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What He Accomplished as President
Read by Ron Butler
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Evidence indicates President Barack Obama has been tremendously successful and effective by objective measures. On economic indicators alone, he is credited with the longest streak of job growth in U.S. history, a two-thirds reduction in the federal budget deficit, and the rebounding of the stock market to record highs following the record lows of the recession under his predecessor. His victories have come against a backdrop of criticism and sometimes open defiance from conservatives, lack of cooperation in Congress, and racially tinged commentary in traditional and social media. Through it all, the President who campaigned on a slogan of ‘Yes, We Can!’ has persevered in his determination to make a difference and left an indelible mark on American politics and the world. Legacy is a commemoration of his eight years in the White House.
Table of Contents
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So much anticipation filled the air the night of November 4, 2008: Election Night. The daily, even hourly, chant had been "Hope and Change!" This came from a youngish black man who was waging a credible run for president, a run that was hard to fathom in an America that still seemed so focused on race. The country was paying attention, as was the rest of the world, and, indeed, much of the country was being inspired. One might have thought that the gods had anointed Barack Hussein Obama to ascend to the presidency of the world's most powerful nation. How could this even have been possible?
As editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, I had worked with my chief lieutenants to convey the historic nature of the race to our readers. In fact, we may have been the first mainstream paper in the country to declare that Obama would be our next president. Veteran political columnist John Baer wrote the day after the Super Tuesday primaries, nine months before the general election, that Obama would win both the Democratic nomination and the general election because of his ability to attract new voters, his momentum, and his demonstrated ability to galvanize.
Still, he had to get it done. The polls said he would, but they had been wrong before, especially with elections involving African Americans. Polls often overestimated the strength of black candidates' support. It had happened to Harold Washington in his bid to become mayor of Chicago in 1983. He won, but by a much narrower margin than the double-digit lead that polls predicted. Then something similar happened to Jesse Jackson in 1988 when polls overestimated the size of the white vote he would get in the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary, when he came in second, after Michael Dukakis. Polls were also wrong when David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City in 1989. Like Washington, Dinkins won, but by a narrow two-point margin after polls had shown him with a double-digit lead a few days before the election. The phenomenon even had a name then—the Bradley Effect, named after former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. Back in the early '80s, Bradley ran for governor of California, and polls indicated throughout that he was leading in the race, but when all the votes were counted, he fell short.
It turns out, many whites would tell pollsters that they supported a black candidate but would not actually vote as they had indicated. As the theory goes, the white voters gave pollsters a socially desirable answer but voted their true instincts.
So there was that factor weighing heavily. You could sense history in the air, but it wasn't clear whether the history would be that Obama got really close, closer than any other person of color to the presidency, or that he would win.
Then, the news broke about a couple of hours before midnight. Barack Obama would be the forty-fourth president of the United States, winning with 53.8 percent of the popular vote. We had planned our coverage, our front page, knowing that even with digital outlets' becoming more common as news sources for readers of all stripes, they still sought newspapers as keepsakes on major occasions—and this would certainly be one. As one of the country's premier tabloids, we wanted to produce a signature paper, a signature front page.
My offices then were on Broad Street, one of Philly's main thoroughfares. The week before, the Phillies had beaten the Tampa Bay Rays to take the World Series, and all kinds of folks had arrived from all directions and paraded up and down Broad Street, celebrating the unexpected win. Days later, on this Tuesday night, the joy seemed even more palpable. That same street quickly filled with even more jubilant crowds, mostly college kids embracing and shouting, "O-BA-MA!"—knowing that they were part of history and that they had played a key role in his election.
Sandra Shea, our editorial page editor, emerged from the building heading onto Broad Street with our front page, holding it high so that the throng could see. It was a simple close-up of a smiling Obama with his last name in bold letters. I popped out to check it all out, then dashed back into the newsroom to watch the cable coverage and to make sure that we were, as we say in our business, making deadline, and doing so with spot-on coverage of this amazing night.
Once stories were turned in and edited, reporters and editors pulled up chairs around the television at the city desk to witness history. Among them was Kitty Caparella, a since-retired reporter who had covered the mob for years. She knew that I always kept my cool demeanor and largely kept my personal feelings to myself. I am an old-school journalist who believes the public need not know your personal leanings and they most certainly should not be reflected in the stories that grace the newspaper. Still, Kitty and I had been friends for a very long time, and she knew that, like many, I had not believed that my fellow Americans, given the nation's racial history and our ongoing racial strife, would actually elect an individual of color to the country's highest office.
