Guest Column: Reflecting on President Obama’s tenure

It was election night in 2008 and I was in a packed hotel ballroom in downtown Cleveland surrounded by campaign volunteers for Barack Obama who’d gathered before a giant TV screen to watch him deliver his victory speech after winning the presidency.

And deliver he did.

“This is our moment,” he told Americans, speaking from his hometown of Chicago. “This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”

As he concluded his stirring speech, hundreds of people around me — maybe half of them white, half of them black — burst into tears of joys and hugged each other, strangers or not.

These volunteers and their counterparts across the country had helped elevate to the presidency the first black person to hold that office in the more than two centuries of America’s existence — an achievement unthinkable only a few decades earlier. After that, almost anything seemed possible.

But let’s return to earth.

“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” former Gov. Mario Cuomo liked to say of politicians. Barack Obama, surely one of the most gifted public speakers ever to sit in the Oval Office, got the poetry part right, but he also mastered a good bit of the prose part.

For that reason, our 44th president deserves our thanks before he turns over the government to Donald Trump, who during his campaign ridiculed Mr. Obama’s management of the country as “disastrous.”

At the outset of his administration, President Obama confronted nothing less than a catastrophe — the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression. On his watch, the nation’s economic recovery, while tepid by historical standards, has been more impressive than many Americans probably realize.

As The Wall Street Journal has noted, “Lackluster economic growth in the United States remains the envy of the developed world.”

The newspaper cited a study issued in June by the 34-member-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that found that after seven years of expansion, the U.S. economy was 10 percent larger than at its pre-recession peak. By comparison, economic growth during that period was practically flat for Japan and less than 1 percent in the 19 European nations using the euro as their currency.

Moreover, the U.S. unemployment rate has been among the world’s lowest. In October, it was 4.9 percent, less than half of its post-recession peak of 10 percent in late 2009. (Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent four years ago, had pledged to reduce it below 6 percent by the end of 2016.)

Meanwhile, median household income, adjusted for inflation, has also finally perked up; last year’s increase of 5.2 percent (to $56,000) was the largest since the government began tracking it in 1967. At the same time, the poverty rate registered its steepest decline since 1968, falling 1.2 percent.

“I’ve read the last 21 reports” of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, its current chairman, Jason Furman, told The Washington Post. “I have never seen one like this; in terms of everything you look at [it] is what you’d want to see, or better.”

Mr. Obama can take credit for backing the auto industry’s rescue and signing into law the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, which created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It proved its worth recently when it fined Wells Fargo $100 million for opening — without customer authorization — hundreds of thousands of bank and credit card accounts in their name.

As for Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, it has enabled 20 million people to gain health insurance coverage, reducing the uninsured rate to the lowest level on record. But, as we all know, there are problems.

Obamacare premiums have exploded, rising an average of 22 percent this year, partly because Americans are sicker than anticipated and partly because the decision of many healthy young people to forgo coverage has left insurers with a disproportionately high percentage of medically needy people in their risk pools.

The ACA could be preserved by taking such steps as increasing subsidies to induce more people to buy coverage and imposing higher penalties for those who opt out. Sadly, with Republicans about to assume control of both the White House and Congress, Obamacare as we know it seems destined to disappear and with it the prospect of universal coverage.

In foreign affairs, perhaps the blackest mark on President Obama’s record is his passive response to the five-year-old civil war in Syria, a conflict that has created a refugee crisis of epic proportions for the Middle East and Europe and helped ISIS gain traction.

He opposed, early on, American aid for the then fairly moderate groups seeking to overthrow the government of Syria’s ruthless president, Bashar Assad. Then, Mr. Obama failed to follow through on his threat to retaliate against Syria if it crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, which it did.

But the administration also scored some big foreign policy breakthroughs: killing Osama Bin Laden; restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after a break of more than a half-century that failed to bring down the Castro regime; ratifying a climate-change agreement with China’s president to curb greenhouse gas emissions produced by the two countries, which account for about 38 percent of global carbon emissions; and joining five other world powers to broker a deal with Iran that makes it much less likely to produce a nuclear bomb in the near term.

So, on balance, is this a “disastrous” record? Not by a long shot. Thank you, Mr. President!

The author lives in Orient.