President Obama declared during his State of the Union address back in January that 2014 would be a “year of action” and a “breakthrough year for America.”
Many pundits, as well as ordinary Americans, seem to believe Obama failed to deliver on those lofty predictions, and that helped lead to a drubbing for his party in the 2014 midterms. The reasons, of course, are in some dispute -- critics blame the obstructionist GOP Congress for blocking the president's initiatives, while critics say he hasn't mastered the leadership skills necessary to advocate for his agenda.
But surprise, surprise -- the conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily correct. Obama accomplished quite a bit this year, often out of the glare of the public eye.
Here’s your 2014 report card, President Obama.
The pledge: During his State of the Union address, Obama said he’d issue an executive order mandating federal contractors pay federally-funded employees $10.10 an hour. He also urged Congress to raise the country’s hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise,” the president said.
The takeaway: Obama did sign an executive order back in February that hiked the pay for employees of federal contract workers. But despite a big push to raise the national minimum wage –which included several campaign-style stops for the president across the country -- Congress was not swayed. Still, taking his lead, legislatures in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and D.C. enacted minimum wage hikes in 2014. And four states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Carolina) green-lit minimum wage increases through ballot measures this past year, while Illinois voters approved an advisory measure. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states and D.C. will have minimum wages that are above the federal minimum wage. Obama's advocacy surely had some beneficial spillover effects in getting this issue to the top of mind of many voters and legislators, despite his inability to push it through at the federal level.
Overall grade: C
The pledge: President Obama said in his State of the Union speech that if America is serious about economic growth then the country must fix a broken immigration system. “Let’s get immigration reform done this year,” he said.
The takeaway: When it became apparent the House would not consider any type of immigration reform even after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill in 2013, Obama in November announced major executive action on immigration, shielding as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The move primarily defers the deportation of the parents of children who are either legal residents or U.S. citizens. Obama also said he would expand protection of so-called “DREAM-ers,” or children who came to the country illegally with their parents. The GOP has been so irate over the move that they've threatened to sue the president, even as Hispanics -- the nation's fastest growing voter bloc -- have overwhelmingly embraced the initiative.
Overall grade: B
The pledge: Obama's presidential legacy will largely be tied to the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping law that requires that nearly all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a fine, lets grown children stay on their parents plans until age 25, and bars insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. In his State of the Union speech, he told his GOP critics of the ACA to propose a different approach to health care reform if they are so unhappy with what they scornfully refer to as "Obamacare." He also asked every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by the March 31 deadline.
The takeaway: Despite the initial rocky rollout, more than six million Americans have enrolled in individual insurance plans via Obamacare for 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services announced this month. The numbers don't even include people living in New York, California and a dozen other states that have their own exchanges—puts the Obama Administration on pace to surpass its goal of 9.1 million signups by February 2015. Officials had previously scaled back their expectations from 13 million signups to 9.1 million.
Earlier this month, a new study from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services showed that growth in health care spending was just 3.6% last year, the lowest, yearly increase since 1960. However, it’s important to note that the favorable numbers are likely the result of a number of factors besides Obamacare, including the slow economic recovery and federal spending cuts.
Overall grade: A-
The pledge: “The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead,” said Obama in his State of the Union. “And too many still aren’t working at all. Our job is to reverse these trends.”
The takeaway: The economy has undeniably improved, with the creation of 10.9 million jobs over the past 57 months. In the latest jobs report, from November, the unemployment rate remained steady at 5.8% -- the lowest level since the recession. Third quarter GDP growth was revised upward to 5.0%, up from last month’s estimate of 3.9%.—the strongest growth the U.S. economy has seen in over a decade. Last week, the Dow Jones industrial average topped 18,000 points for the first time – a huge difference from when Obama took office, when the Dow hovered around 8,000 points. Gas prices have also plummeted.
Obama also fulfilled his pledge of launching four new manufacturing hubs this year, tightened tax rules to deter U.S. corporations from skirting taxes by merging with foreign companies and launched a new retirement savings accounts for low-income employees called MyRA.
