“A Consequential President”: Obama’s Record Makes Him A Major Historical Figure In Ways Most Presidents Are Not
In early January 1999, as President Clinton’s penultimate year in office was getting underway, columnist George Will could hardly contain his “disgust” for the Democrat in the White House. He published a piece condemning Clinton – one of many similar columns for the Washington Post conservative – but he did so in a very specific way.
Clinton is “defined by littleness,” Will said, adding, “He is the least consequential president” since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.
It’s arguably the harshest of all possible criticisms. All presidents quickly grow accustomed to a wide variety of rebukes, but no one ever wants to be dismissed as inconsequential. It’s another way of saying your presidency is forgettable. It doesn’t matter. History won’t judge you unkindly because judgments require significance, and you’re just … irrelevant.
More than a decade later, President Obama has also received his share of criticisms, but it’s probably fair to say “inconsequential” is an adjective that no one will use to describe his tenure.
We talked the other day about the remarkable stretch of successes the president has had just since the midterm elections, and it led Matt Yglesias to note the “incredible amount” Obama has accomplished over the last six years.
It has been, in short, a very busy and extremely consequential lame-duck session. One whose significance is made all the more striking by the fact that it follows an electoral catastrophe for Obama’s party. And that is the Obama era in a microcosm. Democrats’ overwhelming electoral win in 2008 did not prove to be a “realigning” election that handed the party enduring political dominance. Quite the opposite. But it did touch off a wave of domestic policymaking whose scale makes Obama a major historical figure in the way his two predecessors won’t be.
I agree, though I’d go a bit further than just his two more recent predecessors and argue that Obama’s record makes him a major historical figure in ways most presidents are not.
This isn’t even a normative argument, per se. Obama’s critics, especially on the right, can and should make their case that the president’s agenda is misguided and bad for the country. A leader can have a wealth of accomplishments, but those deeds must still be evaluated on the merits.
What Obama’s detractors cannot credibly claim is that those accomplishments do not exist. By now, the list is probably familiar to many observers: the president’s Recovery Act rescued the country from the Great Recession. His Affordable Care Act brought access to medical care to millions of families. Obama rescued the American auto industry, brought new safeguards to Wall Street, overhauled the student loan system, and vastly expanded LGBT rights.
He improved food safety, consumer protections, and national-service opportunities. He signed the New START treaty, ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, reversed a failed U.S. policy towards Cuba, and used the Clean Air Act to make strides in addressing the climate crisis. He brought new hope to 5 million immigrants living in the United States, moved the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction, and helped restore America’s standing on the global stage.
The list goes on and on.
Yglesias is right that neither Clinton nor Bush can point to a similar litany of policy breakthroughs, but truth be told, very few presidents can. Note than when Paul Krugman praised Obama in his Rolling Stone cover story a couple of months ago, he used two distinct adjectives: “Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.”
All of this comes with two meaningful caveats. The first, as noted above, is that being “consequential” is not evidence of an a priori good. One can acknowledge a president’s accomplishments without liking them (or him). Tom Brady may be a consequential quarterback, but if you’re a Dolphins fan, you’re probably not impressed.
The second is that there’s a degree of fragility to some of this record. Next year, for example, Republicans on the Supreme Court may very well tear down the American health care system. In time, they may also derail Obama’s climate agenda. Congressional Republicans will spend the foreseeable future chipping away at everything from immigration progress to Wall Street safeguards. And if the nation elects a GOP successor for Obama, the next president may very well undo much of what this president has done.
But at least for now, we probably won’t see any columns about Obama similar to what George Will said in 1999.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 19, 2014
In the responses to my “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series, I’ve been struck by the lack of empathy some whites show for members of minority groups. So imagine if the world were reversed. Then “the talk” might go like this:
“Son, sit down. You’re 13, old enough to have a conversation that I’ve been dreading.”
“Oh, come on, Dad. I hope this isn’t about the birds and the bees.”
“Nope. That’d be easy. Have you seen the video of the white horticulturalist being choked to death by police?”
“All the kids have seen it. He says he can’t breathe, and black cops still kill him. [Expletive!]”
“Don’t curse. It is wrong, but it’s the way the world works. And that’s why Mom and I are scared for you. With us whites in the minority, some cops are just going to see you as a threat no matter what. You’re going to get stopped by black cops, and I want you to promise you’ll never run or mouth off. Mom and I can’t protect you out there, and white kids are 21 times as likely as black kids to be shot dead by police. So even when a cop curses you, I want you to call him Sir.”
