Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments, Revisited

The comprehensive legacy of the 44th President.

In March 2012, we compiled a list of what were, at the time, President Barack Obama’s greatest achievements, to accompany our cover story, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.” Today, at the end of his second term, Obama’s legacy is far more complete. Indeed, items from the original list—such as increasing national service opportunities, creating the Race to the Top education reform program, and expanding stem cell research—fell off in order to make room for new ones.

But his legacy is also under threat. Donald Trump and the new Republican-dominated Congress have pledged to undo much of what the president has achieved, including repealing the Affordable Care Act and reversing important executive actions on immigration and climate change. So it is with this caveat that we offer the following updated list of Obama’s top accomplishments.

1. Passed Health Care Reform

After five presidents over the course of a century failed to create universal health insurance, signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010. More than twenty million Americans have gained coverage since the passage of the law, which provides subsidies for Americans to buy coverage, expands Medicaid eligibility, and prohibits insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. The uninsured rate has dropped from 16 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2015. The law also mandates free preventive care, allows young people to stay on their parents’ policies up to age twenty-six, and imposes a ban on annual and lifetime caps on benefits.

2. Rescued the Economy

Signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 to spur economic growth amid the most severe downturn since the Great Depression. As of October 2016, the economy had added 15.5 million new jobs since early 2010 and set a record with seventy-three straight months of private-sector job growth. The unemployment rate, which hit a sustained peak of about 10 percent in 2009, has dropped to 4.6 percent as of November 2016.

3. Passed Wall Street Reform

Signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010 to re-regulate the financial sector after its practices caused the Great Recession. The law tightens capital requirements on large banks and other financial institutions, allows the government to take them into receivership if they pose a threat to the economy, and limits their ability to trade with customers’ money for their own profit. Dodd-Frank also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on abusive lending and financial services. By the end of fiscal year 2016, the CFPB had handled nearly one million consumer complaints and taken actions that resulted in $11.7 billion in relief for more than twenty-seven million consumers.

4. Negotiated a Deal to Block A Nuclear Iran

Led six nations in reaching an agreement with Iran that requires the country to end its nuclear weapons program and submit to a rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency inspections regime in exchange for lifting global sanctions. The deal—which resulted from first toughening sanctions against Iran—also blocked Iran’s pathways to building a bomb, slowing down the development time for a weapon from three months to one year if Iran were to break its commitments.

5. Secured U.S. Commitment to a Global Agreement on Climate Change

Provided key leadership to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which produced the
2015 Paris Agreement, a commitment by 197 nations to reduce global carbon emissions and limit the global rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

6. Eliminated Osama bin Laden

In 2011, ordered the Special Forces raid of the secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which the terrorist leader was killed and a trove of al-Qaeda documents was retained.

7. Ended U.S. Combat Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan

After an initial troop surge in Afghanistan, brought home 90 percent of the nearly 180,000 troops who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan when he took office, leaving only a small contingent of forces to assist the Iraqi and Afghani militaries against insurgents and the Taliban. The withdrawal from Iraq created the vacuum that ISIS has filled. But, recently, without redeploying ground troops, the U.S. has helped the Iraqi military in reversing ISIS’s gains.

8. Turned Around the U.S. Auto Industry

In 2009, injected $62 billion (on top of the $13.4 billion in loans from the George W. Bush administration) into ailing GM and Chrysler in return for equity stakes and agreements for massive restructuring. By December 2014, the car companies had repaid $70.4 billion of the funds, and the Center for Automotive Research estimated that 2.5 million jobs were saved.

9. Repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’

Ended the 1990s-era restriction and formalized a new policy allowing gays and lesbians to sersve openly in the military for the first time.

10. Supported Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages

Decided in 2011 that the federal government would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted federal marriage recognition to opposite-sex couples. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key portions of the law as unconstitutional, allowing married same-sex couples to finally receive federal protections like Social Security and veteran benefits.

11. Reversed Bush Torture Policies

Two days after taking office, signed an executive order banning the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the CIA under President Bush and considered inhumane under the Geneva Conventions. Also released the secret Bush administration legal opinions supporting the use of these techniques.

12. Established Rules to Limit Carbon Emissions from Power Plants

Finalized a “Clean Power Plan” in 2015 through new EPA regulations, setting the first-ever carbon pollution standards for existing power plants. When fully implemented in 2030, the new rules will result in a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to 2005.

13. Normalized Relations with Cuba

In 2014, took steps to open diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba, ending the failed Cold War policy of isolation. In March 2016, direct mail flights to Cuba resumed for the first time in fifty years. American tourists may also now freely visit the country.

14. Put Medicare on Sounder Financial Footing

Slowed the growth of health care spending through cost-saving measures enacted as part of the ACA, ensuring the solvency of Medicare’s principal trust fund through 2028.

