The Obama Administration

The Obama Administration

As President, Barack Obama addressed a global financial crisis, legislated health care reform, and sharply reduced military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Obama’s policies regarding health care, foreign policy, and the economy.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Barack Obama was a United States Senator from Illinois at the time of his victory over Arizona Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. He is the first African-American president of the United States, as well as the first to be born in Hawaii.
  • In his first week in office, Obama signed Executive Order 13492 suspending all the ongoing proceedings of Guantanamo military commission and ordering the detention facility to be shut down within the year.
  • On February 17, 2009, Obama signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus plan that included spending for health care, infrastructure, and education.
  • On March 23, 2010, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law.  The goals of this act were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance, to require that everyone in the U.S. had some form of health insurance, and to lower the costs of healthcare. 
  • Obama passed several measures to advance the rights of LGBTQ people, including repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, thus allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military and enjoy the benefits of marriage. 
  • President Obama authorized Operation Neptune’s Spear to be conducted by U.S. Navy SEALs to take down Osama bin Laden in a hidden camp in Pakistan. The operation resulted in bin Laden’s death and the confiscation of papers, computer drives, and disks from the compound. 

Key Terms

  • John McCain: The senior United States Senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee in the 2008 United States election.
  • Barack Obama: The 44th President of the United States (2009-2017).

Introduction

The Presidency of Barack Obama began on January 20, 2009, when he became the 44th President of the United States. Obama was a United States Senator from Illinois at the time of his victory over Arizona Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama is the first African-American president of the United States, as well as the first to be born in Hawaii. He was elected to a second term on November 6, 2012.

Obama came to office during a global financial recession following the financial crisis of 2008. His major policy initiatives have included changes in tax policies, legislation to reform the United States health care industry, foreign policy initiatives, and the phasing out of the detention of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. In October of 2009, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Economic Policies 

Upon entering office, Obama planned to center his attention on handling the global financial crisis. Even before his inauguration, he lobbied Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill, which became the top priority during his first month in office. On February 17, 2009, Obama signed into law a $787 billion plan that included spending for health care, infrastructure, and education, as well as various tax breaks, incentives, and direct assistance to individuals. The tax provisions of the law reduced taxes for 98% of taxpayers, bringing tax rates to their lowest levels in 60 years.

As part of the 2010 budget proposal, the Obama administration has proposed additional measures to attempt to stabilize the economy, including a $2–3 trillion measure aimed at stabilizing the financial system and freeing up credit. The program includes up to $1 trillion to buy toxic bank assets, an additional $1 trillion to expand a federal consumer loan program, and the $350 billion left in the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The plan also includes $50 billion intended to slow the wave of mortgage foreclosures. The 2011 budget includes a three-year freeze on discretionary spending, proposes several program cancellations, and raises taxes on high income earners to bring down deficits during the economic recovery.

image

Obama and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: President Obama addressing a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009

Health Care

Once the economic stimulus bill was enacted, health care reform became Obama’s top domestic priority. On July 14, 2009, House Democratic leaders introduced a 1,000-page plan for overhauling the U.S. health care system, which Obama wanted Congress to approve by the end of the year. On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the bill into law. Immediately following the bill’s passage, the House voted in favor of a reconciliation measure to make significant changes and corrections to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was passed by both houses with two minor alterations on March 25, 2010, and signed into law on March 30, 2010. The goals of this Act (which came to be know as Obamacare) were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance, to require that everyone in the United States had some form of health insurance, and to lower the costs of healthcare. 

LGBTQ Rights 

On December 22, 2010, Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act. The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of 1993 had prevented gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the United States Armed Forces, and repealing this policy had been a key campaign promise Obama had made during the 2008 presidential campaign.

During Barack Obama’s second term in office, courts began to counter efforts by conservatives to outlaw same-sex marriage. A series of decisions declared nine states’ prohibitions against same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court rejected an attempt to overturn a federal court ruling to that effect in California in June 2013. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court also ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 was unconstitutional, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. These decisions seem to allow legal challenges in all the states that persist in trying to block same-sex unions.

