Politico Examines the Obama Legacy

by Matthew Freeman

February 11, 2016

Last month, Politico’s Michael Grunwald published what I suspect is going to be a first draft of history’s judgment of Barack Obama’s presidency. He writes that “a review of his record shows that the Obama era has produced much more sweeping change than most of his supporters or detractors realize.”

Grunwald runs a long list of the President’s achievements, including Obamacare, the automobile industry bailout, the stimulus bill that kept the economy from falling off of a cliff, an overhaul of the boondoggle that was the federal student loan program, rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, serious (at last!) steps to combat climate change paving the way for an international agreement that could actually make a difference, an energy revolution that has significantly reduced U.S. reliance on dirty coal and foreign oil while boosting production and use of renewables, the end of “don’t ask don’t tell,” the legalization of same-sex marriage, and much more.

He sums it up by borrowing Vice President’s unfortunate open-mike comment at the signing of the Affordable Care Act, writing, “When you add up all the legislation from his frenetic first two years, when Democrats controlled Congress, and all the methodical executive actions from the past five years, after Republicans blocked his legislative path, this has been a BFD of a presidency, a profound course correction engineered by relentless government activism.”

Over the years, CPR Member Scholars and staff have sometimes taken issue with the President, generally because we’ve thought his administration lacked a sense of urgency on specific health, safety and environmental regulations — some of which are now all but certain not to make it through the pipeline on his watch — or because they thought he settled for half or three-quarters of a loaf rather than take heat from regulated industries. But I’d submit that despite those failings, this Administration has done much more to advance health, safety and environmental concerns than any President since Lyndon Johnson.

I’m also interested in the second half of Grunwald’s thesis — that most Americans don’t know about many of those accomplishments. Two of his examples stand out. The first is the Administration’s relatively quiet revolution in energy efficiency, part of its climate action plan, achieved through regulation, not legislation. They’ve written new efficiency standards for 39 separate products, Grunwald explains, “from pool heaters to clothes dryers,” including refrigerators, industrial motors, fluorescent lighting, and more. Many had been held up by the Bush Administration, but Obama resolved to push them through. An additional 20 standards are in the pipeline. According to Grunwald, the effort is “on track to slash 3 billion tons of emissions by 2030; that’s the equivalent of taking every car off America’s roads for two years, or shutting down every power plant for a year and a half — a striking behind-the-scenes example of the Obama administration taking matters into its own hands.”

Another example: He notes that as part of the stimulus bill, Obama cut taxes by $800 for most American workers, but then passed up the opportunity to advertise the cut to taxpayers by having three-digit refund checks mailed to each recipient. Instead, they followed the advice of economists and adjusted withholding rates so that workers would have a few more dollars in every paycheck. That made sound economic sense because the idea was to get more money ...

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