15. Protected DREAMers from Deportation

Took executive action in June 2012 to protect undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children
(so-called DREAMers) from deportation and allow them to apply for work permits.

16. Established Net Neutrality

Directed the Federal Communications Commission to issue a rule classifying internet service providers as a public utility and forcing them to treat all web traffic the same, regardless of source. After years of litigation, a federal court upheld the FCC’s rule, meaning providers can’t favor certain websites or block others.

17. Protected Two Liberal Seats on the U.S. Supreme Court

Nominated and obtained confirmation for Sonia Sotomayor (the first Hispanic person and third woman to serve on the Court) in 2009 and Elena Kagan (the fourth woman) in 2010. They replaced David Souter and John Paul Stevens, respectively.

18. Boosted Fuel Efficiency Standards

Released new fuel efficiency standards in 2011 that will increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025.

19. Kicked Banks Out of Federal Student Loan Program, Expanded Pell Grant Funding

As part of the 2010 health care reform bill, signed a measure ending the decades-old practice of subsidizing banks to provide college loans. As a result, all students began getting their federal student loans directly from the federal government. More than half of the savings ($36 billion over ten years) is dedicated to expanding Pell Grants to lower-income students.

20. Improved America’s Image Abroad

With new policies, diplomacy, and rhetoric, reversed a sharp decline in world opinion toward the U.S. (and the corresponding loss of “soft power”) during the Bush years. Favorable opinion toward the United States rose during Obama’s first term in ten of fifteen countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, with an average increase of 26 percent, and have stayed high ever since.

21. Left His Mark on the Federal Judiciary

Appointed more than 300 judges to federal district and appeals courts, in line with other two-term presidents, tipping the balance to majority Democrat appointed. A majority of judges on nine of the thirteen appeals courts are now Democratic appointees—compared to just one when Obama took office. Appointed a record number of female (138) and minority (120) judges to the federal bench, as well as eleven openly gay or lesbian judges.

22. Diversified the Federal Bureaucracy

Appointed women and people of color to fill more than half of appointments to policy positions requiring Senate confirmation, including seventeen of thirty-one Cabinet positions.

23. Passed Fair Sentencing Act

Signed 2010 legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. Successfully lobbied the United States Sentencing Commission to apply those measures retroactively, which contributed to the largest decrease in the federal prison population in over thirty years.

24. Revived the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division

Through then Attorney General Eric Holder, announced a major overhaul of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in 2009 to bring back federal civil rights enforcement, which had atrophied under President Bush. Among other priorities, the division stepped up its efforts against housing and employment discrimination, strengthened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and put renewed focus on cracking down on discriminatory policing practices.

25. Expanded Wilderness and Watershed Protection

Signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which designates more than two million acres as wilderness, creates thousands of miles of recreational and historic trails, and protects over 1,000 miles of rivers. By designating new national monuments and other measures, permanently protects over 548 million acres, more than any other president.

26. Gave the FDA the Power to Regulate Tobacco

Signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009. Nine years in the making and long resisted by the tobacco industry, the law mandates that tobacco manufacturers disclose all ingredients, obtain FDA approval for new products, and expand the size and prominence of cigarette warning labels. It also bans the sale of “light” cigarettes and tobacco sponsorship of entertainment events.

27. Trimmed and Reoriented Missile Defense

Cut the Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense budget, saving $1.4 billion in 2010, and canceled plans to station antiballistic missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic in favor of a sea-based defense plan focused on Iran and North Korea.

28. Kick-started Clean Energy Investment

As part of the 2009 stimulus, invested $90 billion in research on smart grids, energy-efficient electric cars, renewable electricity generation, cleaner coal, and biofuels. Launched a clean energy incubator within the Argonne National Laboratory and encouraged $4 billion in commitments by foundations, institutional investors, and other private-sector stakeholders to boost their investments in clean energy technology.

29. Reduced the Threat from Nuclear Weapons

Initiated the biannual Nuclear Security Summit to address the global threat posed by nuclear terrorism and advance a common approach to strengthening nuclear security. As a result, weapons-usable highly enriched uranium has been removed from sixteen countries. Signed and won ratification of a 2011 treaty with Russia to limit each country to 1,550 strategic warheads (down from 2,200) and 700 launchers (down from more than 1,400). The treaty also reestablished a monitory and transparency program that had lapsed in 2009.

30. Passed Credit Card Reforms

Signed the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, which prohibits credit card companies from raising rates without advance notification, mandates a grace period on interest rate increases, and strictly limits overdraft and other fees.

31. Cut Veteran Homelessness by Half

In 2010, launched the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness, Opening Doors, which has led to a 47 percent decline in the number of homeless veterans since 2010 and aims to end youth homelessness by 2020.

