- Editors (ED)
Eight years ago, Barack Obama walked into the White House after raising the hopes of a country that an alternative to the brutality of the Bush years, and the desultory character of American politics more broadly, was possible. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
From his earliest days in office to his last, Obama as president was light years away from Obama on the campaign stump. This is the reality of governance, of course. And the obstructionism he faced from Republicans and the Right was historically unprecedented. But Obama’s presidency will be remembered for the tremendous opportunities he squandered and the progressive national moods he refused, or was incapable of, capitalizing on.
At the moments when Americans were ready for bold action, he insisted on remaining “reasonable”; in response to ever-expanding inequality and deepening misery, Obama offered small-bore technocratic fixes.
The progress he was able to achieve should not be ignored. But it’s impossible to look at Obama’s list of achievements without being struck by how few and how small they are compared to what might have been.
On the final day of Obama’s presidency, Jacobin contributors assess his legacy on a range of issues.
In the fight against the GOP’s assault on health care, we will need a more powerful weapon than Obamacare.
Over his two terms, Barack Obama signed a number of major health-care bills into law, most significantly the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), though also more recently the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016. Though the GOP’s coming assault on health care is likely to be heartless — and though resistance to it must be resolute — we would be better served by a sober assessment of Obama’s health-care legacy than by triumphalist acclaim of such laws.
The ACA, passed without any Republican votes, has had a significant impact on health-care access: mainly through the expansion of Medicaid together with the subsidization of private health insurance, it achieved a partial reduction in the number of the uninsured, from 48.6 million in 2010 to 28.4 million in early 2016 (still an enormous number!), according to National Health Interview Survey estimates. Other provisions of the law, like those eliminating co-payments for some preventive care or banning preexisting condition discrimination, benefited many more.
Yet those who trumpet such gains while scratching their heads at the law’s relative unpopularity are missing the crux of the problem: despite President Obama’s reforms, the health-care system continues to fail much of the nation.
One example: in Canada, physicians and hospitals are free when you use them. In the United States, co-payments and deductibles for such care (which average $7,474 for a family marketplace silver plan) often rations medical care by economic status. Studies have shown that those with inadequate insurance avoid going to the ER even when they need it, delay care when in the throes of a heart attack, and face financial strain and sometimes bankruptcy when sickness strikes. Such injustices preceded the ACA, but because the law failed to fix them, it is blamed — fairly or unfairly — for their persistence.
More recently, Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law, which among other things incrementally reduced the rigor of the Food and Drug Administration’s drug approval process. These provisions were tantamount to a generous handout to the pharmaceutical industry, which had lobbied heavily for the bill. Not surprisingly, it also did precisely nothing about sky-high drug costs.
This is a decidedly mixed legacy. The gains of the ACA are evident: indeed, for some of those who gained coverage, it was lifesaving. Its shortcomings, however, are equally evident: some twenty-eight million uninsured, persistently high cost-sharing, inequalities in access, uncontrolled drug prices, and so forth.
Of course, Republican designs, whether repeal and/or modification, will only make things worse. When that happens, we should dub the resultant fiasco GOP-Care, and blast it for all its injustices. However, it should also be clear that “Let’s go back to 2016” will not be a winning campaign slogan for Democrats in coming elections: people want — and deserve — real change.
To defeat GOP-Care, we will need a more powerful weapon than Obamacare. For this reason, the time to push for universal single-payer health care is right now.
President Obama used executive action to make unprecedented progress on LGBT rights — which is why these rights are so vulnerable in Trump’s hands.
President Obama was remarkably successful in implementing his LGBT agenda. Some of his cornerstone achievements reflect a liberal multicultural agenda, emphasizing queer and trans inclusion in institutions which may not be the best vehicles for liberation.
