On January 20, 2017 President Obama will complete two terms of his presidency, relinquish his responsibility and vacate the White House. On the same evening, Donald J. Trump, the newly elected President of the United States, will take oath and deliver the inaugural address in the joint session of the Congress in the Capitol Hills. Preparations are already underway for the historic event.
Eight years ago, on January 20, Barack Hussein Obama took oath as the 44th President of the United States. An unprecedented crowd of about two million assembled in the Pennsylvania Avenue, watched in the big screens, the oath taking ceremony and listened to the inaugural address of the first African-American president. It was a thrilling speech. Many in the audience, mostly African-Americans, could not conceal emotions and wept. They could not believe to witness, in their life time, a ceremony where a black Harvard-educated attorney, son of a black person, born in Hawaii, who spent his childhood in Indonesia and grew up in the black neighbourhood in Chicago, would occupy the highest position in the country. The blacks remained disenfranchised until early 1960s and could hardly aspire to get job in the government. Sixty years later, a black was elected to be the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, one of the superpowers and largest democracy in the world. A new chapter in the history of the United States was written on that night.
Obama inherited a shattered economy with soaring unemployment, foreclosures devastated housing sector making millions homeless, infrastructures damaged and industries shut down. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left trails of destructions and cost billions with no end in sight. Over 6,400 American soldiers were killed and more than 40,000 severely wounded but hawks were still clamouring for hundred years of war. Obama acknowledged that "the challenges are real, they are serious and many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: they will be met."
When Obama was taking oath and millions at home and abroad were listening, a group of hardcore Republicans got together in a hotel, a few blocks away, and resolved to oppose the newly elected president on every step. Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate, told the president "you should not have been here". In 2010 he declared, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be one-term president." McConnell failed in that goal but he found ways to "just throw sand in gears" in a manner that fed into people's beliefs that things were getting badly. Consequently, the Republicans blocked actions that could have helped more people recover from the great recession.
AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE: In 2009 about 46 million people had no health insurance. Either their income was too low to permit payment of monthly premium or the insurance companies were unwilling to accept people with pre-existing health conditions. Under Obama's direct patronage, the Affordable Health Care (AHC) programme was designed compelling the employers to arrange insurance for the employees. Penalties were levied on those abstaining from getting insurance. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were still led by the Democrats and the AHC could have been passed by the Congress. But the President wanted the bill to be passed in a bi-partisan way until the House of Representative went to the control of the Republicans. Two years later, the Democrats lost control of the Senate as well and the hope of passing the bill by the Congress fell apart. The Republicans, true to their resolve, opposed the AHC tooth and nail and the Congress rejected the bill.
Obama, at the end, approved it under an executive order. Until end December 2016, 22 million people have been enrolled under the AHC, popularly known as the Obama Care. The premium has soared in 2016 but it is expected that with the expansion of coverage, especially of the middle-aged population, the cost would decline to an equilibrium level.
President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to shred the AHC on the first day in office. This will strip 22 million people of health coverage. Of late, he softened the position and assured to retain certain segments of the AHC.
RECESSION: The recession (2006 - 2009), worst in seven decades, shattered the economy. Unemployment exceeded 11 per cent, foreign trade squeezed, auto industries were on the brink of collapse, housing market was threatened by foreclosures and millions risked losing homes. The food stamp beneficiaries reached a height of 37 million. The two wars were costing billions a month putting further strain on the fragile economy. The Obama administration advanced "$700 billion bailout package" to halt further deterioration of the economy. The package helped. The auto-industries began to recover and by 2012 General Motors, Chevrolet and Ford reverted to pre-recession period reinstating most of the workforce laid off. The sale of cars and light vehicles increased to 17.3 million in 2015, highest since 2000. The employment opportunities began to improve. In the past six years 14 million jobs appeared in the market. Now unemployment rate has reduced to 4.6 per cent. About 1.6 million families salvaged their homes from imminent foreclosures and 4.0 million house owners refinanced their properties at lower interest rates. Another 3.0 million people could have benefitted had the banks and the officials acted fairly and diligently. The housing market regained stability in 2014 with cost of borrowing settled at 3.5 per cent. Both export and import improved and consumer spending made a resounding comeback. The administration has forged 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), notwithstanding opposition from the leftwing Democrats, which would promote trade with countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and south Asian countries. Following a devastating financial crisis, the economy has healed.
IMMIGRATION REFORM: Successive governments in the past thirty years took multiple actions on immigration but these were limited to tightening screening at the entry point and building fence in southern border. The measures fell short of a comprehensive reform. Despite granting amnesty from time to time, the size of undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, soared to 14 million. Amongst them, about 3.0 million are children born in the United States and their parents. The Obama administration proposed that those who have had no record of criminal activities on the soil of the United States, paid taxes and had children born in the United States would be granted residency. The rest of the undocumented immigrants would be given option to voluntarily return to their country of origin. The administration felt deportation of such a huge caseload would be inhuman, expensive and above all, un-American and should not be pursued. Obama through an executive order introduced this reform.
The in-coming administration, however, has threatened to undertake mass deportation. The undocumented immigrants provide much needed service in the farming sector in southern states and mass deportation will invariably result in shortage of workers in farming sector.
GUN CONTROL: A number of gun violence took place in the past eight years. The most gruesome and heartbreaking incident happened in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012 when a teenagers got hold of a gun, shot his mother at home and then killed 23 kids in an elementary school. Amidst opprobrium demands were raised for stricter gun control. Obama suggested rigorous background checks before a gun is sold to a customer. The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed it and argued that "a bad guy having a gun could be confronted only by a good guy with a gun." When the proposal was debated at the Senate Obama brought the aggrieved parents from Sandy Hook in order to put psychological pressure on the Senators. But NRA's lobby defied all pressures and the bill was defeated.
The shooting at the marathon race in Boston wounding a large number of sports lovers, carnage at the Church in South Carolina, San Bernardino tragedy underscored how the Senators have turned hostage to the vested groups. Even the President could not get an important legislation passed by the Congress.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations.