Barack Hussein Obama II served as the 44th President of the United States (2009-2017). Barack Obama’s presidency continued and strengthened the trend of executive-federalism in the United States, where mayors, governors, and presidents set the primary agenda for intergovernmental relations. The White House further centralized American politics through the use of new regulatory and administrative requirements brought about by new federal programs in health care, education, and environmental protection. However, Obama faced considerable resistance to his policies, especially from states governed by the Republican Party. Through the use of lawsuits and administrative bargaining, states demonstrated their continued relevance as a check against federal overreach.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961, Barack Obama’s political career spans institutions of American government. After graduating from Columbia University, he set down roots in Chicago, Illinois, and directed a number of city-wide community organizations. He then attended Harvard Law School, where he served as the president of the influential Harvard Law Review. Returning to Chicago, Obama taught law at the University of Chicago, and practiced as a civil rights attorney.
Obama served in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004, chairing the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee in 2003. As state senator, he successfully sponsored legislation that reformed how the state’s police departments measured racial profiling by local police departments, and developed new regulations the restricted predatory mortgage lending – two issues that would come to dominate his presidency.
The citizens of Illinois sent Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate in 2004. His surprise win catapulted him to national attention, which was further heightened by his delivery of the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. Three years later, he announced his candidacy for president. The primary contest split the Democratic Party in two. On June 7, 2008, Hillary Clinton withdrew. Months later, Obama defeated John McCain to become the first African-American to become president.
The executive-centered turn in American federalism was revealed by three tendencies during the Obama administration: the federal government relied on state and local governments to implement major federal programs; White House officials exercised political influence on federal, state, and local agencies responsible for administering intergovernmental programs; and partisan opponents promoted state-level resistance to federal policy as a leading strategy to malign the president’s political legacy.
Confronting the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression, in 2009 a Democratic Congress delegated authority to the Obama administration for managing the federal government’s stimulus spending. In order to disburse new monies quickly, the presidency was obligated to work with state and local officials to identify areas most in need of supplementary funding. Of the $787 billion Congress authorized as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or “stimulus,” more than a third was sent directly to state and local governments. Representing the largest influx of federal cash to states and localities since the Great Depression, most funding helped to maintain spending for public schools, local policing, and medical care. While federal aid for recovery and reinvestment was short-lived, the administration received broad leeway to direct new spending in line with the president’s preferences in areas such as high-speed rail expansion, environmental protection, and education reform. The stimulus contained a new $5-billion grant competition, Race to the Top, which provided funding to local and state education departments if they chose to expand school choice (e.g., charter schools), adopt Common Core standards, and/or use data-driven performance standards to evaluate teachers.
The Obama administration also used innovative carrots and sticks to move policy in collaboration with state governments. In the absence of national political support, Obama’s strategy was to leverage intergovernmental flexibility in order to encourage state and local participation in key presidential initiatives. The administration worked with governors to manage the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana in over half the states. The Department of Justice negotiated consent decrees between local police agencies and civil rights groups to reform local police tactics and training. After Congress failed to pass a new energy and climate-change reform bill, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented the president’s “Clean Power Plan” without a change in the 1970s’ era law. As a way to secure compliance with new carbon-emissions reductions, the EPA imposed reduction targets that varied for each state. State environment and transportation officials were encouraged to negotiate with federal agencies on how best to achieve those goals and to set state-specific performance requirements.
The president’s namesake domestic achievement, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), or “Obamacare,” was the largest overhaul of the nation’s health-care system since the 1960s. The Supreme Court struck down a major provision of the law — one that would have required states to enroll more citizens in Medicaid (a jointly funded program between states and the federal government). Consequently, the Obama administration adopted a variety of administrative techniques to encourage states to expand Medicaid and adopt new health insurance “exchanges.” States could choose to adopt their own insurance market, partner with the federal government, or outsource responsibility to the federal government to manage a “federally-facilitated” exchange. The administration also granted numerous Section 1115 “demonstration waivers,” which allowed states to ignore or modify federal regulations with presidential permission. These waivers allowed states to forgo federal requirements, such as standards for minimum care, access to reproductive medicine, and annual premium increases. In return, states expanded patient eligibility for Medicaid, advancing the president’s goals for health reform. As a result, residents in each state have access to new insurance plans, while as of early 2019, only 36 states had expanded Medicaid.
Obama did not have a specific agenda for federalism. As a former community organizer, the president celebrated the efforts of grassroots democracy and supported governors and mayors who used their local power actively and in line with the president’s beliefs. Facing divided government for six of his eight years in office, Obama motivated supporters with his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, which justified further policy change through executive orders and new regulatory standards. States and their attorneys general challenged many of these initiatives in court, including essential requirements of the ACA, federal guidelines permitting transgender restroom access, and the president’s use of “prosecutorial discretion” to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States under the age of 16 (often called “dreamers”). Outside the courtroom, some states turned down federal money for policies associated with the president (e.g., Medicaid), and reversed policies once the president came out in support of them (e.g., Common Core).
For many modern presidents, their effect on the federal system is dominated by changes enacted in the federal budget and reform of the federal grant-in-aid system. This was the presidential impulse behind Richard M. Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s “New Federalism” agendas, and Bill Clinton’s “New Partnership.”
Obama’s presidency is unique to the extent that these traditional methods of “fiscal federalism” mattered very little to his overall influence on the federal system. In the future, as government budgets are increasingly dominated by mandatory entitlement spending, and as Congressional politics is wracked by partisan gridlock, we might expect Obama’s successors to take a similar approach in intergovernmental politics — one dominated by administrative innovations at the top and legal adversarialism at the bottom. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, continued to rely on waivers, regulatory preemptions, and direct orders from the White House to move policy in states and localities. In return, Democrats in states and cities have taken their cues from Obama’s former opponents to mobilize their own resistance to presidential overreach. The tensions at the heart of federalism — equality versus diversity, national unity versus local control — are very much alive in the twenty-first century.
Paul Manna and Laura L. Ryan, “Competitive Grants and Educational Federalism: President Obama’s Race to the Top Program in Theory and Practice,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 41:3 (June 2011): 522-546; Paul Nolette, “State Litigation during the Obama Administration: Diverging Agendas in an Age of Polarized Politics,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 44:3 (July 2014): 451-474; Frank J. Thompson and Michael K. Gusmano, “The Administrative Presidency and Fractious Federalism: The Case of Obamacare,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 44:3 (July 2014): 426-450; and Shanna Rose and Cynthia J. Bowling, eds., “The Obama Administration and American Federalism,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 46:3 (Summer 2016): Special Issue.