During his first two years in office, when congressional cooperation was possible, the president supported and signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The former added sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate crimes law, imposing additional criminal penalties in crimes motivated by anti-LGBT animus; the latter allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
While many LGBT advocates welcomed these developments for their expressive value — finally there were LGBT protections in federal law — critics, myself included, scolded the administration for promoting LGBT inclusion without accounting for the effects that longer prison sentences and easier militarization would have on other marginalized communities. Policies of uplift must not be lost in pursuit of inclusion.
During his tenure, President Obama also famously “evolved” on the question of gay marriage, having stated his opposition during the 2008 campaign but creeping toward overt support in 2012 (with the help of Joe Biden). He directed the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011, leaving House Republicans to mount a legal defense in United States v. Windsor.
Behind the scenes, President Obama directed the vast armature of the administrative state to support LGBT inclusion in unprecedented ways, including a major effort to provide legal protections for transgender Americans at work and in schools. Through executive orders and administrative guidance, President Obama expanded the definition of sex-based discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity at the Department of Justice, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and US Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
This type of regulation made it easier for transgender litigants to vindicate their rights, including trans students seeking access to gender-appropriate facilities and trans people seeking insurance coverage for gender affirming care. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was particularly aggressive in pursuit of LGBT rights, making it a stated priority in its 2013–16 Strategic Enforcement Plan, and issuing landmark decisions for queer and trans protections in the workplace.
But because it was conducted through executive action, this progress will be particularly vulnerable come January 20. Of course legal protections for vulnerable LGBT people should be pursued in any way possible, but President Obama did not fight hard enough to enshrine them in federal statutes.
For example, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect LGBT workers from employment discrimination, has languished for twenty-three years. Despite this failing, there has been a bright spot in these closing hours of the Obama administration. This week, President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, enabling her to walk out of prison in May of 2017, and cementing his LGBT legacy.
Only Trump has the potential to challenge Obama’s title as deporter-in-chief.
President Obama’s 2014 use of executive power to grant relief from deportation, work permits, and the ability to travel for young immigrants in the United States was characteristic of much of his presidency: he protected and lifted up of some immigrants while criminalizing and dismissing others — often people who were part of the same family.
He granted relief for immigrant children through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), one of the most significant federal actions for immigrant communities in many years. That same day, however, he also announced that the Secure Communities program to be replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), and that the priorities for deportation were shifting, making people who arrived or were ordered deported after January 2014 priorities for deportation.
Obama’s ending of Secure Communities was an acknowledgement that there were significant questions about due process in the program. But PEP has led to continued collusion between local police and immigration enforcement, continued use of immigration detainer orders by local police after arresting immigrants for minor crimes, and more pressure from the administration for localities refusing to participate. Similarly, although the shift in priorities meant that those who arrived to the country before 2014 were not a priority for deportation, that shift also led to the immigration raids on women and children at the start of 2016.
President Obama’s emphasis on the concept of deporting “felons not families” has led to the criminalization and deportation of immigrants at the highest rates in US history, without protections or oversight for violations of policy or people’s civil rights. Immigration enforcement agencies, particularly Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been allowed to act as rogue agencies, while the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights and civil liberties office has no teeth, leading to violations of immigrants’ due process and civil rights that rarely result in more than internal investigations and memoranda that go nowhere.
Even under the reforms in the Department of Justice, immigrants have been sold short. One moment where this contradiction was highlighted was in October 2015, when the president announced the release of six thousand federal prisoners in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and provide federal relief to drug offenders who have received harsh sentences, and two thousand of those people were deported instead of being reunited with their communities.
This is at the same time that the Department of Justice is the agency that prosecutes the most Latinxs, incarcerating them with charges of “illegal entry” and “illegal re-entry,” which literally means being charged for crossing the border or crossing the border after being deported.
This is far from an exhaustive list of Obama’s policies that have impacted immigrant communities. There are many immigrants who are thankful for opportunities that he has created. But on immigration, President Obama will be remembered as deporter-in-chief. Today, he hands over a massive, brutal immigration enforcement machinery to a man who promises to challenge Obama for this title.
Labor and Trade
In the face of entrenched corporate power, President Obama promoted symbolic equality over material gains for the working class.
