Cornell Democrats and Republicans assembled in Klarman Auditorium Tuesday to debate one question: Was Barack Obama a failed president?
According to the Speech and Debate Society’s audience poll, the number of attendees who thought the Obama presidency was a failure increased from 56 to 68 percent after the debate.
The number of attendees who thought Obama’s presidency was a success decreased from 44 to 32 percent.
With the two sides using different metrics to measure Obama’s legacy, the debate, hosted by the Cornell Speach and Debate Society, featured a discussion on the very definition of success and failure.
Cornell Republicans argued that Obama’s inability to keep many of his campaign promises is evidence enough to say he had a failed presidency.
“It’s important to first define what it means to be a failure. [We] define failure as being unsuccessful in achieving one’s goals,” said Olivia Corn ’19, president of Cornell Republicans. “Using this definition, we do not believe President Obama met the goals he set out to achieve, so we will be arguing yes, Obama was a failed president.”
Cornell Democrats said they believed that Obama’s economic and foreign policy, among other things, showed he had a successful presidency.
“We find it preposterous to suggest Obama’s presidency was a failure,” said Meghana Bharadwaj ’20, secretary of Cornell Democrats. “We can trace our economic success to the stimulus package of the Obama administration. … On the international stage, we also strongly advocate for President Obama’s record.”
Furthermore, Cornell Republicans repeatedly asserted that the strings of electoral defeats the Democrats suffered during Obama’s presidency was definitive evidence that Obama was a failed president.
“The American people are disappointed in the Democratic party.” Corn said. “At 2008, we had a Democratic president, a Democratic house and a Democratic senate. What do we have now? A Republican president, a Republican house and a Republican senate. … [This] tells you that the people are unhappy with the Obama presidency and they want change.”
Electoral outcomes are not definitive indicators of the competence of a president, the Democrats asserted.
“They want to talk about state legislative seats and parties. We care about the results [delivered] to the American people,” Kevin Kowaleski ‘17, president of Cornell Democrats, said. “Yes, he was not perfect. But he came in with enormous challenges in the domestic and international sphere, and it is hard to imagine that if a president does not succeed fully he must be a failure.”
There was little agreement at the debate and each side contested the validity of statistics and political facts raised by the other.
The Republicans claimed that the unemployment rate was “actually 9.9 percent instead of 4 percent,” at the end of Obama’s term, when underemployment and low labor force participation is taken into account. Democrats challenged this claim.
“The Cornell Republicans talk about how the unemployment statistics do not take into account labor force participation rates,” Kowaleski said. “Such measure has not been used at all. If you were to start such a discussion you will have to go back and redefine unemployment for every president throughout all of American history. You would find much higher numbers.”
The Democrats posited that while insurance premiums did go up as a result of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the premium hike was merely temporary. Republicans contested this proposition.
“I reject the claim that premiums have not increased,” Corn said. “In certain areas premium had jumped 106 percent. And in the 2016–17 fiscal year, [they’re] going to continue to increase by 200 percent.”
ACA “shut down one-sixth of the economy” and abolishing it won’t change the death count, the Republicans claimed. Democrats called such claims “preposterous.”
“First of all, it’s simply completely misleading to say that the ACA shut down one-sixth of the economy,” Kowaleski said. “This is a proposal that … is fairly moderate.”
Kowaleski also added that “the claim that ending Obamacare will not result in more deaths is blatantly false.”
The Democrats weighed in on the economic legacy of the former president to defend his legacy.
“At 2008, our nation was heading toward an economic catastrophe,” Bharadwaj said. “Through billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and state aid, and yes, tax cuts, the stimulus rescued the economy from the brink. The statistics are overwhelmingly in our favor. Under Obama we saw 75 months of consecutive growth, causing unemployment to fall.”
The economic reality is not so idealistic as the Democrats believe it is, Republicans said.
Michael Johns ’20, said that Obama’s campaign to lift up the poor failed “on every single metric.”
“Every president until Obama had at least one year where their country’s GDP grew by at least three percent,” he said. “The nation’s poverty rate increased by 3.5 percent, real house income decreased by three percent and under Obama America’s reliance on food stamps rose to an all time high of 46 million Americans, 13 million more than when Obama took office.”
When it came to the 44th president’s foreign policy, the Republicans believed it was an uncontestable failure.
“Ultimately, one of the most unifying issues for the Republican and Democratic parties coming out of the [Obama] administration, is the failure of [Obama] on foreign policy,” Johns said. “The only country we see better relations with today are Cuba and Iran, both of which still denounce us on the world stage. … [Obama’s] idea of ‘leading from behind’ has … alienated allies and emboldened our enemies.”
The Democrats pointed out that the Republican’s criticism applies not to Obama’s foreign policy specifically but to general trends in U.S. diplomacy upheld by past administrations, both Democrat and Republican.
“I think what [Republicans] debate here is a criticism of U.S. foreign policy for the last 50 [to] 60 years,” Kowaleski said. “That’s an interesting thing to think about, but it’s not relevant to the Obama administration right now.”
Obama led an effective strategy in the Middle East, knocking out “75 percent of ISIS combatants,” the Democrats said. Republicans believed otherwise.
“I find it unbelievable to even try to defend Obama’s Middle Eastern policy,” said Cristian Gonzalez ’20. “If you clearly ask anyone in the Middle East ‘Has Obama bettered your life?’ [the answer] is 100 percent no.”
One component that was notably left out of the conversation was race. Both sides agreed prior to the debate to not engage with Obama’s legacy on the racial relations “because it is a heated issue,” Corn said.
Prof. John Weiss, history, who moderated the debate, was glad that both sides used evidence to support their arguments despite the lack of agreement.
“Listening to the debate, I felt that this debate was taking place in a different world,” Weiss said. “Both sides had respect for evidence, for truth, for logic, in ways that don’t seem to operate in many sectors of the society now. So I had this feeling that I was in the past, and I hope the past will continue.”