32. Enacted Government Surveillance Reform

Signed the 2015 USA Freedom Act, which bans the governmental collection of bulk data, creates a special panel to provide technical and legal advice to the court administering the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and provides greater transparency for FISA court opinions. The ACLU noted that the legislation marked the first time since 1978 that Congress has “taken steps to restrict, rather than expand, its government surveillance authority.”

33. Expanded Overtime Pay

Updated a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act to ensure overtime pay for employees making up to $47,476 a year, thereby expanding overtime protections to 4.2 million workers. The new rules were set to go into effect in December 2016, but were blocked in November by a federal judge in Texas.

34. Cracked Down on Bad For-Profit Colleges

Through the Department of Education, issued “gainful employment” regulations in 2011, cutting off commercially focused schools from federal student aid funding if more than 25 percent of former students aren’t paying off their loans or if former students spend more than 12 percent of their average total earnings servicing student loans. In June 2016, regulators voted to shut down the nation’s largest accreditor of for-profit colleges, cutting off federal aid to hundreds of for-profits.

35. Cut the Deficit

Reduced the federal deficit from 9.8 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.2 percent in 2016, one benefit of a strengthening economy.

36. Created the College Scorecard

Through the Department of Education, developed a comprehensive database in 2015 that allows prospective college students to compare potential schools based on costs, graduation rates, debt, and post-college earnings.

37. Improved School Nutrition

Signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, championed by Michelle Obama, mandating a $4.5 billion spending boost and higher nutritional standards for school lunches. New rules double the amount of fruits and vegetables, and require only whole grains, in foods served to students.

38. Expanded the Definition of Hate Crimes

Signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, applying existing hate crime laws to crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, or disability, in addition to race, religion, or national origin.

39. Recognized the Dangers of Carbon Dioxide

Through 2009 EPA regulations, declared carbon dioxide a pollutant, allowing the agency to regulate
its production.

40. Strengthened Women’s Right to Fair Pay

Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, giving women who are paid less than men for the same work the right to sue their employers after they find out about the discrimination, even if it happened years ago. Under previous law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the statute of limitations on such suits ran out 180 days after the alleged discrimination occurred, even if the victims never knew about it.

41. Secured the Removal of Chemical Weapons from Syria

Forced an agreement by Syrian leader Bashar Assad in 2013 to destroy the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons in accordance with the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention. In 2016, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the destruction of thousands of tons of mustard gas and other toxic chemicals. (There is evidence, however, that Assad has recently continued to use chlorine gas against rebels and civilians in Aleppo.)

42. Protected LGBTQ Americans From Employment Discrimination

Signed an executive order in 2014 prohibiting federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against their workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

43. Reduced Discrimination Against Former Prisoners in Federal Hiring

Signed an executive order to “ban the box” in federal hiring and contracting. Government employers can’t ask about criminal records at the beginning of the application process, giving applicants with a criminal history a fairer shot.

44. Won Major Victories Against Housing and Mortgage Discrimination

Through the Justice Department, reached a record $335 million settlement against Countrywide Financial Corporation and a $175 million settlement against Wells Fargo for their practices of charging higher interest and fees to African American and Latino borrowers prior to the financial crisis, in addition to numerous other suits pursued on behalf of borrowers. In 2015, the administration successfully argued before the Supreme Court that victims of housing discrimination suing for bias only need to show “disparate impact,” not an intent to discriminate, to win their case.

45. Expanded Broadband Coverage

Obtained approval from the FCC to shift $8 billion in subsidies away from landlines and toward broadband
internet access for lower-income rural families. By 2016, 98 percent of Americans had access to fast 4G/LTE broadband.

46. Expanded Health Coverage for Children

Signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act in 2009, expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover an additional four million children, paid for by a tax increase on tobacco products.

47. Improved Food Safety

Signed the 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which increased the Food and Drug Administration’s budget by $1.4 billion and expanded its regulatory responsibilities to include increasing the number of food inspections, issuing direct food recalls, and reviewing the safety practices of countries exporting food products to the U.S.

48. Let the Space Shuttle Die and Killed the Planned Moon Mission

Allowed the expensive ($1 billion per launch), badly designed, and dangerous shuttle program to make its final launch on July 8, 2011. Cut off funding for the even more bloated and problem-plagued Bush-era Constellation program to build a moon base in favor of support for private-sector low-earth orbit ventures, research on new rocket technologies for long-distance manned flight missions, and unmanned space exploration, including the largest interplanetary rover ever launched, designed to investigate Mars’s potential to support life.

49. Rebuilt and Fortified the Gulf Coast post-Katrina

Completed a $14.5 billion system in 2011 to rebuild the levees in New Orleans and protect it from a 100-year storm.

50. Avoided Scandal

Became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to serve two terms with no serious personal or political scandal.

[Ryan Cooper and Siyu Hu contributed to the 2012 version of this article.]

Paul Glastris and Nancy LeTourneau

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer to the magazine.