Obama might have done more to bend the tone of Washington than change actual policy, but his tenure is a lesson in what a president can and can’t do for working people.
When he took office at the zenith of the financial crisis, Obama’s initial moves to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs, including the federal stimulus package and Wall Street bailout, could have been opportunities to reshape the relationship between the state and private sector and to tackle income inequality in the long term. But thanks to bipartisan resistance in Congress, the big banks were never held to account; the stimulus, though a significant social investment, petered out; and no other mass jobs initiatives ever emerged after the “recovery” had sufficiently resuscitated the financial system.
But aspirations toward a New Deal–type stimulus faded fast. The Occupy Wall Street movement’s cry for economic justice picked up the momentum and changed the way people view the social dimensions of inequality and the role of protest in civic life. Congress then proved useless in failing to push through even modest investments in infrastructure, restoring funding for basic welfare programs, or making health-care reform truly equitable for working-class people instead of an insurance industry racket.
The squelching of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have eased the unionization process, further constrained efforts to build workplace democracy. Obama never lifted a finger for the act in the early days of his presidency, when it was still politically possible.
Two parallel failures of Obama’s approach toward globalization hurt labor materially and politically. First, the collapse of immigration reform efforts, which only further entrenched a permanent underclass of undocumented workers. Additionally, the perpetuation of the warped neoliberal trade policy that has devastated working-class households who previously enjoyed a modicum of upward mobility.
Trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership revealed Obama’s myopic approach to addressing deep destabilization across the workforce — the evaporation of core, decent-paying industries that had supported communities for generations, and the expansion of poverty-wage, unstable, and precarious service jobs.
The administration’s reluctance to confront these disruptions provoked a massive backlash against “free trade” and globalization as abandoned workers saw their Democratic representatives allow corporations to drive down wages, undermine labor standards inside and outside US borders, and essentially write the rules of the global economy themselves.
One area where Obama did make meaningful changes was also, sadly, the easiest to roll back.
Through his executive power, he expanded labor protections for tens of thousands of federal contractors, including wage hikes, paid sick leave, and fair-pay rules. The Labor Department extended minimum-wage protections to home-care workers under new administrative guidelines. But those might be rapidly unraveled by conservative lawmakers and Trump, both hell-bent on dismantling Obama’s regulatory actions.
Similarly, the Labor Department’s overhaul of the eligibility threshold for low-income salaried workers was set to boost the wages of millions nationwide, but are now disintegrating with court challenges and an incoming pro-business administration.
Rulings at the National Labor Relations Board boosted collective-bargaining rights for contractors and graduate student workers, and helped advance organizing efforts for fast-food franchise workers. But these measures could crumble when the new NLRB under Trump veers rightward.
But many major changes in labor policy realized under Obama happened on the state and local level, like the proliferation of paid sick leave laws in states and cities in the past few years. And Occupy’s legacy continued in the streets with campaigns like the Fight for 15, which brought precarious service workers into the national spotlight, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which thwarted the corporate school-reform coalition that Democrats championed.
None of these achievements should be credited to the Obama White House, but they’re surrounded by the civic momentum generated with his election, and now may outlast his administration through movements that have learned to radically depart from the liberal centrist elite — an establishment that ultimately crumpled in the election.
That Obama will be succeeded by such an outrageously regressive, racist regime reflects the structural inequalities that no president could begin to dismantle, since they are tied to a neoliberal global economic structure. But in many ways Obama failed culturally to grapple with those injustices, retreating instead into the safer sphere of promoting symbolic equality without material equity. Fighting those inequalities requires not technocratic tinkering in Washington but enlisting local communities through organizing in workplaces, classrooms, and communities.
Obama promised to reverse the growth of the surveillance state. He did the opposite.
President Obama will go down in history as the man who helped entrench history’s largest and most powerful surveillance state, providing it with a liberal legitimacy that left it largely immune from criticism during his two terms. As President Trump takes the reins of that surveillance state’s power in whatever terrifying ways he chooses, we should remember that it was Obama who paved the way for him.