Foreign Policy

In his first week in office, Obama signed Executive Order 13492 suspending all the ongoing proceedings of Guantanamo military commission and ordering the detention facility to be shut down within the year. He also signed Executive Order 13491, which required the Army Field Manual be used as a guide for interrogations of supposed terrorists and banned torture and other coercive techniques, such as waterboarding.

Obama declared his plan for ending the Iraq War on February 27, 2009 in a speech at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina before an audience of Marines stationed there. According to the president, combat troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by August 2010, leaving a contingent of up to 50,000 servicepeople to continue advisory, training, and counterterrorism operations until as late as the end of 2011. In May of 2014, Obama announced that, for the most part, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan were over. Although a residual force of 9,800 soldiers will remain to continue training the Afghan army, by 2016, all U.S. troops will have left the country, except for a small number to defend U.S. diplomatic posts.

Starting with information received in July of 2010, intelligence developed by the CIA over the next several months determined what they believed to be the location of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and the person behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. On May 1, 2011, the U.S. initiated Operation Neptune’s Spear, resulting in the death of bin Laden and the seizure of papers, computer drives, and disks from the compound. Bin Laden’s body was identified through DNA testing and buried at sea several hours later.

image

Assassination of Osama Bin Laden: U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

The 2008 Election

In the United States presidential election of 2008, Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain.

Learning Objectives

Examine the 2008 U.S. presidential election

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As the campaign progressed, both the War in Iraq and outgoing Republican President George W. Bush had become increasingly unpopular. As a result, the major-party candidates ran on a platform of change and reform.
  • Domestic policy and the economy eventually emerged as the primary themes of the election campaign following the onset of the worst recession since the 1930s.
  • Obama received the most votes for a presidential candidate in American history, winning the popular and electoral vote by the largest margin in 12 years. A Democrat had not won the popular vote by that large of a margin in nearly a half-century.
  • Obama was not only the first African American elected, he was also the first African American to win the nomination of either major party.

Key Terms

  • Barack Obama: The 44th President of the United States (2009-2017).
  • John McCain: The senior United States Senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee in the 2008 United States election.

Overview

The United States presidential election of 2008 was was held on Tuesday, November 4. Democrat Barack Obama, the then junior Senator from Illinois, defeated Republican John McCain, the senior Senator from Arizona. As the campaign progressed, both the War in Iraq and outgoing Republican President George W. Bush had become increasingly unpopular, and so the major-party candidates ran on a platform of change and reform. Domestic policy and the economy eventually emerged as the primary themes in the last few months of the campaign, following the onset of the worst recession since the 1930s. 

Obama would go on to win a decisive victory over McCain in both the electoral and popular votes. Obama received the most votes for a presidential candidate in American history, winning the popular and electoral vote by the largest margin in 12 years. A Democrat had not won the popular vote by that large of a margin in nearly a half-century. The election of 2008 was the first U.S. presidential election in which an African American was elected, as well as the first in which an African American won the nomination of either major party. 

image

2008 Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Barack Obama: Barack Obama

The Candidates 

Born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and an American woman from Kansas, Barack Obama excelled at school, going on to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles, Columbia University, and finally Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. As part of his education, he also spent time in Chicago working as a community organizer to help those displaced by the decline of heavy industry in the early 1980s. Obama first came to national attention when he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention while running for his first term in the U.S. Senate. Just a couple of years later, he was running for president himself, the first African-American nominee for the office from either major political party. Obama’s opponent in 2008 was John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and Republican senator from Arizona. McCain had a reputation of a “maverick” who had occasionally broken ranks with his party to support bipartisan initiatives. 

image

2008 Republican Party Presidential Candidate John McCain: Senator John McCain from Arizona.

The Campaign

On August 28, 2008, Obama formally accepted the Democratic nomination for President. The television audiences for both McCain’s and Obama’s acceptance speeches broke records, according to Nielsen ratings.

