As President Obama’s first term nears its end, it is time to take stock of his accomplishments, as well as to assess progress toward the goals not yet achieved since his historic election. During his first two years in office, the president made substantial progress in dismantling the dangerous legacy left by President George W. Bush and took many steps to put in place a truly progressive, pro-worker agenda.
When the Tea Party took over Congress in 2010, advancing a progressive agenda became almost impossible. But the president has regained his footing, speaking forcefully of the need to restore economic power to the 99%, and using his executive authority to get around Republican obstructionism.
Taking office during the worst economic downturn in a generation, Barack Obama took America from the brink of a second Great Depression by pressing Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which saved or created 3.6 million jobs—and he could have done more if not for resistance from Republicans in Congress. Comprehensive health insurance reform, while far from perfect, gave the promise of health security to millions of our fellow citizens, a goal that had eluded Democratic presidents for nearly 100 years. And Wall Street reform, passed over the objection of almost every single Republican, is beginning to reverse decades of financial deregulation that put our entire economy at risk.
Recognizing that the ARRA had halted the collapse of our economy but had not been large enough to end the jobs crisis, in September 2011 President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act (AJA), which was designed to put hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work repairing our nation’s infrastructure, and provide a new round of state and local aid to help keep teachers, firefighters and other public workers on the job.
Though most of the AJA fell victim to Republican filibusters (only the unemployment insurance and payroll tax holiday extensions were signed into law), the president has not given up: He intends to fight for the most important elements of the AJA during the remainder of his first term. The president also has proposed several major initiatives to revitalize domestic manufacturing, including tax proposals to reduce the incentives to offshore millions of good jobs to low-tax, low-wage countries.
More recently, spurred on by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in a widely praised speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the president shined a spotlight on the widening income gap and directly confronted the powerful and the privileged. President Obama called on the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, reaffirming his commitment to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire and proposing the so-called Buffett Rule to make sure millionaires never pay a lower effective tax rate than the people who work for them. He also has called on Congress to close the so-called carried interest loophole that taxes the incomes of private equity and hedge fund managers at a lower rate than ordinary workers.
Of course, working people have experienced some frustration, too. We were disappointed that action on the Employee Free Choice Act was delayed, and then sidelined, after Sen. Ted Kennedy’s tragic death cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority—and opportunities to advance labor law reform through other vehicles went nowhere. The Affordable Care Act is a critical first step toward quality health care for all Americans, but it remains a work in progress without the public option or Medicare for All. In addition, critical issues affecting workers’ ability to bargain healthcare benefits remain unresolved in the implementation of the act. Similarly, we were disheartened when President Obama got distracted by a fruitless debate over the budget deficit, spending the first eight months of 2011 in unproductive deficit talks with Republicans, even though their real mission was to make Obama a one-term president and to undermine Social Security and Medicare. And we opposed the president when he pressed ahead with the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade pacts—despite the continuing murder of trade unionists in Colombia and the flawed Bush-era terms of those agreements. Finally, we remain concerned that too many important Obama administration initiatives to protect workers and the public—ranging from health and safety protections to rules implementing financial reform—have been stalled or weakened under pressure from business interests.
Three and a half years into President Obama’s first term, America is beginning to dig out of the 11 million jobs hole dug by George Bush and his pro-corporate, right-wing economic agenda. Nearly 3.8 million jobs have been created in the past 23 months and manufacturers have added 334,000 jobs. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finally is taking steps to level the playing field for workers who want to organize, and agencies that are charged with protecting the lives and livelihoods of workers, from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now are led by competent individuals who are aggressively enforcing the law.
The labor movement, which played such a big part in President Obama’s 2008 victory as well as helping him pass key elements of his legislative agenda, has plenty to be proud of in the president’s first term in office. But there is much left to be done. This section includes highlights of the administration’s accomplishments for working families to date.
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