Obama has often been painted as a disappointing president, one who reached for the stars but ultimately, whether due to Republican obstructionism or the disappointing realities of governing, fell short. In the area of state surveillance, however, Obama didn’t just fall short of progressive hopes — he went in the opposite direction.
Obama built his career opposing the Patriot Act and Bush-era secrecy. He made this opposition a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, promising “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime . . . No more ignoring the law when it is convenient.”
The first sign of his waning commitment came three months after a glowing Times op-ed declared him potentially the first civil libertarian president, when he broke a campaign promise and voted for a bill expanding government surveillance and granting immunity to telecommunications companies who helped Bush spy on Americans.
Upon becoming president, the already vast surveillance powers of the United States have expanded. By 2010, the NSA was collecting 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other types of communications. By 2012, XKeyscore — which sweeps up “everything a user typically does on the internet” — was storing as much as forty-one billion records in thirty days. This gargantuan volume of data has the ironic effect of making it harder to detect security threats.
The use of secret laws — hidden from public eyes and often related to surveillance activities — shot up under Obama. The administration tried (and failed) to force Apple to insert security flaws in its phones, to give law enforcement a potential “back door” around encryption.
It extended controversial Patriot Act provisions year after year. Less than a week before Donald Trump, a man he has called “unfit” for office, took power, Obama expanded the NSA’s power to share its data with other agencies. Meanwhile, the FBI is paying Best Buy employees to snoop through your computer.
Where there have been privacy wins on Obama’s watch, they have largely been inadvertent. The NSA collects a much smaller proportion of Americans’ phone records today than it did eleven years ago because cell phone use has exploded. Furthermore, the USA Freedom Act passed in 2015, ending bulk collection of US phone records (only of phone records, it must be said), something Obama tried to claim as part of his legacy in his farewell speech.
But this would not have happened — and the scope of US surveillance would have stayed secret — had it not been for the disclosures by Edward Snowden, whom Obama criticized and refused to pardon in the waning days of his administration, even as he claimed to “welcome” a debate on surveillance.
All of this happened under a liberal former constitutional law professor. The question must be asked: What will follow under Trump?
On climate change, Obama showed the best of what environmental advocates can expect from a Democratic administration.
Forecasting Barack Obama’s final legacy on climate in 2010 would have been a bleak exercise. A year prior, UN climate talks in Copenhagen collapsed, thanks in part to the United States’s and other G-20 nations’ intransigence. The only whisper of an outcome — to by some means keep warming below 2 degrees — was described (accurately) as a “death warrant” for countries in the Global South, who, already suffering from rising tides and temperatures, demanded a more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees and binding commitments to get there. They were ignored.
In the United States, hopes for climate policy imploded a year later. The Waxman-Markey bill outlined a cap-and-trade program to limit emissions in the United States, reliant on the creation of a complex and loophole-ridden carbon market. Thanks to giveaways to the Right, that legislation — drafted almost entirely behind closed doors — prioritized politics over science, limiting the bill’s potential to actually curb emissions.
Still, Big Green groups tried to pass it by any means necessary, forsaking whatever grassroots support they had garnered for climate action in favor of a steely-eyed (and ultimately fruitless) pragmatism.
So why — six years on from two colossal failures — might Obama now rightly be hailed as a president with perhaps the strongest environmental record of anyone yet to hold the Oval Office? The answer has almost nothing to do with the man himself.
Devastated by their bad investments on useless measures, the climate movement started to soul-search, looking not so much at new strategies as to struggles ignored by Washington. In taking on the Keystone XL pipeline, ranchers and indigenous communities led the way for beltway green groups to defeat a carbon bomb, getting thousands arrested in the process.
The fossil-fuel divestment movement, begun on college campuses, has succeeded in getting $5.2 trillion divested across a range of institutions. Complimented by a wide array of anti-fossil-fuel protests from coast to coast, each drive painted energy executives as 1 percenters at war with the future of humanity.
