Judge President Obama’s results by how desperate Republicans are to reverse them.
And if you still aren’t certain how transformative the 44th president’s policies and actions have been in transforming the American economy, read Michael Grunwald’s new Politico Magazine mini-opus “The Nation He Built.” As in his 2012 book The New New Deal, which revealed the story and impact of the Stimulus, Grunwald digs in and finds the scope and depth of the advances of the last seven years have again surprised even him.
What the American people don’t know about this presidency is a big part of the hidden story. For instance, only 1 of 10 Americans are aware the Stimulus gave middle class workers an almost secret tax cut when the economy needed it the most, and the massive deficit savings could add decades to the life of Medicare. Obama’s accomplishments — beyond preventing a greater depression, insuring 17 million and leading us into the Obamaboom, our longest private-sector job expansion ever — are complex, purposely subtle, and almost impossible to convey in a 30-second ad.
As soon as he took office, Obama refused to be the president who just prevented a greater depression.
“He wanted to do stuff, not just avoid stuff,” Grunwald writes. “He wanted to be a Ronald Reagan of the left.”
To do this he committed his advisors to focus on policies that worked and told them to leave the politics to him. This approach has enabled him to enact the kind of change that has tilted government back toward advocating for people in a way comparable to the way Reagan shifted the scales towards the rich and their favorite people — corporations . While no one thing he’s enacted has been as paradigm-shifting as lowering the top tax rate from 70 to 28 percent, or the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the sum of his feats may end up as equally revolutionary — and possibly could even end up saving the planet from the worst of the climate crisis.
On the other hand, Obama’s failure to sell his accomplishments could end up costing him much of his legacy, should a Republican sweep into office determined to uninsure millions, unleash Wall Street’s most destructive instincts, and supersize carbon pollution.
The historic nature of Obama’s presidency and even his election are now so politicized that attempting to explicate them risks seeming oblivious to the real economic troubles that still vex us, or alienating liberals who despise incrementalism, or feeding the angst of the hard right that takes even his existence as an insult.
But if there’s ever a time to stop and appreciate the singular presidency we’re all living through, it’s now. Here are five hidden successes that Mike Grunwald has revealed.
1. Kicking the big banks out of the student loan business.
This first success is the most forgotten because it was buried in the same bill that gave us the Affordable Care Act. By taking over the student loan program and kicking out Sallie Mae and other private lenders who raked in enormous fees without the risk such loans usually entail, it was the only “government takeover” Obama actually signed into law. “The bill then diverted the budget savings into a $36 billion expansion of Pell Grants for low-income undergraduates, plus an unheralded but extraordinary student-debt relief effort that is now quietly transferring the burden of college loans from struggling borrowers to taxpayers,” Grunwald writes.
2. Shrinking health care cost inflation and saving us billions.
A big complaint from from the left during the passage of the Affordable Care Act was that the law doesn’t regulate the health industry sufficiently to contain costs. Industry profits and insurance offerings were closely regulated — eliminating, for instance, co-pays for “quit-smoking programs, birth control pills, certain cancer screenings and other preventive care” — but the bill leaned more on trying to control the growth of health care spending by including “every cost-control idea in circulation.” Yet the result has been better than the law’s proponents expected. “Health care is still getting more expensive, but since 2010, the growth rate has slowed so drastically that the Congressional Budget Office has slashed its projection for government health spending in 2020 by $175 billion,” Grunwald writes. “That’s enough to fund the Navy for a year, or the EPA for two decades.” This is the kind of reform that makes traditional Medicare sustainable, which is exactly why Republicans in Congress just voted to repeal it again.
3. Taking on two of our leading causes of preventable death.
You probably know about the Administration’s efforts — led by the First Lady — to take on childhood obesity directly with school lunches and more indirectly by trying to create a culture of nutrition and exercise. But one major victory the Obama Administration scored in a decades-long effort to prioritize health over profits was the FDA taking over the regulation of the tobacco industry. “I remember President Bill Clinton crusading for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, but I somehow missed that Obama finally made it happen,” Grunwald writes.
4. Clamping down on too-big-to-fail banks and putting government to work for consumers.
Just as many on the left will forever compare Obamacare unfavorably to single-payer, many wanted to see the big banks broken up. Instead, the president went with policies that are almost impossible to explain without drool-inducing PowerPoints but have achieved many of the goals that progressives hoped to see from reform. Grunwald says that “the bottom line is that financial behemoths no longer enjoy much of a ‘too-big-to-fail subsidy.'” But even more importantly, there is now an independent government agency designed to protect the borrowers who suffered the most during the financial crisis. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Grunwald writes, “is most influential new regulatory agency since the EPA, already collecting more than $10 billion in fines from financial players that used to enjoy relative impunity.” And guess what would be one of the very first thing Republicans would eliminate.
5. Transforming the way we produce energy.
There’s no issue that divides the two political parties more than the need to fight climate change: One wants to reduce carbon pollution while the other wants to increase it. For seven years, Obama has driven us toward reduction. First, there was the Stimulus, which “transformed the U.S. clean-energy sector, blasting an astonishing $90 billion into renewables and other long-neglected green priorities, while birthing a new research agency called ARPA-E.” Then through regulation where with just one rule he’s backed, “for commercial air conditioners, will singlehandedly reduce U.S. energy use by 1 percent.” By thrusting us to the point that renewables can compete with its dirtier alternatives on cost alone, this most important advancement of the Obama era may be one change that may irreversible. But be assured, that any Republican president would do his best to set us back on highway to climate catastrophe.
U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he holds his end of the year news conference at the White House in Washington December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria