President Obama entered office in 2009 with the twin goals of expanding the role that government plays in the lives of individuals and businesses and proving to Americans that the government could be trusted to achieve big things. He was only half successful.
Through sweeping legislation and strong-armed use of executive power, Obama broadened the reach of government more than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Congress passed a national healthcare program, ramped up regulation of the financial sector, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure and alternative energy projects.
Rules issued by his administration now determine what type of health insurance everyone must have and how many miles per gallon their cars will need to average. Other rules, such as a far-reaching plan to curb carbon emissions, await legal challenges before formal implementation.
So Obama undoubtedly moved the ball down the field for liberalism, but the gulf between his promises and the reality of what was implemented dramatically hardened public skepticism about government. Under Obama, the nation found out that "shovel ready" stimulus projects weren't shovel ready, and discovered that they were not allowed to keep the doctors and health insurance that they liked.
As the Obama epoch wanes, trust in government has reached historic lows. A Pew poll last fall found that just 19 percent of Americans said they could trust the government to do the right thing most of the time — a lower percentage than during Watergate, Vietnam or the Iraq War.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
In his 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama differed little from Clinton on policy. But he offered himself as the more transformational figure who could advance the liberal agenda.
He presented himself as somebody with broad popular appeal, who had the ability to inspire and mobilize communities and who could use his rhetorical gifts to shake people out of decades of skepticism about government. He drew a revealing historical parallel.
"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he told the Reno-Gazette editorial board in January of that year, explaining that at certain times in history, the ground is fertile for the right leader to move the country in a new direction.
"He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the '60s and the '70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
Obama took heat for the statement during the primaries, with Democratic rivals portraying it as praise for Reagan, but in actuality, Obama was revealing a lot about his ambitions.
His point was that Reagan transformed the country. Though government continued to grow under Reagan, he did pass historic tax cuts and make Americans reflexively more suspicious of ambitious government proposals. It was because of Reagan that future Democrats would be afraid to admit that they were raising taxes for anyone other than high-income earners.
President Clinton, in contrast, saw the healthcare push he deputized to Hillary Clinton go down in flames in 1994, costing his party both chambers in Congress for the first time in 40 years and forcing him to abandon his ambitions of passing any sweeping legislation for the rest of his presidency.
When Clinton was forced to declare, in 1996, "the era of big government is over," he was very much operating within the box that Reagan had created for him the previous decade.
Liberals were frustrated by the lack of progress on key domestic priorities during the Clinton era, especially healthcare. Coming off a wave election that propelled Democrats to take over Congress in 2006, and confident that President Bush's low approval ratings would enable them to win back the White House, liberals were left deciding which candidate was most likely to achieve their main policy goals.
"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," President Obama said. (AP Photos)
Obama saw himself as the liberal answer to Reagan who could succeed where Clinton failed, putting an optimistic face on government expansion, passing historic legislation and getting Americans believing in government again.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," Obama said in his first inaugural address. "Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." He went on, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Right out of the gate in 2009, Obama swiftly signed bills held up during George W. Bush's tenure. One was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which removed the statute of limitations on pay discrimination cases, allowing suits to be filed for events that took place decades earlier, a windfall to trial lawyers.
Obama also put a down payment on his healthcare ambitions by expanding a program providing health coverage to children, making it available to families with higher incomes. The expansion was funded by the largest ever increase in federal cigarette taxes, which violated his campaign pledge not to raise taxes on families earning less than $250,000 per year; a disproportionate number of smokers are people with low incomes.
But Obama's first big initiative was an $840 billion economic stimulus package. Refusing to let a crisis go to waste, he used the financial collapse to advance big-ticket items on the liberal agenda. Arguing that it would revive the economy, he pumped money into infrastructure, healthcare, federal arts programs and green energy projects, and promised "shovel ready" jobs.
In practice, his green energy program came to be associated with the failure of solar panel company Solyndra. The remnant of his vision for a vast network of high-speed rail trains throughout the nation is a solitary (and failing) experiment in California. Federal taxpayers, through the stimulus, pumped billions of dollars into a project that was supposed to build a bullet train system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Seven years later, the project budget has more than doubled to $68 billion, and completion has been delayed by years due to environmental lawsuits, land acquisition problems and financial issues. Taxpayers have nothing for their money except some partially completed track in central California, which was supposed to be the cheaper and easier part of the segment to build because it's a less populous part of the state.
Just before the economic stimulus package passed in February 2009, a Gallup poll found that 59 percent of people supported it, compared to 33 percent against. By October 2010, after the public had a chance to see the results, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found just 29 percent who said the stimulus money had been well spent, and 68 percent who thought it was mostly wasted.
Eventually, even Obama himself was forced to joke, "Shovel ready was not as shovel ready as we expected."
The economy sputtered for a lot longer than it needed to, and the recovery has been the weakest since 1945.
Defenders of Obama tout the fact that the economy eventually recovered, more or less, and that Obama will leave office with a relatively low unemployment rate. This is true, but the economy sputtered for a lot longer than it needed to, and the recovery has been the weakest since 1945.
Expensive though the economic stimulus package was, it didn't substantially advance liberalism because it was short-lived. More than 95 percent of its budgetary impact had been realized by the end of 2014, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. Had Obama and Democrats been stopped there, limited government conservatives would have gotten off relatively easily in the long-run.
But Obama, who would for a few months in 2009 enjoy a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, wanted to advance the goal of national healthcare that had eluded liberals for decades.
Obamacare, the defining accomplishment of his presidency, epitomizes everything about Obama's legacy. Throughout the fight to pass and implement it, Obama demonstrated a willingness to suffer political damage to advance his ideological goals, but on the other hand, a pragmatic streak that recognized the importance of incremental progress.
Philosophically, Obama always agreed with advocates of a European-style, single-payer healthcare. He openly declared himself a "proponent" of such a system in 2003, and even when he was running for president he claimed that it would be the best system if the U.S. were "designing a system from scratch."
But he also knew that such a system would be a non-starter politically, because the majority of people were happy with their healthcare, and also because business would be wiped out in any transition to a nationalized system.
Politically, it would have been less risky for Obama to focus on his economic agenda in 2009 and 2010 rather than advance such controversial legislation as Obamacare. But at every step, when some were advising he walk away or pursue a less ambitious plan as support for the legislation tanked and the Democratic congressional majority hung in the balance, he kept going.
He had the insight that even if Democrats lost control of Congress (which they did thanks to the healthcare law), it would be worth it in the long-run, because once individuals started receiving benefits, it would be difficult to undo. Democrats can regain a congressional majority, but Obama recognized and seized a once in a lifetime opportunity to give government a stronger grip on a sector fast approaching a fifth of the economy.
As much as he was willing to take political risks, Obama was also willing to cut whatever deals he needed to and sacrifice aspects of the program. Though he once talked during the campaign of broadcasting negotiations on C-SPAN and holding drugmakers accountable, he ultimately cut deals with the industry behind closed doors.
In exchange for the backing of drug manufacturers, he dropped the idea of having Medicare negotiate drug prices and allowing the re-importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. As several Democratic senators faced pressure from the insurance industry, Obama was willing to abandon the idea of creating a government-run plan, known as the "public option," to compete against privately administered plans.
In the six years since it became law, Obama's dishonest promises in selling Obamacare have been exposed one after another.
Though Obama came short of creating a single-payer system, he did, in the words of liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, create a "Rube Goldberg device" that "relies on a combination of regulations and subsidies to rope, coddle and nudge us into a rough approximation of a single-payer system."
As implemented, Obamacare funds an expanded Medicaid program and offers government subsidies to people to purchase government-designed health insurance policies on government-run exchanges. The law is mainly financed by about $1 trillion in tax increases in addition to reductions in projected Medicare spending.
In the six years since it became law, Obama's dishonest promises in selling Obamacare have been exposed one after another.
He told a national audience in a speech to a joint session of Congress that the law would cost "around $900 billion" over 10 years, a measure that included the first four years when the law was technically on the books, but the major spending provisions weren't scheduled to be implemented. The real 10-year cost after implementation was more than double that, closer to $2 trillion.
Obama promised that individuals would be able to shop for insurance on websites just like Expedia or Orbitz. In reality, when the exchanges launched in the fall of 2013, the insurance exchange websites were barely functional for months.
Obama promised repeatedly that all people could keep their doctors and health insurance plans if they liked them. In reality, millions have lost or will lose they coverage they had. And, as insurers slash provider networks to cut costs as a result of the law, people are finding it harder and harder to purchase plans that include their current doctors.
Obama said premiums would go down for the typical family, but premiums have skyrocketed.
As Obama's days in office draw to a close, his massive and unpopular pet project, which survived a fierce political backlash and several Supreme Court challenges, is on the verge of imploding.
The law's exchanges, which were originally projected to cover 21 million people at the time of the law's passage, have only enrolled about half that number. More significantly, insurers have been unable to sign up a sufficient number of young and healthy people to offset the costs of taking on the older and sicker patients the law forces them to cover.
So insurers have suffered billions in losses, forcing some of the biggest companies — like Humana, Aetna and UnitedHealth — to abandon Obamacare markets. This means even less choice and puts yet more pressure on remaining insurers, who will have to take more sick patients. This could prompt yet more insurers to bail out of the program as it spirals helplessly toward the ground.
Weeks before the final passage of Obamacare, Nancy Pelosi, who was then House speaker, infamously said, "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."
Though notorious among conservatives as an example of her admitting that nobody was going to read the bill before voting on it, her intended point was that once the law was passed, people would get to see all the good it does, and they'd come to like it. The truth has been the opposite.
In April 2010, just after the law was signed, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 46 percent had a favorable view of it, compared to 40 percent who viewed in unfavorably. In the same poll taken in July of this year, the numbers were reversed, with 46 percent having an unfavorable view and 40 percent having a favorable view.
There's a myth surrounding Obama's presidency, most recently advanced by the New York Times. It presents Obama as a noble public servant who embraced the use of executive power only reluctantly after being confronted by GOP obstructionists. Beyond the fact that it isn't the duty of the opposition party to accept a president's agenda, this narrative is historically inaccurate.
Right from the get-go, Obama was prepared to exert executive power, and moved legislation and regulation on parallel tracks. One good example was his efforts to regulate carbon.
"EPA will stand ready to help Congress craft strong, science-based climate legislation that fulfills the vision of the president," Lisa Jackson, who served as Obama's first EPA administration, wrote in her first memo to employees just days after Obama was inaugurated. "As Congress does its work, we will move ahead to comply with the Supreme Court's decision recognizing EPA's obligation to address climate change under the Clean Air Act."
The decision she was referring to was the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision which compelled the agency to regulate carbon emissions from vehicles, pending a finding of "endangerment." But it was clear that key Obama administration officials believed the ruling would also allow them to impose regulations on stationary sources of carbon emissions.
In fact, the woman Obama first appointed to be senior policy counsel on climate change at the EPA, Lisa Heinzerling, was a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts v. EPA suit, and she had publicly said that she thought the ruling applied to all carbon emissions, including from power plants.
Similarly, Obama's initial appointments to the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to adjudicate disputes between unions and management, were all advocates of a more aggressive regulatory stance against businesses to aid labor unions.
Of course, like all presidents, Obama would have naturally preferred for more of his agenda to be enshrined in law, because that makes it more difficult for a successor of another party to undo it. But it's also clear that from the start, he was laying the groundwork to act on any items of his agenda that could not make it through Congress.
By December 2010, just before Republicans assumed control of the House, the Obama administration had issued 20 percent more "economically significant" regulations than Clinton during his first two years in office, and 63 percent more than President Bush, according to data compiled by the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.
In addition to federal agencies adopting an aggressive regulatory posture from the beginning of his presidency, the major legislation that was passed by Congress and that Obama did sign in his first term also vastly expanded the regulatory state by giving bureaucrats far-reaching new powers.
Obamacare, for instance, created many new agencies and sub-agencies and delegated broad authority to the secretary of Health and Human Services. The text of Obamacare contains more than 2,500 references to the HHS secretary; 700 instances in which the secretary is instructed that he or she "shall" do something; and more than 200 cases in which he or she "may" take some form of regulatory action based on discretion.
Health insurers have suffered billions in losses, forcing some of the biggest companies — like Humana, Aetna and UnitedHealth — to abandon Obamacare markets.
Under Obamacare, the secretary and other HHS officials get to make a wide array of decisions that affect the lives of people and businesses without the approval of Congress — what's in the insurance policies that everyone is required to buy, who can be exempt from the federal mandate to purchase insurance and the period of time during the year that individuals are able to purchase coverage.
The secretary can dole out billions in grants and dictate how fast food companies have to display calorie counts.
The powers granted to HHS through Obamacare are so immense and ill-defined that they leave room for abuse. HHS has been subjected to lawsuits challenging the administration's authority to alter or delay the law's employer mandate and bypass the congressional appropriations process to funnel money toward insurance companies.
The issue of vague and wide-reaching powers delegated to agencies without accountability is also clear in the other mammoth legislation that Obama signed in 2010, the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law.
Ostensibly, it aimed at preventing a repeat of the financial collapse of 2008, ending the need for taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street banks and policing shady lending practices. But the law gave poorly defined new powers to newly created government agencies, and in the process, actually enshrined the idea of "too big to fail" into law, and punished smaller community banks instead of reining in bad actors on Wall Street.
One agency created by the law, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, has the ability to tag both banks and non-banks as Systematically Important Financial Institutions, effectively enshrining the idea of "too big to fail" by signaling to the markets that the government views the failure of those institutions as a broader threat to the economy.
FSOC remains unaccountable to Congress despite being entrusted to identify and respond to "emerging threats to the stability of the United States financial system." As Hester Peirce, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, testified before Congress last year, Dodd-Frank is "built on the premise that markets fail, but regulators do not."
Another Dodd-Frank agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is charged with regulating "unfair," "deceptive" or "abusive" lending practices, but the law doesn't clearly define what would qualify as such practices or place clear limits on the actions the CFPB can take to respond to whatever is deemed as such.
Obama's Labor Department issued a rule requiring federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour to workers.
This regulatory uncertainty is a clear benefit to larger institutions. "Big banks can rely upon an army of lawyers to help figure out how to comply with open-ended laws," Adam White, a lawyer and fellow at the Hoover Institution, has put it. "A small bank or business, by contrast, can't afford such luxuries."
The Republican takeover of Congress, thus, did not suddenly turn a reticent Obama into the regulator in chief. His inability to enact his agenda legislatively for the last three-fourths of his presidency just meant that his policy priorities would have to be advanced through executive action.
One area where Obama leaned heavily on the administrative state was on labor-related issues. Obama tried and failed in his first year to pass legislation that would have denied a secret ballot to workers in union elections, which would have greased the skids for more rapid unionization.
But the NLRB, which Obama packed with union-friendly appointees, in 2014 finalized a "speedy election" rule that slashed the time between when an election is called and when a vote on unionization is held (a process that used to take up to two months) to as little as 11 days. This made it a lot more difficult for businesses to make their own case to their workers, and it has already helped to boost the number of elections won by unions.
Obama wasn't able to get a minimum-wage hike through Congress. But his Labor Department issued a rule requiring federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour to workers, well above the $7.25 federal minimum wage. In addition, another ruling by the Obama Labor Department expanded by millions the universe of workers eligible for overtime in the private sector.
Obama stepped up his use of executive action on environmental and energy issues, where he had trouble passing legislation even when Democrats had overwhelming majorities. In 2012, the Obama administration released rules mandating that cars and light trucks average 55 miles per gallon by 2025.
Last year, the EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan, which would compel power plants to cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third by 2030 versus 2005 levels. In February, the Supreme Court halted enforcement of the rule pending the outcome of legal challenges.
All told, through the first six years of his presidency, Obama issued 329 "economically significant" regulations, according to the George Washington University Regulatory Studies program. That's more than triple the number issued by Reagan during a comparable point in his presidency, 37 percent more than President Bush and 30 percent more than President Clinton.
Economically significant regulations are defined as those that "have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or state, local or tribal governments or communities."
As Obama expanded the size and scope of government through legislation and regulation, he added substantially to the nation's unsustainable debt burden. Once again, this was in direct contrast with the initial promise of his presidency. Obama entered office blaming Bush for reckless fiscal management and promised, in his first budget, to usher in "a new era of fiscal responsibility."
In February 2009, he declared, "We cannot, and will not, sustain deficits like these without end. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration or the next generation."
He vowed, "While we are making important progress towards fiscal responsibility this year in this budget, this is just the beginning. In the coming years, we'll be forced to make more tough choices and do much more to address our long-term challenges ..."
In his final State of the Union speech this January, Obama claimed that he had cut "our deficits by almost three-quarters." But that's only when judging against 2009, when the deficit was at a historically elevated $1.4 trillion, due to, among other contributing factions, the president's massive economic stimulus package.
Judging Obama against his vow to make tough choices that prevented debt from being piled on to the next generation, his fiscal record is clearly far worse.
In 2008, Bush's last full year in office, debt held by the public equaled 39.3 percent of the gross domestic product. By 2015, the final Obama year for which data is available, it had ballooned to 73.6 percent — a number not seen since the spike in military spending resulting from World War II.
But unlike World War II, in which spending subsided once the war ended, debt is now expected only to grow from its elevated levels. Far from making tough choices, Obama piled on spending and tried to convince the public that he could reduce the debt while expanding his vast social agenda merely by asking the very rich to pay just a little bit more.
Obama's presidency might be judged a roaring success if that is defined as having advanced much of the liberal agenda. With Obama in charge, the Left is now advancing with triumphalist fervor. Liberals are openly talking in terms of expanding Social Security rather than fixing its unsustainable finances, of building on Obamacare rather than acknowledging its failures and retrenching, of enacting more European-style social programs such as mandated paid leave and free college.
But viewed from another perspective, Obama's failure to repair the image of the federal government as a bungling institution — think of the DMV, just on a much bigger scale — will create enormous challenges for any Democratic successors trying to sell the public on the next wave of ambitious government programs.