March/ April 2012

Obama’s Top 50

By Paul Glastris, Ryan Cooper,
and Siyu Hu

1. Passed Health Care Reform:
After five presidents over a century
failed to create universal health
insurance, signed the Affordable
Care Act (2010). It will cover 32 million
uninsured Americans beginning in
2014 and mandates a suite of
experimental measures to cut health
care cost growth, the number one
cause of America’s long-term fiscal

2. Passed the Stimulus:
Signed $787 billion American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act in
2009 to spur economic growth amid
greatest recession since the Great
Depression. Weeks after stimulus
went into effect, unemployment claims
began to subside. Twelve months
later, the private sector began
producing more jobs than it was losing,
and it has continued to do so for
twenty-three straight months, creating
a total of nearly 3.7 million new
private-sector jobs.

3. Passed Wall Street Reform:
Signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street
Reform and Consumer Protection Act
(2010) to re-regulate the financial
sector after its practices caused the
Great Recession. The new law tightens
capital requirements on large banks
and other financial institutions,
requires derivatives to be sold on
clearinghouses and exchanges,
mandates that large banks provide
“living wills” to avoid chaotic
bankruptcies, limits their ability to trade
with customers’ money for their own
profit, and creates the Consumer
Financial Protection Bureau (now
headed by Richard Cordray) to crack
down on abusive lending products
and companies.

4. Ended the War in Iraq:
Ordered all U.S. military forces out
of the country. Last troops left on
December 18, 2011.

5. Began Drawdown of War in
From a peak of 101,000 troops in June
2011, U.S. forces are now down to
91,000, with 23,000 slated to leave by
the end of summer 2012. According to
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta,
the combat mission there will be over
by next year.

6. Eliminated Osama bin laden: In
2011, ordered special forces raid of
secret compound in Abbottabad,
Pakistan, in which the terrorist leader
was killed and a trove of al-Qaeda
documents was discovered.

7. Turned Around U.S. Auto
In 2009, injected $62 billion
in federal money (on top of $13.4
billion in loans from the Bush
administration) into ailing GM and
Chrysler in return for equity stakes and
agreements for massive restructuring.
Since bottoming out in 2009, the auto
industry has added more than 100,000
jobs. In 2011, the Big Three
automakers all gained market share
for the first time in two decades. The
government expects to lose $16 billion
of its investment, less if the price of the
GM stock it still owns increases.

8. Recapitalized Banks: In the midst
of financial crisis, approved
controversial Treasury Department
plan to lure private capital into the
country’s largest banks via “stress
tests” of their balance sheets and a
public-private fund to buy their “toxic”
assets. Got banks back on their feet at
essentially zero cost to the government.

9. Repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
Ended 1990s-era restriction and
formalized new policy allowing gays
and lesbians to serve openly in the
military for the first time.

10. Toppled Moammar Gaddafi:
In March 2011, joined a coalition of
European and Arab governments in
military action, including air power and
naval blockade, against Gaddafi
regime to defend Libyan civilians and
support rebel troops. Gaddafi’s forty-
two-year rule ended when the dictator
was overthrown and killed by rebels on
October 20, 2011. No American lives
were lost.

11. Told Mubarak to Go:
On February 1, 2011, publicly called
on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
to accept reform or step down, thus
weakening the dictator’s position and
putting America on the right side of the
Arab Spring. Mubarak ended thirty-
year rule when overthrown on
February 11.

12. Reversed Bush Torture
Two days after taking office,
nullified Bush-era rulings that had
allowed detainees in U.S. custody to
undergo certain “enhanced”
interrogation techniques considered
inhumane under the Geneva
Conventions. Also released the secret
Bush legal rulings supporting the use
of these techniques.

13. Improved America’s Image
With new policies, diplomacy,
and rhetoric, reversed a sharp decline
in world opinion toward the U.S. (and
the corresponding loss of “soft power”)
during the Bush years. From 2008 to
2011, favorable opinion toward the
United States rose in ten of fifteen
countries surveyed by the Pew Global
Attitudes Project, with an average
increase of 26 percent.

