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MPH Program in Health Services
More Black History Month Profiles . . .

Barack Hussein Obama II (1961 - )

African American lawyer and politician Barack Obama was the first African American to occupy the White House, which he did for two terms as 44th President of the United States, from 2009-2017. 

When Obama was elected, the United States and world affairs were in chaos. He inherited two wars in the Middle East, the U.S. economy was in tatters, and a British Petroleum oil leak of biblical proportions had soaked the Gulf of Mexico, wreaking havoc on the environment. 

During his terms in office, Obama confronted open hostility to his leadership with poise and grace. He faced off against the former Russian KGB agent and now president Vladimir Putin. A racist billionaire from New York, Donald Trump, spread the false claim that Obama had not been born in America, giving traction to the “birther movement.” Racists attacked Obama for being African American, and attempted to defame and discredit him by labeling him a Muslim (intended as a racist smear), although he is a Christian. The Republican-led Congress was openly defiant of him, and they trashed the tradition of compromise in hopes that the first Black president would fail. Through it all, the American Tea Party lent renewed energy to the fringe who would eventually elect Donald Trump as president, and breathed new life into the so-called “alt-right” (white supremacist/white nationalist) movement. 

Bold and cool, Obama calmly confronted the rabid onslaught of negativism from the propagandistic right-wing media, and accomplished myriad feats during his time in office. He battled the National Rifle Association (NRA), which had rendered spineless politicians cringing, in spite of several horrific mass shootings, including those with children as victims. He faced down domestic terrorism, and directed and oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden (1957-2011), the founder of Al-Qaeda and militant leader of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He led the fight against ISIS while insisting we join with coalition forces, so that the US would not be seen as “the policeman of the world.” He cut unemployment in half, from 10% to 5%. He opened up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and brokered the Iran nuclear deal. He actively addressed climate change, and helped diminish America’s carbon footprint. He doubled Pell Grant funding for low-income students to attend college, raised the minimum wage, and fought for gender equity in pay. LGBTQ rights were strengthened when same sex marriage was legalized under his administration. 

Obama supported the Black Lives Matter movement. His Department of Justice (DOJ) vigorously investigated complaints of police brutality, starting in 2009 under Eric Holder, the first African American to hold the position, and then under Loretta Lynch, another African American, who held the position from 2015 to 2016. Obama also questioned the bloated prison system and the discrimination facing ex-convicts, as pointed out in The New Jim Crow (2010)

Many of President Obama’s achievements have contributed to the health of Americans, whether directly or indirectly. His greatest public health accomplishment, however, was to do what no other president in the history of the United States was able to do, and that is to enact health care reform. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), called Obamacare by those who love and hate it, was passed into law on March 23, 2010 (see Wilkinson, 2010:510; Neiwert, 2017/2018). 

The ACA expanded insurance coverage to roughly 20 million Americans, lowered costs for the 57 million Americans who use Medicare, and made it illegal for insurance companies to increase charges for the sick or deny coverage based on preexisting conditions. Although the ACA is not perfect, and the Trump administration is working to erode its protections, its health impacts have already been significant. Thanks to President Barack Obama, literally millions of Americans are leading longer, healthier lives. 

Author: Dr. Clarence Spigner, Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director

Photo: Former President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, Illinois. Photo by John Gress/Reuters

Sources: 

  • Isabel Wilkinson. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of Americas’ Great Migration. Vintage Books. New York
  • David Neiwert. 2017, 2018. Alt - America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. Verso. London / New York