McCain faced a number of challenges during the campaign. As the Republican nominee, he remained closely associated with the two disastrous foreign wars initiated under the Bush administration. His late recognition of the economic catastrophe on the eve of the election did not help matters and further damaged the Republican brand at the polls. Polls taken in the last few months of the presidential campaign showed the economy as the top concern for voters, with many news sources reporting that the economy was suffering its most serious downturn since the Great Depression. At age seventy-one, McCain also had to fight accusations that he was too old for the job, an impression made even more striking by his energetic young challenger. To minimize this weakness, McCain chose a young but relatively inexperienced running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. This tactic backfired, however, when a number of poor performances in television interviews drew voter support away from Palin.

Senator Obama, too, was criticized for his lack of experience with foreign policy, a deficit he remedied by choosing experienced politician Joseph Biden as his running mate. Unlike his Republican opponent, however, Obama offered promises of “hope and change.” By sending out voter reminders on Twitter and connecting with supporters on Facebook, he was able to harness social media and take advantage of grassroots enthusiasm for his candidacy. 

The unpopular War in Iraq was a key issue before the focus shifted to the economic crisis. John McCain supported the war while Barack Obama opposed it. McCain proposed that the U.S. could be in Iraq for as long as the next 50 to 100 years, and though he was referring to peacetime presence—like the United States maintained in Germany and Japan after World War II—his statement would prove costly. Obama used it as part of his strategy to tie McCain to the increasingly unpopular incumbent President George W. Bush. In ads and at campaign rallies, Obama pointed out that McCain had voted with Bush 90% of the time, and congressional voting records supported this for the years Bush was in office.

Election Day and Results

Election Day was held on November 4, 2008. A McCain victory quickly became improbable as Obama amassed early wins in his home state of Illinois, the Northeast, and the critical battleground state of Ohio. Obama won the entire Northeast by comfortable margins, and he won the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota by double digits. McCain held on to traditionally Republican states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and his home state of Arizona.

New Jersey, 21 from Pennsylvania, 3 from Delaware, 10 from Maryland, 3 from DC, 13 from Virginia, 15 from North Carolina, 27 from Florida, 20 from Ohio, 17 from Michigan, 11 from Indiana, 21 from Illinois, 10 from Wisconsin, 10 from Minnesota, 7 from Iowa, 1 from Nebraska, 9 from Colorado, 5 from New Mexico, 5 from Nevada, 11 from Washington, 7 from Oregon, 55 from California, and 4 from Hawaii. McCain won 5 votes from West Virginia, 8 from South Carolina, 15 from Georgia, 8 from Kentucky, 11 from Tennessee, 9 from Alabama, 6 from Mississippi, 11 from Missouri, 6 from Arkansas, 9 from Louisiana, 3 from North Dakota, 3 from South Dakota, 4 from Nebraska, 6 from Kansas, 7 from Oklahoma, 34 from Texas, 3 from Montana, 3 from Wyoming, 4 from Idaho, 5 from Utah, 10 from Arizona, and 3 from Alaska.

2008 Electoral College: Presidential election results map. Blue denotes states/districts won by Obama/Biden, and Red denotes those won by McCain/Palin. Numbers indicate electoral votes allotted to the winner of each state. Obama won one electoral vote (from Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district) of Nebraska’s five.

Obama’s youthful vigor drew independents and first-time voters, and he won 95% of the African American vote and 44% of the white vote. President-elect Obama appeared just before midnight Eastern Time on November 5 in Grant Park, Chicago, in front of a crowd of 250,000 people, to deliver his victory speech. Following Obama’s speech, spontaneous street parties broke out in cities across the United States and even around the world, including in London, Berlin, Japan, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Nairobi. 

The Stimulus Package and the Occupy Movement

While Obama initiated a stimulus package to pump money into the weakened economy, protesters voiced their dissatisfaction with the growing income gap. 