14. Kicked Banks Out of Federal
Student Loan Program, Expanded
Pell Grant Spending:
As part of the 2010 health care reform
bill, signed measure ending the
wasteful decades-old practice of
subsidizing banks to provide college
loans. Starting July 2010 all students
began getting their federal student
loans directly from the federal
government. Treasury will save $67
billion over ten years, $36 billion of
which will go to expanding Pell Grants
to lower-income students.

15. Created Race to the Top:
With funds from stimulus, started $4.35
billion program of competitive grants
to encourage and reward states for
education reform.

16. Boosted Fuel Efficiency
Released new fuel
efficiency standards in 2011 that will
nearly double the fuel economy for
cars and trucks by 2025.

17. Coordinated International
Response to Financial Crisis
To keep world economy out of
recession in 2009 and 2010, helped
secure from G-20 nations more than
$500 billion for the IMF to provide lines
of credit and other support to
emerging market countries, which
kept them liquid and avoided crises
with their currencies.

18. Passed Mini Stimuli:
To help families hurt by the recession
and spur the economy as stimulus
spending declined, signed series of
measures (July 22, 2010; December
17, 2010; December 23, 2011) to
extend unemployment insurance and
cut payroll taxes.

19. Began Asia “Pivot”: In 2011,
reoriented American military and
diplomatic priorities and focus from the
Middle East and Europe to the Asian-
Pacific region. Executed multipronged
strategy of positively engaging China
while reasserting U.S. leadership in the
region by increasing American military
presence and crafting new commercial,
diplomatic, and military alliances with
neighboring countries made
uncomfortable by recent Chinese

20. Increased Support for
With so many soldiers
coming home from Iraq and Iran with
serious physical and mental health
problems, yet facing long waits for
services, increased 2010 Department
of Veterans Affairs budget by 16
percent and 2011 budget by 10
percent. Also signed new GI bill
offering $78 billion in tuition assistance
over a decade, and provided multiple
tax credits to encourage businesses to
hire veterans.

21. Tightened Sanctions on Iran:
In effort to deter Iran’s nuclear
program, signed Comprehensive Iran
Sanctions, Accountability, and
Divestment Act (2010) to punish firms
and individuals who aid Iran’s
petroleum sector. In late 2011 and
early 2012, coordinated with other
major Western powers to impose
sanctions aimed at Iran’s banks and
with Japan, South Korea, and China to
shift their oil purchases away from Iran.

Created Conditions to Begin
Closing Dirtiest Power Plants:
EPA restrictions on mercury and toxic
pollution, issued in December 2011,
likely to lead to the closing of between
sixty-eight and 231 of the nation’s
oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power
plants. Estimated cost to utilities: at
least $11 billion by 2016. Estimated
health benefits: $59 billion to $140
billion. Will also significantly reduce
carbon emissions and, with other
regulations, comprises what’s been
called Obama’s “stealth climate policy.”

23. Passed Credit Card Reforms:
Signed the Credit Card Accountability,
Responsibility, and Disclosure Act
(2009), which prohibits credit card
companies from raising rates without
advance notification, mandates a
grace period on interest rate
increases, and strictly limits overdraft
and other fees.

24. Eliminated Catch-22 in Pay
Equality Laws:
Signed Lilly Ledbetter
Fair Pay Act in 2009, giving women
who are paid less than men for the
same work the right to sue their
employers after they find out about the
discrimination, even if that
discrimination happened years ago.
Under previous law, as interpreted by
the Supreme Court in Ledbetter v.
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the
statute of limitations on such suits ran
out 180 days after the alleged
discrimination occurred, even if the
victims never knew about it.

