The second half of Barack Obama's presidency has been something of a historic anomaly. Unlike most two-term presidents, who collapse into scandal or inefficiency after winning re-election, Obama has had an amazingly successful second term, either enacting or helping preserve several very important public policies. That has been especially true over the course of the last year, and Obama's biggest victories in 2015 are amongst the biggest successes of his entire presidency.
Since World War II, most presidents who won reelection ended up having a terrible second term. This is true of George W. Bush, who oversaw the Hurricane Katrina response and the financial meltdown; Bill Clinton, who was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal; Ronald Reagan, who became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal; and Richard Nixon, who, of course, resigned halfway into his second term over Watergate. This phenomenon is so common that historians have a term for it: the second-term curse.
Obama did suffer some serious setbacks in his second term: there was the failure of his gun control and immigration reforms in Congress, the NSA surveillance scandal, the rise of ISIS, and the Democrats' loss of the Senate last year. But despite all of this, Obama has had an astonishingly successful 2015. Let's look back at some of his biggest victories.
The fate of Obama's health care reform efforts has always been hanging on by a thread. The law came within inches of dying in Congress, then narrowly survived a 2012 Supreme Court challenge, then faced serious technical problems after it was launched. In 2015, it ended up in front of the Supreme Court yet again, and had that challenge succeeded, the law would have been effectively gutted.
But it wasn't: In a surprise ruling, the court ruled in favor of the Obama administration's interpretation of the law and, in the process, prevented about 6.5 million people from losing their health insurance. While Obamacare's ultimate effects will take decades to assess, the GOP's seven-year-long effort to destroy the law before it took root officially failed in 2015.
The Iran Deal
The deal struck between the U.S., Iran, and several European countries was, like Obamacare, a truly historic policy that came very close to failing. At one point toward the end of years-long negotiations, Obama said the agreement had less than a 50 percent chance of passing, and given the last 30 years of U.S.-Iranian relations, that wouldn't have been at all surprising.
Somehow, though, negotiators managed to strike an agreement. The deal lifted longstanding economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for limitations on Iran's nuclear program. Equally importantly, it was the first major diplomatic breakthrough for the U.S. and Iran since 1980, when the two countries severed diplomatic relations. Obama promised during his 2008 campaign to improve America's relationships with global adversaries, and he took a big, big step toward that in 2015.
This one kind of got lost in the shuffle, but it's of massive importance to anyone in America who values freedom on the Internet. After years of contentious debate, the Federal Communications Commission ruled in a 3-2 vote that the Internet will be regulated as a public utility, meaning that Internet service providers won't be allowed to give certain customers preferential access to higher bandwidth speeds, or — even more ominously — charge more money to access certain websites.
Obama had long advocated for net neutrality, and with the FCC's stringent ruling, he — and open Internet advocates around the country — won.
Until 2015, Obama had seen very few successes on the climate change front. A sweeping piece of 2009 legislation meant to address global warming died in the Senate, crucial EPA regulations were struck down by the Supreme Court, and almost half of the states in the country have sued the administration over its proposed limits on carbon emissions.
And yet Obama can claim one key victory in the name of fighting global warming. In December, 194 countries agreed on a sweeping plan to fight climate change. To be fair, the agreement itself won't save the world, and the victory is surely not just Obama's. But it laid an important groundwork for reversing the Earth's path toward self-destruction, and a president who has long emphasized the importance of fighting global warming finally had his sentiments validated by almost every other country on the planet.
In 2013, Obama became the first sitting president to come out for marriage equality. Because America's feelings on gay marriage have changed very quickly, It's easy to forget that marriage equality didn't have majority support in the U.S. when Obama announced his "evolved" position on the matter. It was a big political risk for the president, but it paid off two years later, when the Supreme Court voted to legalize gay marriage nationwide.
This will be a huge boon to Obama's legacy. Not only did the court enshrine his preferred policies into law; it also ensured that, over the next few decades, Obama will be seen as a historic and pioneering figure in the history of LGBT rights. It's impossible to say what Obama's overall legacy as a civil rights icon will be, but the strides he's helped make in marriage equality will certainly be a part of it.