Learning Objectives

Discuss the Obama Administration’s efforts to help the economy recover after the 2008 financial crash and the popular response

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On February 17, 2009, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the economy recover from the deepening worldwide recession. 
  • The act includes increased federal spending for health care, infrastructure, and education. In addition, it includes various tax breaks, incentives, and direct assistance to individuals. 
  • Recognizing that the economic downturn also threatened major auto manufacturers in the United States, Obama sought and received congressional authorization for $80 billion to help Chrysler and General Motors.
  • The Congressional Budget Office and a broad range of economists credit Obama’s stimulus plan for the economic growth during these years.
  • The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, to protest social and economic inequality, greed, corruption, and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government.
  • The protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011; however, protesters then turned their focus to occupying banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings, foreclosed homes, and college and university campuses.

Key Terms

  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: An economic stimulus package enacted by the 111th United States Congress in February 2009 and signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009.
  • Troubled Asset Relief Program: A program of the United States government that was signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush on October 3, 2008 to purchase toxic assets and equity from financial institutions to strengthen its financial sector.

The Economic Stimulus Package

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

Barack Obama had been elected on a platform of healthcare reform and a wave of frustration over the sinking economy. As he entered office in 2009, he set out to deal with both. Taking charge of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) instituted under George W. Bush to stabilize the country’s financial institutions, Obama oversaw the distribution of $7.77 trillion designed to help shore up the nation’s banking system. On February 17, 2009, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, a $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at helping the economy recover from the deepening worldwide recession. The act includes increased federal spending for health care, infrastructure, and education. In addition, it includes various tax breaks, incentives, and direct assistance to individuals. Through the act, the Obama administration pumped almost $800 billion into the economy to stimulate economic growth and job creation.

Bailing Out the Auto Industry

Recognizing that the economic downturn also threatened major auto manufacturers in the United States, Obama sought and received congressional authorization for $80 billion to help Chrysler and General Motors. Over the following months, the White House set terms for both firms’ bankruptcies, including the sale of Chrysler to Italian automaker Fiat and a reorganization of General Motors, giving the U.S. government a temporary 60% equity stake in the company and the Canadian government a 12% stake. The action was controversial, and some characterized it as a government takeover of industry. The money did, however, help the automakers earn a profit by 2011, reversing the trend of consistent losses that had hurt the industry since 2004. It also helped prevent layoffs and wage cuts. By 2013, the automakers had repaid over $50 billion of bailout funds. 

The National Debt

On August 2, 2011, after a lengthy congressional debate over whether to raise the nation’s debt limit, Obama signed the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011. The legislation enforces limits on discretionary spending until 2021, establishes a procedure to increase the debt limit, creates a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose further deficit reduction with a stated goal of achieving at least $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings over 10 years, and establishes automatic procedures for reducing spending by as much as $1.2 trillion if legislation originating with the new joint select committee does not achieve such savings. By passing the legislation, Congress was able to prevent a U.S. government default on its obligations.

Effects on America’s Economy 

As it did throughout 2008, the unemployment rate rose in 2009, reaching a peak in October at 10.0%. Following a decrease to 9.7% in the first quarter of 2010, the unemployment rate continued to fall moderately; by November 2012 it had reached 7.7%, and in the last month of 2013 it had decreased to 6.7%. During 2014, the unemployment rate continued to decline, falling to 6.3% in the first quarter. 

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth returned in the third quarter of 2009, expanding at a rate of 1.6%, followed by a 5.0% increase in the fourth quarter. Growth continued in 2010, posting an increase of 3.7% in the first quarter, with lesser gains throughout the rest of the year. In July 2010, the Federal Reserve noted that economic activity continued to increase, but its pace had slowed; overall, the economy expanded at a rate of 2.9% in 2010. The Congressional Budget Office and a broad range of economists credit Obama’s stimulus plan for the economic growth during these years.

The Occupy Movement

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the name given to a protest movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district. The protest received global attention, spawning the Occupy movement against social and economic inequality worldwide. It was inspired by anti-austerity protests in Spain relating to the 15-M movement, as well as the recent uprisings and revolution in Egypt.