25. Protected Two Liberal Seats on
the U.S. Supreme Court:
Nominated and obtained
confirmation for Sonia Sotomayor,
the first Hispanic and third woman
to serve, in 2009;
and Elena Kagan,
the fourth woman to serve, in 2010.
They replaced David Souter
and John Paul Stevens, respectively.

26. Improved Food Safety System:
In 2011, signed FDA Food Safety
Modernization Act, which boosts the
Food and Drug Administration’s
budget by $1.4 billion and expands its
regulatory responsibilities to include
increasing number of food inspections,
issuing direct food recalls, and
reviewing the current food safety
practices of countries importing
products into America.

27. Achieved New START Treaty:
Signed with Russia (2010) and won
ratification in Congress (2011) of
treaty that limits each country to 1,550
strategic warheads (down from 2,200)
and 700 launchers (down from more
than 1,400), and reestablished and
strengthened a monitoring and
transparency program that had lapsed
in 2009, through which each country
can monitor the other.

28. Expanded National Service: Signed
Serve America Act in 2009, which
authorized a tripling of the size of
AmeriCorps. Program grew 13 percent
to 85,000 members across the country
by 2012, when new House GOP
majority refused to appropriate more
funds for further expansion.

29. Expanded Wilderness and
Watershed Protection: Signed
Omnibus Public Lands Management
Act (2009), which designated more
than 2 million acres as wilderness,
created thousands of miles of
recreational and historic trails, and
protected more than 1,000 miles of

30. Gave the FDA Power to
Regulate Tobacco:
Signed the
Family Smoking Prevention and
Tobacco Control Act (2009). Nine
years in the making and long resisted
by the tobacco industry, the law
mandates that tobacco manufacturers
disclose all ingredients, obtain FDA
approval for new tobacco products,
and expand the size and prominence
of cigarette warning labels, and bans
the sale of misleadingly labeled “light”
cigarette brands and tobacco
sponsorship of entertainment events.

31. Pushed Federal Agencies to Be
Green Leaders:
Issued executive
order in 2009 requiring all federal
agencies to make plans to soften their
environmental impacts by 2020.
Goals include 30 percent reduction in
fleet gasoline use, 26 percent boost
in water efficiency, and sustainability
requirements for 95 percent of all
federal contracts. Because federal
government is the country’s single
biggest purchaser of goods and
services, likely to have ripple effects
throughout the economy for years to

32. Passed Fair Sentencing Act:
Signed 2010 legislation that reduces
sentencing disparity between crack
versus powder cocaine from 100 to 1
to 18 to 1.

33. Trimmed and Reoriented
Missile Defense
: Cut the Reagan-
era “Star Wars” missile defense
budget, saving $1.4 billion in 2010,
and canceled plans to station
antiballistic missile systems in Poland
and the Czech Republic in favor of sea-
based defense plan focused on Iran
and North Korea.

34. Began Post-Post-9/11 Military
After winning agreement
from congressional Republicans and
Democrats in summer 2011 budget
deal to reduce projected defense
spending by $450 billion, proposed
new DoD budget this year with cuts of
that size and a new national defense
strategy that would shrink ground
forces from 570,000 to 490,000 over
the next ten years while increasing
programs in intelligence gathering and

35. Let Space Shuttle Die and
Killed Planned Moon Mission
Allowed the expensive ($1 billion per
launch), badly designed, dangerous
shuttle program to make its final
launch on July 8, 2011. Cut off funding
for even more bloated and problem-
plagued Bush-era Constellation
program to build moon base in favor of
support for private-sector low-earth
orbit ventures, research on new rocket
technologies for long-distance manned
flight missions, and unmanned space
exploration, including the largest
interplanetary rover ever launched,
which will investigate Mars’s potential
to support life.

36. Invested Heavily in Renewable
As part of the 2009
stimulus, invested $90 billion, more
than any previous administration, in
research on smart grids, energy
efficiency, electric cars, renewable
electricity generation, cleaner coal,
and biofuels.