“Anybody curses me, he won’t get away with it.”
“Yes, he will. And if he shoots you, he might get away with it, too. Especially when you keep wearing clothes all the other white boys wear like those polo shirts. Black cops see you in them and suspect trouble. Black folks make the rules, and we have to live by them. Like it or not.”
“Hey! I told you not to curse. And don’t hold it against all blacks. Lots have joined with whites in protesting these killings. And even for those who are unsympathetic, most aren’t evil, just clueless.”
“C’mon, Dad. When a 12-year-old white kid is shot dead because he’s holding a toy gun, when a white woman professor is thrown to the ground for jaywalking, when cops smash a car window to taser a white guy in front of kids, that’s not cluelessness. That’s evil. White lives matter.”
“It’s complicated. Remember when you were suspended in the fourth grade for being disruptive?”
“That was ridiculous.”
“Yup. White kids get suspended when black kids don’t. That’s just the way it is. But the black vice principal who suspended you — he’s the same guy who enthusiastically organizes White History Month each year. Intellectually, he believes in civil rights. But he kicks out white kids for the same reason doctors give less pain medication to white patients. Same reason that in experiments a résumé that is identifiably white gets fewer callbacks than the exact same résumé from a black person. It’s not on purpose, but people ‘otherize’ us. That’s why you’ll have to work harder to succeed in life — and even then you’ll be followed around department stores by security guys.”
“O.K., Dad. Anyway, I got to go.”
“Society cares about inequality. But the big inequality debate is about rich and poor, and some folks don’t seem to notice all the inequality that comes with race. White Americans have a per capita income that’s lower than in Equatorial Guinea, and life expectancy is roughly the same as in Sri Lanka. The system here is sometimes rigged. Cops stop and frisk whites four times as often as they do blacks. And that criminal record hurts your chance to get a good job, to marry, to vote. Everybody makes mistakes, but black kids get the benefit of the doubt. You don’t, simply because you’re white.”
“Dad, I got it. Can I go now?”
“I guess 13-year-olds aren’t made for listening. Look, this thing we call ‘race’ is such a petty thing in biological terms. A minor adaptation in the last 100,000 years. Race is a social construct. It shouldn’t be what defines us.”
“Hm. Feels pretty important to me.”
“Well, it kills, and that’s why we’re having this talk. But there is also great progress. It’s incredible that we finally have our very first white president.”
“Who lots of blacks say was born in Europe! And whose sons get dissed for embarrassing the White House for dressing like the rest of us.”
“I’m glad the news reports jumped all over those comments. But I wish everyone were as outraged by destructive policies. When our education policy is to send so many white kids to third-rate schools, that’s worse than any racial epithet.”
“OK. Later, Dad!”
“Just remember: Some blacks just don’t get it, but black privilege isn’t their fault. If things were reversed and we whites were in the majority, we might be just as oblivious.”
“Dad, we whites would never be like that!”
By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 10, 2014
“A Culture Where Avoidable Force Becomes Inevitable”: Justice Department; Cleveland Police Use ‘Unnecessary’ Force
Cleveland police have routinely engaged in “unreasonable and unnecessary” force, including a half-hour police chase involving 100 officers that left two unarmed African-Americans dead when police mistook the car backfiring for gunshots and shot each of them more than 20 times, a Justice Department investigation revealed Thursday.
The probe, part of an ongoing series of “pattern or practice” investigations into the nation’s police departments, also found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.
Taken together, the incidents in Ohio’s second-largest city, the Justice Department concluded, have led to a situation where “avoidable force becomes inevitable.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the Cleveland findings a day after he opened a separate investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in New York, recommitted his office to the Obama administration’s Building Community Trust initiative.
The effort is designed to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local police and communities they protect and serve,” the attorney general said.
In Cleveland, Holder said, the issues of police and community relationships are “complex and the problems longstanding.” But, he said, “we have seen in city after city where we have engaged that meaningful change is possible.”
Faced with the federal probe’s findings, Cleveland police and city officials have signed a statement of principles committing them to mending police-community relations. Holder said the plan will lead to a consent decree that would be “court-enforceable,” with an independent monitor to oversee improvements and ensure that reforms are made.
Similar agreements have been reached after Justice Department investigations into police departments in other communities in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.
The Cleveland probe was opened after a local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, revealed in May 2011 that six officers accused of brutality had used force on 29 suspects during a two-year period.