When I joined my colleagues around the television, Kitty turned to me and asked, "Well, what are you thinking now?"
I really was not thinking. It was one of those few moments in life, like one's graduation or marriage or the arrival of your children or the birth of your grandchildren, that was definitely breathtaking. These are the moments, captured vividly in your memory, that you carry to the grave.
Then the moment of exultation passed.
I don't think that the average citizen who believed in hope and change realized then how difficult Obama's pledge would be to fulfill. Obama acknowledged during his final State of the Union address, on January 12, 2016, that it was "one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt that a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide."
Dick Polman, a noted national political analyst based in Philadelphia, posted on his personal Facebook page on January 13, 2016, that the president was being hard on himself, as neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt had fared well against their rival parties. Polman wrote, "Lincoln died because of his era's bloody divide; prior to his dying he endured four years of 'baboon' insults, and worse. As for FDR, he was thoroughly hated; his wife was smeared as a 'n––r lover.' And worse… In a 1936 speech he simply said of his right-wing opponents: 'They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.'"
So maybe it's just proof that there is not anything new under the sun.
I argue that, especially given the Republican establishment's aggressive push to see him fail, Obama's legacy and his historic accomplishments have been all the more remarkable. Obama's accomplishments have come against a backdrop of criticism or open defiance from conservatives, lack of cooperation in Congress, and racially tinged commentary—really, have we ever had another president who has repeatedly had his citizenship questioned? I believe the answer is no.
Paul Krugman, an economist of significant note, wrote for Rolling Stone that he believed Obama was one of the most successful presidents in the country's history. "Obama has done more to limit inequality than he gets credit for… The financial aid in Obamacare—expanded Medicaid, subsidies to help lower-income households pay insurance premiums—goes disproportionately to less-well-off Americans," Krugman wrote.
The economic indicators, that the stock market is stronger, that the unemployment rate is down significantly, that Obama led us safely out of the Great Recession, can't be refuted. History will view him as a transformational president largely because of his signature achievements: the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court's upholding of it, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and, dare I say, ridding the planet of one Osama bin Laden. He should get credit for those accomplishments, especially considering the financial crisis that was ongoing when he assumed the presidency in 2008.
He also should get credit for keeping his swagger, his cool. At the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Obama smartly employed Keegan-Michael Key, the comedian who has come to be known for his character Luther, Obama's "anger translator." Obama spoke deftly and calmly about climate control, Ebola, and immigration, as well as about how happy he was to be at yet another correspondents' dinner. Luther ranted, in turn, about what a chore the dinner is, what he deemed to be FOX's out-of-control biased coverage of everything, and CNN making the Ebola challenge seem like it would be the end of the world. Ultimately, they seemed to become one at the dais as the president's own tone became angrier, prompting Luther to recoil and spurt, "You don't need an anger translator; you need counseling." It was all definitely laugh-out-loud hilarious, but the moment seriously crystallized the many challenges that the forty-fourth president has had in the now 24/7 news cycle.
This book will examine Obama's accomplishments in spite of all those challenges in a straightforward, factual manner. It is not about what his ideas, plans, or promises were; it is about what he actually got done. As he entered his final months in office, the evidence indicated he had been tremendously successful and effective by objective measures in his two terms in office. On economic indicators alone, his achievements are impressive. He is credited with the longest streak of job growth in U.S. history, a two-thirds reduction in the federal budget deficit (from 9.8 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal year 2009 to 2.5 percent in October 2015, according to the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget). The stock market continued to be a tad temperamental, but it continued to outperform the record lows that Obama found when he assumed office, and it rebounded to record highs.
Still, for a great many Americans the data is just that: data. It doesn't capture how they feel about Obama.
I attended a 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Day gathering that included about five hundred folks, mostly black, nearly all college-educated, who, no doubt, had benefited from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. Even the location of the event, the Westin in Princeton, New Jersey, a fashionable hotel in one of the nation's most elite suburbs, perfectly captured the hope and change that Obama represents in spite of the withering challenges.