37. Crafting Next-Generation
School Tests
: Devoted $330 million in
stimulus money to pay two consortia of
states and universities to create
competing versions of new K-12
student performance tests based on
latest psychometric research. New
tests could transform the learning
environment in vast majority of public
school classrooms beginning in 2014.

38. Cracked Down on Bad For-
Profit Colleges:
In effort to fight
predatory practices of some for-profit
colleges, Department of Education
issued “gainful employment”
regulations in 2011 cutting off
commercially focused schools from
federal student aid funding if more
than 35 percent of former students
aren’t paying off their loans and/or if
the average former student spends
more than 12 percent of his or her
total earnings servicing student loans.

39. Improved School Nutrition: In
coordination with Michelle Obama,
signed Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
in 2010 mandating $4.5 billion
spending boost and higher nutritional
and health standards for school
lunches. New rules based on the law,
released in January, double the
amount of fruits and vegetables and
require only whole grains in food
served to students.

40. Expanded Hate Crimes
: Signed Hate Crimes
Prevention Act (2009), which expands
existing hate crime protections to
include crimes based on a victim’s
sexual orientation, gender, or
disability, in addition to race, color,
religion, or national origin.

41. Avoided Scandal:
As of November 2011, served longer
than any president in decades without
a scandal, as measured by the
appearance of the word “scandal” (or
lack thereof) on the front page of the
Washington Post.

42. Brokered Agreement for
Speedy Compensation to Victims
of Gulf Oil Spill: Though lacking
statutory power to compel British
Petroleum to act, used moral
authority of his office to convince
oil company to agree in 2010 to a
$20 billion fund to compensate
victims of the Deepwater Horizon
oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
$6.5 billion already paid out without
lawsuits. By comparison, it took nearly
two decades for plaintiffs in the Exxon
Valdez Alaska oil spill case to receive
$1.3 billion.

43. Created
Web site run by independent board of
inspectors general looking for fraud
and abuse in stimulus spending,
provides public with detailed
information on every contract funded
by $787 billion American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act. Thanks partly to this
transparency, board has uncovered
very little fraud, and Web site has
become national model: “The stimulus
has done more to promote
transparency at almost all levels of
government than any piece of
legislation in recent memory,” reports
Governing magazine.

44. Pushed Broadband Coverage:
Proposed and obtained in 2011
Federal Communications Commission
approval for a shift of $8 billion in
subsidies away from landlines and
toward broadband Internet for lower-
income rural families.

45. Expanded Health Coverage for
Signed 2009 Children’s Health
Insurance Authorization Act, which
allows the Children’s Health Insurance
Program (CHIP) to cover health care
for 4 million more children, paid for by
a tax increase on tobacco products.

46. Recognized the Dangers of
Carbon Dioxide
In 2009, EPA declared carbon dioxide
a pollutant, allowing the agency to
regulate its production.

47. Expanded Stem Cell Research:
In 2009, eliminated the Bush-era
restrictions on embryonic stem cell
research, which shows promise in
treating spinal injuries, among many
other areas.

48. Provided Payment to Wronged
Minority Farmers:
In 2009, signed Claims Resolution Act,
which provided $4.6 billion in funding
for a legal settlement with black and
Native American farmers who the
government cheated out of loans and
natural resource royalties in years past.

49. Helped South Sudan Declare
Helped South Sudan Declare
Independence: Appointed two envoys
to Sudan and personally attended a
special UN meeting on the area.
Through U.S. ambassador to the
United Nations Ambassador Susan
Rice, helped negotiate a peaceful split
in 2011.

50. Killed the F-22:
In 2009, ended further purchases of
Lockheed Martin single-seat, twin-
engine, fighter aircraft, which cost
$358 million apiece. Though the
military had 187 built, the plane has
never flown a single combat mission.
Eliminating it saved $4 billion.

Paul Glastris, Ryan Cooper, and Siyu
Hu collaborated on this article. Glastris
is the editor in chief of the Washington
Monthly. Cooper and Hu are interns at
the magazine.