure mortgages for qualified home owners. Although banks bent the rules in their favor and kept foreclosing, HAMP and related legislation still saved some people’s homes, while giving others the time they needed to relocate. Since then, the Obama administration has expanded HAMP so more Americans qualify.
The previously listed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“Stimulus Bill”) also made significant provisions to reverse the tide of spending cuts and shore up our K-12 and college education system. The Stimulus Bill invested $5 billion in Head Start and other early childhood education programs, $40 billion in state stabilization funds to prevent education cuts, $13 billion for Title 1 (low income) schools, $12 billion towards education for the disabled, as per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), $5 billion in incentive grants for states competing in “the race to the top,” and $2 billion for other education investments. An additional $30.8 billion was set aside for Pell Grants and other programs to make college more affordable, and $36 billion for modernizing schools. In addition, Obama reformed our broken student loan programs through the previously listed Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act.
Republicans LOVE to say Democrats are weak on foreign policy, just because we want to build consensus and get a little perspective from the rest of the world before randomly invading other countries for no good reason. Fortunately, the office of the president allows lots of leeway for dealing with foreign policy without too much interference from psycho red state congressmen. President Barack Obama has conducted a tough, nuanced, and effective approach to foreign policy.
- Nuclear arms reduction: On May 4th, 2010, the president renewed our nuclear non-proliferation treaty with India. July 1st, 2010, Obama signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear weapons program. On August 8, 2010, the US signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) treaty with the Federation of Russian Republics to replace our older treaty with the former USSR (this treaty also cut our infamous “Star Wars” Program by $1.4 billion). This treaty reduces nuclear arms, and cuts the number of missile launchers in half for both countries. The treaty went into effect on February 2nd, 2011. The president has also shored up our relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
- Killed Osama Bin Laden: On May 2nd, 2011, a team of Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden and laid fears of a rebuilt Al Qaeda to rest. In this signature achievement, the president boosted morale and sent a strong message that terrorists who attack the US will pay the consequences. Had things gone wrong — as they did for Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages from the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran back in 1980 — Obama may have lost the election. Yet the president’s convictions — and his cool-headed judgement that the mission had good odds for success — compelled him to take this risk. Obama’s administration also greatly increased their chances of success by taking prior steps to weaken Al-Qaeda. In January, 2012, the president also successfully used Navy Seals in a secret operation to rescue American hostages in Somalia.
- Withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan: On December 31st 2011, the last of our troops came home from Iraq, ending this disastrous, expensive, and unnecessary war launched by the Obama administration’s neocon predecessors under false pretenses.On May 1st, 2012, the US signed agreement with Afghanistan to withdraw our troops by end of 2014 to end American involvement in yet another expensive and unwinnable war started by the Bush II administration. In July, 2012, we withdrew the first 23,000.
- Banned torture: On January 22, the day after his inauguration, Obama signed Executive Order 13491 — Ensuring Lawful Interrogations — to reverse Bush II administration policies on interrogations and use of torture, and put the US back in compliance with protocols established by the rest of the civilized world via the Geneva Conventions. Obama also ordered the closing of secret detention facilities (including Guantanamo Bay, though that particular directive was overridden by Republicans and a few hawkish Democrats), and released the Bush II “Torture Memos.“
- Promoting democracy: Unlike conservatives who pay lip service to “promoting democracy” around the world (even though they don’t even support ‘democracy’ in our own country), Obama has taken steps to support fledgling egalitarian movements abroad. In response to the Arab Spring, the president requested $116 million for an Emerging Democracies Fund, and was voted $120 million. In March 2011, when the brutal Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to march on rebels in the city of Benghazi and “show no mercy,” Obama partnered with NATO’s 28 members, and acted quickly to bomb Gaddafi’s army before it could reach the city and slaughter its over 1 million residents — most of them innocent civilians. Meanwhile, closer to home, the president set higher labor and environmental standards in our NAFTA agreements and has loosened restrictions on our long-standing embargo against Cuba so Cuban Americans can visit their relatives and send financial support to their families.
- Getting tough with China: The president has taken a tough but flexible stance with China, treating them as a potential partner as well as a potential rival. As he nicely summed up towards the end of the Second Presidential Debate, on October 17th 2012, “the currency has actually gone up 11 percent since I’ve been president because we have pushed them hard. And we’ve put unprecedented trade pressure on China. That’s why exports have significantly increased under my presidency.”
Energy And The Environment
- Fuel and energy efficiency: The president has taken steps to promote and fast-track legislation mandating higher fuel efficiency standards at the state and federal levels. On February 5th 2009, Obama sent a memorandum ordering the Department of Energy to establish updated energy efficiency standards for appliances, after several states complained about the DOE neglecting this duty (during the Bush II administration, of course). By 2010, the DOE’s Building Technologies Program had established minimum energy conservation measures for over 50 categories of appliances and equipment. According to the DOE, “As a result of these standards, energy users saved about $40 billion on their utility bills in 2010. Since 2009, 16 new or updated standards have been issued, which will help increase annual savings by more than 50 percent over the coming years.” On August 9th, 2011, Obama introduced the first-ever fuel efficiency standards for commercial vehicles.
- Strategic energy partnerships: In August 2009, Obama launched an Energy Partnership of the Americas with Canada, Mexico, and other Central American and South America countries to help create a market for US clean energy and biofuels.
- A more aggressive EPA: On December 9th 2009, the EPA declared carbon dioxide to be a public danger, paving the way for tougher regulations on CO2 emissions, and making the US look semi-civilized in preparation for an upcoming Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. On May 25th 2010, the EPA barred the State of Texas from issuing a permit for an oil refinery in Corpus Christie, Texas. The EPA quickly followed up in June by restricting the amount of antibiotics allowed in animal feed. On December 30th 2010 Obama bypassed the recalcitrant Republican-led congress and ordered the EPA to begin regulating carbon emissions. On January 13th, 2011, the increasingly muscular Environmental Protection Agency revoked a permit granted(in 2007 by the Bush II administration, of course) to remove an entire mountain top for coal mining in the Appalachian Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia. Unfortunately, US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson re-validated the permit on March 23rd, 2012, on the grounds that the EPA had exceeded its authority.
- Protecting our environment and wildlife: On March 3rd 2009, Obama sent a memo restoring protections for endangered species that had lapsed during the Bush II administration, to ensure that federal projects do no harm to protected wildlife species. On October 29th 2009, Obama increased funding for operations and maintenance of our national parks and forests by $130 million. The Obama administration also launched a criminal inquiry about British Petroleum’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and on December 10th 2012 barred BP from receiving US government contracts.
Fiscal Responsibility In Government
Although fiscal responsibility doesn’t set liberal tails wagging, it does make it hard for conservatives to attack the president for wasteful spending. On Obama’s first day, he announced that he would be freezing salaries for top White House Staff making over $100,000 per year. After less than a week in office, Obama sent a memo entitled Economy in Government Contracting and ordered an audit of government contracts. In 2010, Obama oversaw major cuts in the Pentagon’s budget for phasing out redundant or outdated weapons and aircrafts, including the pricey F-22 Raptor and a proposed fleet of presidential helicopters. AND he created a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform on February 18th 2010 (which CNN interestingly called a “debt panel” — perhaps that’s where Sarah Palin got her strange ideas about “death panels” from). So take THAT, John Boehner!
President Barack Obama has taken many strides towards reversing 40 years of conservative policies ,so let’s raise a New Years’ Toast to four more years