The Reverend Doctor Cory L. Jones, senior pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington, New Jersey, reminded those gathered of how much they loved the president, how much they had rejoiced in his election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012. It was, Jones said, "the something that seemed impossible" for a black man in America. Jones, relatively new in his pastorate at Tabernacle Baptist, recalled that he had received an email from a parishioner at a neighboring church shortly after his arrival in New Jersey. The gentleman was particularly perturbed that this African American church prominently displayed a portrait of the country's first African American president, and he urged the pastor to remove it. Jones said the man believed that no Christian church should support Obama given his enthusiastic support and legislative success in the legalization of same-sex marriage and his ongoing support of legalized abortion.
No doubt, these are two significant issues that have been taboo, theologically, in many Christian churches. Yet you will not find a poll that has support for Obama within the black community anywhere below 90 percent, regardless of ideology. Reverend Jones got nothing but applause and nodded agreement from those gathered that day to celebrate King's birthday.
The fact that Obama is the first and only person of color thus far elected to be the most powerful person on our planet makes his accomplishments all the more noteworthy. Elizabeth Alexander captured it well when she read her poem, "Praise Song for the Day," at Barack Obama's first inauguration on January 20, 2009. In part, she proclaimed:
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Obama had already set the theme earlier in his inaugural address, calling for resolve amid an "uncertain destiny." That resolve despite the many obstructions has been a hallmark of his presidency. That resolve will serve his legacy well. I have no doubt that history will view him as one of America's most effective presidents.
In one role in particular, he has no peer—as our counselor-in-chief, our pastor-in-chief. Who will ever forget how Obama, surprisingly, belted out "Amazing Grace" at the funeral for Clementa C. Pinckney, a senior pastor and South Carolina state senator? Pinckney and eight of his parishioners had been slaughtered during a prayer service by a "guest" who said he had hoped to ignite a race war. (See chapter 3.) President Obama has been remarkable, passionate, and even visibly angry after each of the mass shootings during his tenure, which are too numerous to mention. He has helped to heal us with words and with song, and with resolve.
It is that same resolve that has helped him push through an agenda of change and to power through a wall of opposition, ignoring slights and staying the course to make "hope and change" more than a slogan.
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
You have to love the picture taken in the Oval Office, with the lanky President Obama bent over so that five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia can touch his hair. Jacob is the son of a former White House staffer, and Jacob had asked the president, in a hushed tone, if the president's hair was like his. Obama reportedly invited Jacob without hesitation to touch his hair to see for himself.
Obama instinctually understood that what the boy was asking went well beyond the lad's touching his hair. In a very personal way, Jacob wanted to see if this very powerful man had been just like him when he was a little boy. If Obama's hair felt like his, maybe he, too, could be the president of his country someday.
That interaction happened back in 2009. Now, that young man talks about someday becoming a U.S. president, or a test pilot.
In many ways, one might argue that Obama's response to the boy is a window into what makes Obama tick. He is criticized as being aloof and unable to connect with the common man or woman, yet the issues that he has been passionate about more than suggest that his actions and policies have often come from his own life experience as a kid of African ancestry who didn't always fit in, a son of an often-single, struggling mother, and a grandson of a professional woman who often found herself up against the glass ceiling. It is those and other life experiences that likely have benefited people who have often been marginalized in the land of plenty. Obama has forever changed the trajectory of their lives.
This section examines the actions and policies that seem inspired by Obama's life history. They include a focus on education; on women's and children's health; and certainly on equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, especially black and Latino young men. This section also looks at Obama's impact on developing policies that have lessened the prison population. The number of Americans incarcerated has dropped for the first time in thirty-two years.
President Obama's initiatives and policies have touched the lives of many individuals, including the most vulnerable among us.
"There are few things as fundamental to the American Dream or as essential for America's success as a good education. This has never been more true than it is today. At a time when our children are competing with kids in China and India, the best job qualification you can have is a college degree or advanced training."
President Obama, April 24, 2009
President Obama's education and health initiatives are giving millions of children a chance for a better life and a brighter future. Many have benefited from his education initiatives and his health care programs.
President Obama's concern for the young and their admiration of him shine through in countless White House photographs—scenes of him getting down on the floor to play with a baby, running with children or letting a young boy touch his hair. Beyond the "photo ops," however, is a solid record of initiatives intended to benefit this generation of youth and future generations.