Still, Obama wasn’t able to get the federal minimum wage increased and was unable to wholly tackle the nation’s complicated tax code—something he has pledged to do. And the soaring stock market have left some critics on the left to grumble that his policies have benefitted the wealthy at the expense of ordinary workers. many of whom are still hurting.
Overall grade: B+
The pledge: Obama once again called on Congress to act to close the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay that has held hundreds of terror suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The president has repeatedly argued the prison damages the reputation in the eyes of the world and that it’s unfair to hold prisoners without charge. During his address this year, Obama urged lawmakers to lift the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers.
The takeaway: Gitmo is still open, an embarrassing failure for Obama, who on his first day in office in 2009 pledged to close Gitmo within the year. However, U.S. officials have been taking steps, telling the Washington Post recently that dozens of inmates are expected to be moved out in the next few months. The president told CNN this month that he will do “everything I can” to close the prison after four Afghan detainees held there were sent home. Meanwhile, 132 detainees remain at the facility.
Overall grade: C
The pledge: Obama said in his speech that while the U.S. has reduced total carbon pollution, “we have to act with more urgency...The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight and it will require tough choices along the way.”
The takeaway: Like immigration, Obama finally took the issue into his own hands. Over the summer, his administration announced one of the biggest actions the government has taken to battle climate change—a plan to cut carbon pollution from the country’s power plants 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. Obama also announced the development of stricter, new fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks. And in November, the president announced a historic, secretly-negotiated deal with China for both countries to decrease their greenhouse gas output.
In November at a G20 Leaders Summit in Australia, Obama also promised $3 billion U.S. contribution to a global fund to help poor countries deal with climate change. It has not been made clear where exactly that money will come from. He has also so far refused to take a definitive stand on the controversial Keystone pipeline project.
Overall grade: A-
The pledge: In his State of the Union, Obama took a victory lap for getting all U.S. troops out of Iraq. On Afghanistan, he said, “After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.” Obama said, however, that danger remains and the U.S. would continue to strengthen its defenses and send troops into harm’s way only when necessary.
The takeaway: Obama did mark the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in December, with about 10,600 American troops remaining in the country to focus on counter-terrorism missions and training Afghan security forces. But with the rise of the terrorist group known as ISIS, Obama announced that he was sending up to 1,500 troops to Iraq for non-combat roles. The ISIS challenge still looms, with critics charging the president doesn’t have a sufficient strategy in dealing with the group following this year's beheadings of three Americans and several other hostages.
One of Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievements this year came as a complete surprise to many observers: Cuba. The president announced at the end of the year that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with the communist country and would rollback some sanctions and travel restrictions.
Western sanctions on Russia –following the country’s incursion into Ukraine—have arguably crippled Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country's currency, the ruble. And there may be a silver lining on the horizon with Iran, as the U.S. and others global powers have been in talks with Iran to lift economic sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program.
Overall grade: B-
The pledge: Obama reiterated past goals, including increasing access to early childhood education, universal preschool, job training and more affordable college costs.
The takeaway: There’s still no universal preschool, but Obama did manage to make some educational inroads. In June, he announced his administration would make an additional 5 million existing student loan borrowers eligible for the federal government’s income-based repayment program. He also secured $2 billion in private sector commitments to get more classrooms connected to high speed Internet. The president also announced commitments by 60 school districts, including the seven largest ones in the country, to offer computer science to their students.
And although Obama praised his “Race to the Top” initiative in his State of the Union speech, as the New American Foundation notes, the latest federal spending bill likely means the end to the program, which includes performance-based teacher evaluations. And then there's Common Core, the reading and math standards developed by states across the country which the Obama administration has embraced. The program has become a rallying cry for Republicans who argue nationalized standards interfere with the right of local school districts to adopt educational standards for their particular students. Common Core state standards are expected to come under attack again next year.
Overall grade: B-