One result of this newly militant and firmly anticorporate climate movement was a push on Obama to back what would become the trademarks of his climate legacy: the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, the (at least temporary) defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline, and bans on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic.
Still, Obama’s climate legacy remains decidedly mixed.
Under his watch, the US Export-Import Bank invested $34 billion in dirty energy projects around the world. A lofty 2009 commitment by G20 nations to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies has yet to be realized, with trillions in public funds continuing to line fossil fuel executives’ wallets.
And Obama did not fully stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and several other toxic infrastructure projects in their tracks — all, of course, grossly out of step with the scientific reality, which demands that the world’s wealthiest nations decarbonize their economies by mid-century at the very latest.
The failures of top-down and technocratic Obama-era climate policy are the failures of the Third Way more broadly, fixated on an appeal to the forces that could lead us to collective ruin. But on climate, Obama did show what are perhaps some of the best qualities organizers can expect from a Democratic administration: a willingness to respond to pressure, flawed as that response may have been.
Obama’s foreign policy was expansive, secretive, and wedded to the status quo.
As the follow-up act to George W. Bush, Barack Obama was supposed to restore the United States to the fold of respectable nations whose leaders did not devise such foreign policy goals as “smokin’ ’em out.”
Particularly given Obama’s campaign pledge to engage in dialogue with traditional American enemies like Iran and Cuba — both included in the Axis of Evil-plus-three configuration marketed during the Bush era — optimistic sectors of the international community predicted the advent of a humane, benevolent superpower.
The naïveté of such thinking was rather evident from the get-go; now, at the end of Obama’s reign, it’s glaringly obvious. Consider the recent calculation by the Council on Foreign Relations that the United States “dropped 26,172 bombs in seven countries” in 2016 alone — an estimate the authors acknowledge is “undoubtedly low.”
In February 2015, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that Obama’s covert drone strikes on territories where the United States is not officially at war had already “killed almost six times more people and twice as many civilians than those ordered in the Bush years.”
Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and his nuclear deal with Iran have been hailed by fans as landmark achievements and alleged evidence of his status as peacemonger-in-chief. Often lost in the celebrations, however, is the fact that both locales are still targeted with sanctions that undeniably constitute “war by other means.”
In Cuba, Obama might have bolstered his ethical credentials by fulfilling his promise to close Guantánamo, thereby terminating the US occupation of Cuban territory and ending a symbol of America’s global impunity.
In the Middle East, efforts to defuse the nuclear issue would have been less blatantly hypocritical if Obama hadn’t also approved a $38 billion military aid package to Israel, the largest in US history.
This is the same Israel that happens to maintain a nuclear arsenal and grants itself immunity from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Beyond some jabs at Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama has not allowed the Israeli military’s recurring slaughter of Palestinian civilians to get in the way of his principled commitment to Israel’s right to “self-defense.”
The full extent of the fallout of Obama’s rule, of course, remains to be seen. But for one particularly troubling hint as to his legacy-in-progress, one need look no further than Medea Benjamin’s recent remarks in the Guardian: “The twisted legal architecture the Obama administration has constructed to justify its interventions, especially extrajudicial drone killings with no geographic restrictions, will now be transferred into the erratic hands of Donald Trump.” Call it teamwork.
The financial crisis was a housing crisis for the middle and working class. Obama did little to help.
None of the 2016 presidential candidates focused on housing policy in their campaigns, either to proclaim a vision for housing or to criticize Obama’s record on the issue, which consisted broadly of continued privatization of public housing, congressional underfunding of federal subsidies, and a series of progressive rulings whose impacts are largely symbolic.
Obama took office during the foreclosure crisis, in which some nine million people lost their homes. His response to the crisis characterized his presidency’s failure to hold corporate interests accountable and redistribute wealth to low- and middle-income people.
Faced with the opportunity to lead a strong governmental response to the crisis, the Obama administration bailed out the banks and allowed mortgage companies to correct their own failings; not a single mortgage executive was held accountable. Meanwhile, Obama failed to invest sufficiently in mortgage relief and encouraged banks to foreclose on homeowners instead of modifying loans or reducing balances.
This wave of foreclosures helped create “the renter nation,” in which low-income households of color have been not only again denied the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership but also subjected to the whims of corporate landlords.
While the foreclosure crisis and the accompanying displacement and dispossession were not caused by Obama, neither did his administration take effective action to punish the actors who caused it, provide relief and stability to those affected, or address the racial disparities that the crisis enhanced. Millions continue to struggle, even as the economy and housing market “recover.”
Obama did invest in homelessness prevention to some positive effect. Shortly after taking office, he oversaw the creation of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program, using $1.5 billion of stimulus money to support programs that target the chronically homeless and integrate with other support services.
While the program ended in 2012, it and other federal homelessness prevention programs have led to a 31 percent reduction in the number of homeless individuals nationwide between 2007 and 2016. Obama also invested stimulus money in the National Housing Trust Fund, providing money for construction, acquisition, and preservation of affordable housing.
Bill Clinton’s presidency was inextricably linked with the Hope VI program, an urban renewal plan that demolished public housing complexes and rebuilt them as publicly funded, privately managed mixed-income developments. HOPE VI did not require a one-to-one replacement of housing units, and thus displaced thousands of families from public housing without investing in any alternative.
Obama’s housing plans did not differ substantially from Clinton’s; his signature program, Choice Neighborhoods, maintained HOPE VI’s approach of converting public housing to private “mixed-income” housing. Choice Neighborhoods also includes funding for neighborhood revitalization, therefore amplifying the threat of gentrification and displacement of low-income residents posed by HOPE VI.
Obama’s HUD secretaries, Shaun Donovan and Julián Castro, also brought the public-private mixed-income approach to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which incentivizes the redevelopment of public housing projects by private interests. Under this program, housing authorities can mortgage land and buildings to those private entities, which then subsidize the rent with tax credits and vouchers, often for a limited period of time. Those housing projects most attractive to investors are more likely to be selected for RAD and subjected to the private market, leaving the remaining public housing stock under increasingly underfunded public management.
The Obama administration has passed some important rulings and guidelines on housing equality. In 2011, HUD directed public housing administrators to allow formerly incarcerated people to rejoin their families in federally subsidized housing upon release. In 2015, it passed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, requiring housing authorities and planning agencies to examine and address racial bias under threat of withheld funding or legal challenge. And in 2016, HUD passed a ruling ensuring that federally funded housing programs would be available to all “regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.”
Of course, expanding the inclusivity of government housing programs while reducing the federal funding available for such programs bears a bitter irony, even if the funding shortfalls can be partly attributed to an unfriendly Republican congress. HUD under Obama was a reflection of his approach to other areas of government: friendly to corporate interests, lacking the necessary conviction to address inequality, with some laudable yet symbolic progressive flourishes.
Obama made serious strides towards criminal justice reform, though mass incarceration remains a human rights disaster.
Barack Obama was the first president to denounce mass incarceration and the first ever to visit a federal prison while in office. He is the first president to truly understand, on a policy, intellectual, and moral level, what has gone wrong.
Obama has commuted the sentences of more federal prisoners than his eleven predecessors combined and allowed state-level experiments in recreational marijuana legalization to move forward even though it has remained illegal under federal law — something his administration could have signaled that it wanted to fix, but hasn’t, by rescheduling the drug.
There have been serious strides toward criminal justice reform under Obama, including at the Justice Department, which has aggressively moved to curb abusive charging practices in the courts and, through its Civil Rights Division, investigated, taken legal actions against, and foisted reforms upon abusive local police departments, courts, prisons, jails, officers, and guards.
But the United States still locks up its people at a rate far higher than most any nation on earth, and mass incarceration remains a humanitarian monstrosity. By that sobering measure, Obama has fallen short.