The main issues raised by OWS were social and economic inequality, greed, corruption, and the perceived undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. The OWS slogan “We are the 99%” refers to income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population, a gap that had widened under previous administrations. To achieve their goals, protesters acted on consensus-based decisions made in general assemblies which emphasized direct action over petitioning authorities for redress.

image

Occupy Wall Street: Protestors occupying Zuccotti Park in New York City.

OWS’s goals include a reduction in the influence of corporations on politics, more balanced distribution of income, more and better jobs, bank reform (especially to curtail speculative trading by banks), forgiveness of student loan debt or other relief for indebted students, and alleviation of the foreclosure situation. Early on the protesters were mostly young; as the protests grew, however, older activists also became involved. The average age of the protesters was 33, with people in their 20s balanced by people in their 40s. A study based on survey responses at OccupyWallSt.org reported that the protesters were 81.2% White, 6.8% Hispanic, 2.8% Asian, 1.6% Black, and 7.6% identifying as “other.”

The protesters were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011. Protesters turned their focus to occupying banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings, foreclosed homes, and college and university campuses. On December 29, 2012, Naomi Wolf of The Guardian newspaper provided U.S. government documents which revealed that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had monitored Occupy Wall Street through its Joint Terrorism Task Force, despite labeling it a peaceful movement. The New York Times reported in May 2014 that declassified documents showed extensive surveillance and infiltration of OWS-related groups across the country.

The Affordable Care Act

In 2010, Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, initiating the first significant overhaul of the healthcare system since 1965. 

Learning Objectives

Describe the ACA, its main provisions, and the court battles that followed its enactment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of President Obama’s most notable accomplishments during his two terms in office was his comprehensive healthcare reform, which had been a platform during his campaign. 
  • After months of political wrangling and condemnations of the healthcare reform plan, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed and signed into law on March 23, 2010.
  • Its goals were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance, to require that everyone in the United States acquire some form of health insurance, and to lower the costs of healthcare. 
  • Although the plan implemented the market-based reforms that Republicans had supported for years, Republicans refused to vote for it and called numerous times for its repeal. 
  • Discontent over the Affordable Care Act helped the Republicans capture the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections; it also helped spawn the conservative Tea Party movement.
  • The law faced several legal challenges, primarily based on the argument that an individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance was unconstitutional. 

Key Terms

  • Tea Party: A political movement in the United States known for its conservative positions and its role in the Republican Party; the movement opposes government-sponsored universal healthcare, has called for lower taxes, and has called for a reduction of the U.S. national debt and federal budget deficit by reducing government spending. 
  • Religious Freedom Restoration Act: A 1993 United States federal law that “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.”

Healthcare Reforms

One of President Obama’s most notable accomplishments during his two terms in office was his comprehensive healthcare reform, which had been a platform during his campaign. Many of his supporters assumed such reforms would move quickly through Congress, since Democrats had comfortable majorities in both houses, and both Obama and McCain had campaigned on healthcare reform. However, as had occurred years before during President Clinton’s first term, opposition groups saw attempts at reform as an opportunity to put the political brakes on the Obama presidency. After months of political wrangling and condemnations of the healthcare reform plan, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed and signed into law on March 23, 2010.

image

The Affordable Care Act: President Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, as Vice President Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others look on. 

The act, which created the program known as Obamacare, represented the first significant overhaul of the American healthcare system since the passage of Medicaid in 1965. Its goals were to provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance, to require that everyone in the United States acquire some form of health insurance, and to lower the costs of healthcare. The plan, which made use of government funding, created private insurance company exchanges to market various insurance packages to enrollees.

Specifics of the Plan

Obama proposed an expansion of health insurance coverage to cover the uninsured, to cap premium increases, and to allow people to retain their coverage when they leave or change jobs. His proposal was to spend $900 billion over 10 years and include a government insurance plan, also known as the public option, to compete with the corporate insurance sector as a main component to lowering costs and improving quality of health care. It would also make it illegal for insurers to drop sick people or deny them coverage for pre-existing conditions, and require every American to carry health coverage. The plan also includes medical spending cuts and taxes on insurance companies that offer expensive plans.

