Op-ed in Schweiz am Sonntag: What has Barack Obama Brought the World?

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

28 December 2015

Below is the English version of my opinion piece that published Sunday, December 27, 2015, in Schweiz am Sonntag.

The question posed by Schweiz am Sonntag was:
Was hat Barack Obama der Welt gebracht?

What has Barack Obama brought the world?

Here’s my response (also found in German here)

Two of the many characteristics that have impressed me about the Swiss ethos are the long term, chess-like thinking and the understated excellence. Thus, I believe that both what President Obama has accomplished and HOW he has achieved his accomplishments should resonate deeply here in Switzerland. He takes on opportunities and challenges with very long time horizons and, at the same time, makes thoughtful decisions based on what is right for the American people and for the world – and not based on poll numbers or popularity surveys.

It is that thoughtfulness that made me first take notice when I met him at an event in Washington D.C. in the spring of 2005.

“How are you feeling?” the junior Senator from Illinois asked me as he placed his hand on my shoulder and acknowledged my 6-month pregnant belly. In that first conversation the newly sworn-in Senator Barack Obama focused on work-life balance, which impressed me greatly.  I then got a sense of his leadership style as he addressed the broader group and shared his approach to getting things done.  He described that he surveys a wide array of views; brings those insights together to define a vision and a strategy; and then works with the stakeholders to deliver in a laser-focused way on the plan.

Between our conversation, his remarks, and the profound calm that he projected when we were together, I realized that he possessed all of the leadership qualities our country needed then — and still needs today. Little did I realize just how important those skills were, given the perfect storm that was hitting the United States when he was sworn in as President.  In January of 2009, the United States was hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs per month, 16% of Americans were without health insurance, and the United States was dependent on foreign oil for 52% of its energy. At the same time, we were fighting a war in Afghanistan and the threat of Iran gaining nuclear weapons was imminent.

His inaugural address that year included those issues and more as the agenda for his Presidency. Looking back at that speech, I am inspired by how much of it he has delivered – especially if you consider bold lines, such as “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” emphasizing a willingness to go beyond conflict and confrontation towards cooperation and collaboration.  What follows are highlights, but by no means a comprehensive list, of the Obama administration’s accomplishments over the past seven years:

  • A strong start: In his first two weeks on the job, President Obama banned torture as a form of interrogation, signed the law guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work, and initiated the closure of Guantanamo (while still not closed, the President has made and continues to push for progress on this issue).
  • Auto industry crisis: In February of 2009, despite popular sentiment discouraging the decision, he authorized a rescue – recognizing that the ripple effect of major corporate failures would impact the entire region. By 2011, the auto companies repaid the loans extended by the Obama administration and, because of new environmental standards and innovation spurred by the rescue, they and their supply chains are stronger than ever. When I went to an ABB robotics plant ribbon cutting in Michigan in May, 2015, I was struck by the fact that if President Obama hadn’t taken that step in 2009, we wouldn’t be there.
  • Jobs: As a result of his administration’s efforts, the United States has had the longest stretch of private sector job growth in recorded history over the past 69 months with over 13.7 million jobs created, and the unemployment rate has been cut in half compared to 2009.
  • Healthcare: Since the Affordable Care Act (also known as ObamaCare) went into effect, 17 million Americans – more than twice the population of Switzerland – have gained health insurance and, for the first time in history, the percentage of Americans without health insurance is now below 10%. At the same time, health care costs are declining because the President has shifted the focus from reactive “Sick Care” to proactive Health Care.
  • Apprenticeship & Skills: The President has increased a focus on skills development – especially focusing on apprenticeship – as exemplified by $275 million in grants for apprenticeship over the past two years alone.
  • Energy and the Environment: The United States took a prime role in COP21 to get commitments from countries around the globe that will help save and heal our planet.  Recognizing that change needed to start at home, President Obama implemented a creative “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. The result is that the United States is now close to being energy independent and has dramatically increased the utilization of renewable energy. Even the White House has installed solar panels!
  • Iran: The United States spearheaded an agreement to eliminate Iran’s paths to obtaining a nuclear weapon.
  • Cuba: After 50 years, the United States re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba.
  • Trade: With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the United States signed the most far reaching trade agreement in its history. It protects workers, the environment, and guarantees other progressive priorities such as a free and open Internet, anti-corruption, and transparency.
  • Love wins: Marriage equality is now the law in all 50 states.
  • Ebola: With the United States leading a coalition of nations, a potential global pandemic was stopped in its tracks.

President Obama’s many tangible achievements are clear but there is also the intangible. When he came to office in the 2009, President Obama focused on communicating to the world that the United States was a partner in facing the world’s challenges, not a lone actor going its own way, as some believed. In tone-setting speeches early in his term to so many audiences – from researchers at the National Academy of Sciences to the delegates at the United Nations, to students at Cairo University – he delivered the message of the need for global collaboration. And he has acted on those principles – leading coalitions to fight extremism, combat climate change, eradicate disease, and more. Personally, I feel that this may be his greatest achievement of all.

In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama ran on a campaign of hope. His election and re-election showed that hope can win over fear. But hope is not a strategy – it must be followed up with hard and persistent work. President Obama, in his seven years in office, has led an administration that has executed on the hopes for a better nation and a better world.

As we come to the final year of the Administration, we will all be working harder than ever.  As President Obama’s personal representative, I’m excited to work together with the Swiss and Liechtensteiners to do even more to deepen our partnerships to counter violent extremism, grow our economic ties, and further increase understanding and appreciation of our respective cultures and values!