Though states, and not the federal government, incarcerate the vast majority of prisoners nationwide, Obama could have done much more to alleviate this problem than he has. In a recent Harvard Law Review article, Obama defended his criminal justice record and noted that on this and other matters, “better is good.” That’s true, especially given a Republican Congress that is unremittingly hostile to most all that is decent.
But it also rings hollow: on criminal justice reform, it’s not just about the perfect being made the enemy of the good, but rather that President Obama has refused to embrace transformational change.
Instead, Obama has framed his commutations as a “second chance” rather than righting a major injustice. As a result, he has so far refused calls to issue more sweeping, across-the-board commutations that would decrease the federal prison population by larger numbers — meaning that Obama, in an area where he has extraordinary unilateral authority to act, has addressed what he clearly understands to be a systematic problem on an individual, case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, US attorneys under his watch have continued to preside over a federal prosecutorial machinery that metes out draconian sentences for mostly nonviolent crimes. That includes a new push to charge drug dealers with crimes that can carry life sentences in overdose cases and a relentless campaign to charge immigrants with federal crimes merely for having crossed, or re-crossed, the border.
Crackdowns on adult sex workers and their customers, misleadingly lauded as strikes against child sex trafficking, continue. Despite encouraging reforms, federal prisons remain plagued by inhumane conditions, including forms of solitary confinement that amount to torture.
Under Obama, immigration enforcement became inextricably linked to the criminal justice system. A program called Secure Communities, renamed the Priority Enforcement Program, systematically transformed local jails and police into immigration agents. Under Obama, civil detention centers have admitted hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year for committing mere civil violations. Federal convictions for illegally reentering the country, a felony, have skyrocketed and people charged with immigration-related crimes now make up nearly 9 percent of the federal prison population.
Obama’s criminal justice record is a mixed bag. Under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it will likely be a basket of deplorables. The recent history of tepid liberal reform and right-wing reaction, however, both expose the country’s leading political blocs as unwilling and perhaps unable to end mass incarceration. To do that, we need a new movement that can force the transformation of American punishment and the brutally unequal socioeconomic system that it protects.
The hopes and disappointments captured by Obama’s presidency catalyzed a forceful new racial justice movement.
The single most important legacy of Obama’s presidency for racial justice will likely be his election itself.
Though it seems so distant now, it is worth remembering the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in neighborhoods across the country in 2008 when news of Obama’s victory was delivered. In addition to signifying an end to the nightmare of the Bush years, the election of a black president symbolized for millions of Americans, of all races, that the country really could change — that progress towards racial equality could, in fact, be won.
After eight years of liberals helplessly declaring over and over again that the country was simply too right-wing, too brainwashed by fundamentalist Christianity or paralyzed by apathy for progressive politics to have any hope, Obama’s election raised people’s expectations for the first time in years. Those expectations, however, very quickly collided with the reality of what Obama was prepared to do to address racial oppression in the United States.
Coming into office in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, Obama was immediately confronted with how to deal with the millions of Americans losing their homes to foreclosures. This crisis hit black Americans particularly hard, as black households had entered the crisis with less wealth than white ones and had been specifically targeted by mortgage companies pushing the kinds of adjustable-rate loans that put borrowers at the highest risk. As a result, black homeownership rates fell dramatically — and they still haven’t recovered. By 2014, nearly half of black household wealth had simply disappeared.
Obama had campaigned on empowering bankruptcy judges to reduce borrowers’ mortgage debts. In office, however, he declined to pursue any aggressive strategy of relief for borrowers; instead, he instituted a program that would allow mortgage companies themselves to modify their loans, if they so chose. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t choose to do so very often.
Even in this situation, when the steps open to Obama could have been taken through executive action alone, he simply refused to confront the power of the banks. The result was hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people losing their homes who didn’t have to, and a historically unprecedented destruction of black wealth.
This would be the pattern of action Obama would hold to throughout his presidency. Confronted with racial injustice, he would rarely confront it directly, preferring embarrassing spectacles of evasion, such as the infamous “beer summit” with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who arrested him for trying to enter his own home.