The final version of the Affordable Care Act includes health-related provisions to take effect over four years, including expanding Medicaid eligibility for people making up to 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL) starting in 2014; subsidizing insurance premiums for people making up to 400% of the FPL ($88,000 for family of four in 2010) so their maximum out-of-pocket payment for annual premiums will be from 2 to 9.5% of income; providing incentives for businesses to provide health care benefits; prohibiting denial of coverage and denial of claims based on pre-existing conditions; establishing health insurance exchanges; prohibiting annual coverage caps; and support for medical research. According to White House and Congressional Budget Office figures, the maximum share of income that enrollees would have to pay would vary depending on their income relative to the federal poverty level.

The costs of these provisions are offset by taxes, fees, and cost-saving measures, such as new Medicare taxes for those in high-income brackets, taxes on indoor tanning, cuts to the Medicare Advantage program in favor of traditional Medicare, and fees on medical devices and pharmaceutical companies. There is also a tax penalty for those who do not obtain health insurance, unless they are exempt due to low income or other reasons. In March of 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the net effect of both laws will be a reduction in the federal deficit by $143 billion over the first decade.

Controversy

Although the plan implemented the market-based reforms that Republicans had supported for years, Republicans refused to vote for it. Following its passage, they called numerous times for its repeal, and more than 24 states sued the federal government to stop its implementation. Discontent over the Affordable Care Act helped the Republicans capture the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. It also helped spawn the Tea Party, a conservative movement focused primarily on limiting government spending and the size of the federal government.

image

The Tea Party movement: Tea Party protesters at the Taxpayer March on Washington, September 12, 2009

The law faced several legal challenges, primarily based on the argument that an individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance was unconstitutional. On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5–4 vote in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that the mandate was constitutional under the U.S. Congress’s taxing authority. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court ruled that “closely-held” for-profit corporations could be exempt on religious grounds under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from regulations adopted under the Affordable Care Act that would have required them to pay for insurance that covered certain contraceptives. In June of 2015, the Court ruled 6-3 in King v. Burwell that subsidies to help individuals and families purchase health insurance were authorized for those doing so on both the federal exchange and state exchanges, not only those purchasing plans “established by the State.”

Policy in the Middle East

While President Obama sharply reduced U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, armed conflicts still continue. 

Learning Objectives

Analyze Obama’s decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the significance of Osama bin Laden’s death

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Early in his presidency, Obama moved to bolster U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan; he announced an increase to U.S. troop levels of 17,000 in February of 2009 and deployed an additional 30,000 military personnel in December.
  • In February of 2013, Obama said the U.S. military would reduce the troop level in Afghanistan from 68,000 to 34,000 U.S. troops by February 2014. In May of that year, Obama announced that U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan were over. 
  • On February 27, 2009, Obama announced that combat operations in Iraq would end within 18 months; on August 19, 2010, the last U.S. combat brigade exited Iraq. 
  • The United States officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but became re-involved in 2014 after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a military offensive in Northern Iraq; many dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue today.
  • Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda, was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 by United States Navy SEALs in a controversial operation carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • In Iraq, 4,475 American soldiers died and 32,220 were wounded; in Afghanistan, the toll through February 2013 was 2,165 dead and 18,230 wounded; it is estimated the total monetary cost of both wars could easily reach $4 trillion.

Key Terms

  • Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: A Salafi jihadist militant group that follows a fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine.
  • Osama bin Laden: The Saudi Arabian founder of al-Qaeda, the organization that claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the United States along with numerous other mass-casualty attacks worldwide.
  • al-Qaeda: A militant Sunni Islamist global organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Afghanistan 

Early in his presidency, Obama moved to bolster U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan. He announced an increase to U.S. troop levels of 17,000 in February of 2009 to “stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” an area he said had not received the “strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” He replaced the military commander in Afghanistan, General David D. McKiernan, with former Special Forces commander Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in May of 2009, indicating that McChrystal’s Special Forces experience would facilitate the use of counterinsurgency tactics in the war. On December 1, 2009, Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 military personnel and proposed to begin troop withdrawals 18 months from that date; this withdrawal took place in July of 2011. In February of 2013, Obama said the U.S. military would reduce the troop level in Afghanistan from 68,000 to 34,000 U.S. troops by February 2014.