Education stands at the top of this list. In his first address to a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009, President Obama announced a goal for the nation to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 to allow U.S. workers to compete in the global economy. "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training," he said. "This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country—and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
In 1990, the U.S. was first in the world for the proportion of the population of twenty-five to thirty-four years old with four-year degrees, according to the White House. By 2009, the U.S. ranked number twelve.
"We also suffer from a college attainment gap, as high school graduates from the wealthiest families in our nation are almost certain to continue on to higher education, while just over half of our high school graduates in the poorest quarter of families attend college," a White House statement read. "And while more than half of college students graduate within six years, the completion rate for low-income students is around 25 percent." This came at a time when higher education was more vital than ever to fill the jobs available and to ensure the financial security of families. "The 2020 goal is the North Star guiding all our efforts to improve education," U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in Forbes magazine in August 2010. "Roughly 60% of Americans will have to earn college degrees and certificates by 2020 to regain our international lead, compared with about 40% today. And the truth is that America can only have the best-educated, most competitive workforce if parents, students, educators and entire communities begin to rethink and remake the educational status quo."
According to the U.S. Department of Education,
Bachelor's degree holders typically earn 66 percent more than high school graduates and are less likely to be unemployed.
College graduates will earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than will workers without postsecondary education.
By 2020, two-thirds of job openings will require postsecondary education or training.
Yet college education had become more and more a luxury item, out of reach for many high school graduates. The Department of Education said tuition at four-year colleges had more than doubled over the previous three decades, and the average debt for a bachelor's degree graduate more than doubled from 1992 to 2012 to $27,000. Pell Grants covered only about 30 percent of the cost of an education at a four-year public college, even after major increases in Pell Grants under the Obama administration.
To regain the lead in college-degree attainment for the U.S., Obama promoted an agenda to make college more affordable and to assure that students are college-ready. His actions included investing heavily in early education, as well as in elementary and secondary education, and creating the Race to the Top program, which rewarded states for effective school reforms in K–12 education.
At the same time, he increased funding for financial aid to college students and reformed student-loan programs by ending the role of private banks in the lending system through the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Obama administration increased total annual aid to students by more than $50 billion from 2008 to 2016 and tax benefits by more than $12 billion. The administration said it raised the maximum award for Pell Grants to low-income and middle-class students by more than $1,000 since 2008 to $5,730 for the 2014–15 award year and expanded the number of recipients by one-third. The Department of Education under the Obama administration proposed expansion of Pell Grants to cover summer classes to help students earn degrees faster.
It also launched a pilot program to use Pell Grants for education for federal and state prisoners, ending a twenty-year ban on such aid for inmates, the vast majority of whom are young black and Hispanic men. While only Congress can lift the ban, the administration used its authority to run short-term experimental programs for a limited number of prisoners. Secretary Duncan said that restoring Pell eligibility to prisoners was another way to increase college affordability and completion rates. Lawmakers, like Representative Donna Edwards, D-Md., who sponsored a bill that would lift the ban, and House Education Committee ranking member Bobby Scott, D-Va., a cosponsor of the bill, cite a 2013 Rand Corporation study paid for by the Justice Department that found that every dollar invested in prison education programs saved four to five dollars in incarceration costs later. That study found that prisoners in education programs were 43 percent less likely than others to return to prison within three years, and 13 percent more likely to have jobs after they have served their time.
"We want to do even more, developing experimental sites that will make Pell Grants available to programs that award credentials based on demonstrated competency, to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after release, and to adult learners who enroll in short-term certificate programs that provide job-ready training," Duncan said.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which Obama signed, the administration created the American Opportunity Tax Credit to help families pay for college. In 2016, the credit would benefit ten million students and families, according to the Department of Education.
The Obama administration also tightened standards for for-profit colleges that many say prey on students. The Education Department issued regulations to protect students from becoming overburdened by loans. The rules hold "career colleges" accountable for student outcomes. "Career colleges must be a stepping stone to the middle class. But too many hard-working students find themselves buried in debt with little to show for it. That is simply unacceptable," Secretary Duncan said in an Education Department announcement of the regulations in October 2014. "These regulations are a necessary step to ensure that colleges accepting federal funds protect students, cut costs and improve outcomes. We will continue to take action as needed." Under the rules, for a school to participate in taxpayer-funded federal student aid programs, the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate could not exceed 20 percent of his or her discretionary income or 8 percent of total earnings.
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