Even worse, Obama has, time and again, embraced the most insidious victim-blaming tropes of American racism, scolding black families for their supposedly pathological cultural practices. As Ta-Nahesi Coates has written, Obama combines colorblind public policy that does not address the specific oppression of black Americans with color-conscious moralism toward the black poor.
This combination of heightened expectations meeting barriers that refused to drop is what gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. For generations, black politics had been oriented on the strategy of getting “black faces in high places,” on the assumption that more equitable political representation would bring more equitable public policy.
Though the contradictions and failures of that strategy began to be clear even as it first began to succeed electorally in the late 1960s, Obama’s presidency highlighted its bankruptcy with a force that was un-ignorable. The unending string of young black Americans killed by the police or vigilantes proved the sharpest edge of the continuing reality of black oppression in America. For black youth across the country, it became clear that politics as usual was, contra Obama’s famous slogan, hopeless.
Of course, what will replace the old politics of representation remains utterly obscure. Plenty of black politics today, even within Black Lives Matter activism, is oriented on maintaining the hegemony of the black professional and middle classes over black political action. Yet Obama’s presidency has made it clear that, if the movement for racial equality is to advance, it itself must advance beyond these politics.
The uprisings in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore began to show a path forward — away from trying to win a seat at the table and towards a strategy for knocking it over. This, ironically, may prove to be Obama’s most lasting legacy for racial politics in the United States.
Obama invigorated the worst of the corporate education reform movement.
In some languages, the words for “teach” and “learn” are the same, suggesting a view of education as a cooperative activity, rather than as something that is done to students. Not in English, and certainly not in the United States, where for three decades the national conversation about education has been held hostage by the anxiety-inducing metaphors that always accompany the neoliberal dismantling of public services.
President Obama and his advisers have done little to resist this state of affairs, carrying out low-intensity warfare on teachers’ unions and perpetuating harmful myths that the American school system is “life-saving” (because we live in a meritocracy), that it is “in crisis” (because test scores are falling behind globally), and that it can only be saved by the free-market fixes (competition, standards, accountability, and choice) originally advocated by conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and billionaire philanthropists.
Of all the education initiatives with names that sound like spaceships (America 2000, Goals 2000) or battle cries (No Child Left Behind), Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature contribution to the genre, may be the most successful assault yet in the sustained effort to destroy the democratic project of public schooling. In 2009, more than $4 billion of public funds were set aside for K-12 education as part of TARP, representing a moment of enormous possibility for the president. The money could have been used to equalize funding among schools (which is exceptionally inequitable in America) or to incentivize states to make changes that we know improve educational outcomes for poor children and children of color, like reducing class sizes and promoting socioeconomic and racial integration.
Instead, the Obama administration chose to use a series of competitive grants to push the adoption of the Common Core standards, the linking of teacher evaluations to student test scores, and the expansion of charter schools. These measures were deemed “innovative,” even in the face of growing evidence that charter test scores are no better than those of traditional public schools and that charters are more stratified by race, class, special education status, and possibly language, than public schools.
Today, forty-two of fifty states are members of the Common Core Standards Initiative and nearly half tie teacher evaluations to test scores, an enormous transformation in policy. Yet test scores on the NAEP (known as “America’s report card”) have fallen for the first time, and Race to the Top has failed to deliver even by its own paltry and unimaginative measures. Meanwhile, the real crisis facing children — a disgraceful level of poverty — has gone unnamed by anyone but Bernie Sanders, let alone addressed.
It was nice that Obama called out the widening wealth gap during his farewell address, but the ultimate legacy of his administration has been the deepening of that inequality through the advancement of the agenda of the Broad, Walton Family, and Gates Foundations over the demands of the American people for free, high-quality, and equitably funded schools (a counsel for the education department even once mistakenly referred to the Obama administration as “the Gates administration”).
Privatization efforts under Trump will be worse. Clearly, no one is going to give us control of our schools. We’re going to have to take it. In 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools — it’s a start.