In May of 2014, President Obama announced that, for the most part, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan were over. Although a residual force of 9,800 soldiers will remain to continue training the Afghan army, the plan was that by 2016, all U.S. troops will have left the country, except for a small number to defend U.S. diplomatic posts. 

Iraq

On February 27, 2009, Obama announced that combat operations in Iraq would end within 18 months. The Obama administration scheduled the withdrawal of combat troops to be completed by August 2010, decreasing troop’s levels from 142,000 while leaving a transitional force of about 50,000 in Iraq until the end of 2011. On August 19, 2010, the last U.S. combat brigade exited Iraq. Remaining troops transitioned from combat operations to counter-terrorism and the training, equipping, and advising of Iraqi security forces. On August 31, 2010, Obama announced that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was over. On October 21, 2011 President Obama announced that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq in time to be home for the holidays. 

The United States officially withdrew from the country in 2011 but became re-involved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition. In May of 2014, the coalition led by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to win 92 of the 328 seats in parliament, and he seemed poised to begin another term as the country’s ruler. The elections, however, did not stem the tide of violence in the country. In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a radical Islamist militant group consisting of mostly Sunni Muslims and once affiliated with al-Qaeda, launched a military offensive in Northern Iraq and seized control of Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq and Syria. On June 29, 2014, it proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph, the state’s political and religious leader. This elicited another military response from the United States and its allies, and the insurgency and many dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue.

Death of Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden, the founder and head of the Islamist group al-Qaeda, was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 by United States Navy SEALs of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The operation, code-named Operation Neptune’s Spear, was carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was launched from Afghanistan. U.S. military officials said that after the raid, U.S. forces took bin Laden’s body to Afghanistan for identification, then buried him at sea within 24 hours of his death in accordance with Islamic tradition. 

image

Osama bin Laden: Osama bin Laden being interviewed by Hamid Mir, circa March 1997 – May 1998.

Starting with information received in July 2010, intelligence developed by the CIA over the next several months determined what they believed to be the location of bin Laden in a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. CIA head Leon Panetta reported this intelligence to President Obama in March 2011. Meeting with his national security advisers over the course of the next six weeks, Obama rejected a plan to bomb the compound and authorized a “surgical raid” to be conducted by United States Navy SEALs. The operation on May 1, 2011 resulted in the death of bin Laden and the seizure of papers, computer drives, and disks from the compound.

image

Operation Neptune’s Spear, 2011: President Barack Obama along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, in the White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011. 

Al-Qaeda confirmed the death on May 6 with posts made on militant websites, vowing to avenge the killing. Other Pakistani militant groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also vowed retaliation against the U.S. and against Pakistan for not preventing the operation. The raid was supported by over 90% of the American public and was welcomed by the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, and a large number of governments; however, it was condemned by others, including two-thirds of the Pakistani public. Legal and ethical aspects of the killing, such as his not being taken alive despite being unarmed, were questioned by others, including Amnesty International. Also controversial was the decision not to release any photographic or DNA evidence of bin Laden’s death to the public. 

Effects of War

The years of warfare have brought the United States few rewards. The Iraq War caused hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and thousands of military casualties; in the U.S. alone, 4,475 American soldiers died and 32,220 were wounded. In Afghanistan as of 2015, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war. Over 15,000 Afghan national security forces members have been killed, as well as nearly 20,000 civilians; the toll of American soldiers through February 2013 was 2,165 dead and 18,230 wounded. By some estimates, the total monetary cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could easily reach $4 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office believes that the cost of providing medical care for the veterans might climb to $8 billion by 2020.