Dubbed as ‘the new JFK’ before the 2008 election by Kennedy’s presidential advisor, Theodore Sorensen, Obama is said to be focused the things JFK did: “Hope, a determination to succeed despite the odds, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and confidence in the judgment of the American people.”
From his determined and successful fight for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to his most recent op-ed piece in the Huffington Post in support of passing Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), Obama has shown great interest in and action on inequality.
Official OECD firgures, however, suggest that his administration has not so far been successful in tackling inequality. The Gini coefficient data (both before and after taxation) disclosed so far shows that inequality has (even though at a small rate) risen in the US over the course of the Obama administration.
Although the administration has endeavoured to increase both social and economic inequality, it may be just a bit too early to idolise Obama as the egalitarian warrior fighting the big bad capitalists.
The steps he has taken were very much needed. With a devastating global economic crisis and inherited debt from the previous administration on his shoulders, as well as two houses of Congress that seem never to agree, Obama has done great given the circumstances.
But can we say that he has been groundbreaking? To ask this question is not to disregard his achievements; before even taking office he was compared to leaders who were pioneers of their time, and should be held to equally high standards when we judge his record.
JFK was certainly more determined and sometimes more aggressive in forwarding egalitarian causes. He used executive orders – Executive Order 10925, for example, which introduced affirmative action in employment during the violent civil rights movement era, and laid the groundwork for President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 – that undoubtedly faced criticism incomparable to any that Obama has received.
Of course passing laws backed by strong public support is a desirable aim for the Democratic Party. But for an administration facing a strong Republican opposition in the House of Representatives, it may also be the only way to move forward.
So taking all he has already achieved, as well as the demands of his widely diverse electorate, into account, has Obama achieved the bare minimum that he was expected to? He has faced and is facing many challenges, but his administration presides over a public whose opinion is evermore aware of social inequality. And the social egalitarian aims that he set out to achieve have been achieved in numerous other modern democracies, and can be achieved in the US.
Coming to the very current argument over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (that would ban employment discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity), it seems impossible that a Republican-controlled congress, prepared to take its country to a government shutdown, will willingly pass the act into law. So and executive order may become the only option.
Already having officially documented the support of 110 congress members to use an executive order for the act, Obama’s hesitance (or, in White House lingo, the action being ‘under consideration’) shows that he still must consider his options carefully if he hopes to leave behind a legacy of improved equality in the US, despite what he has already achieved.