By: Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 4, 2014
“Justice Is Not An Unreasonable Desire”: Eric Holder; Problems Exposed By Ferguson ‘Threaten The Entire Nation’
The problems put on display after the death of Michael Brown in the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, in August “are truly national in scope and that threaten the entire nation,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech on Monday.
Holder, speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said the nation needs to confront the broken relationship between many law enforcement agencies and the communities that they are supposed to serve.
“Broadly speaking, without mutual understanding between citizens — whose rights must be respected — and law enforcement officers — who make tremendous and often-unheralded personal sacrifices every day to preserve public safety — there can be no meaningful progress,” Holder said in prepared remarks. “Our police officers cannot be seen as an occupying force disconnected from the communities they serve. Bonds that have been broken must be restored. Bonds that never existed must now be created.”
Holder, who plans to resign as the nation’s top law enforcement official if the Senate confirms U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch as his replacement, visited Ferguson back in August. His Justice Department has launched an investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to a separate ongoing federal investigation into the shooting of Brown by former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
In his speech on Monday, Holder said that the “overall system of justice must be strengthened and made more fair” to ensure faith in the justice system.
“Without that deserved faith, without that reasoned belief, there can be no justice. This is not an unreasonable desire — it is a fundamental American right enshrined in our founding documents,” Holder said.
Calling 18-year-old Brown’s death a “tragedy,” Holder said it “sparked a significant national conversation about the need to ensure confidence in the law enforcement and criminal justice processes” and exposed rifts that “must be addressed — by all Americans — in a constructive manner.”
Holder condemned the looting and destruction that took place around Ferguson last week, saying it was “deeply unfortunate that this vital conversation was interrupted, and this young man’s memory dishonored, by destruction and looting on the part of a relatively small criminal element.”
Holder said that “acts of mindless destruction are not only contrary to the rule of law and the aims of public safety; they threaten to stifle important debate, ‘adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,'” referencing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “They actively impede social progress by drowning out the legitimate voices of those attempting to make themselves heard. And they are not consistent with the wishes of Michael Brown’s father, who asked that his son be remembered peacefully.”
Holder called on “those who seek to lend their voices to important causes and discussions, and who seek to elevate these vital conversations, to do so in ways that respect the gravity of their subject matter.”
“These are the moments that remind us of the values that bind us together as a nation. These are the times — of great challenge and great consequence — that point the way forward in our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union,” Holder continued. “And these are the lights that will help us beat back the encroaching darkness — and the stars that will guide us, together, out of this storm.”
By: Ryan J. Reilly, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 1, 2014
“We Need More Ferguson-Style Grand Juries”: A Model For How To End The Over-Incarceration Of African-Americans Today
We need more grand juries like the Ferguson grand jury. In an ironic twist, Ferguson’s grand jury provides a blueprint for a radical civil rights revolution that could help end the worst racial injustice in America today. Here’s why.
Many observers have noted that the grand jury result in Darren Wilson’s case is highly unusual. Federal grand juries indict in more than 99 percent of cases; state grand juries aren’t quite at that level, but still indict in an overwhelming number of cases. The grand jury deck is heavily stacked to favor prosecution. For instance, prosecutors have no obligation to present all of the evidence in a case, just enough evidence to get an indictment. The old adage is that if a prosecutor asked them, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.
Other than sandwiches, who are grand juries indicting, and how? They disproportionately indict young African-American men, and they usually do it very quickly. Grand juries often hear dozens of cases in a single day, and may hand down an indictment based on ten minutes or less of testimony. As one news article notes, “Prosecutors present as many as 40 cases a day to grand juries,” who in turn “indict most suspects in less time than it takes to brew a pot of coffee.”
This is why the grand jury in Darren Wilson’s case was so unusual. It isn’t just that the result was out of the ordinary— the process was also unique. The grand jury heard an incredible 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses over a three month period. In another unusual move, the grand jury considered not only the basic elements of the crime, but also affirmative defenses. Ashby Jones writes at the Wall Street Journal blog that “It’s not disputed that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown on August 9. The question jurors were likely asked to consider went beyond that: whether Mr. Wilson was justified in shooting Mr. Brown.” And in yet another atypical move, prosecutors presented this grand jury not just a cherry-picked case for prosecution but “absolutely everything … Every scrap of paper that we have. Every photograph that was taken.”
This approach should not be condemned; it should be expanded upon. While cases like the Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin killings receive media attention, they aren’t actually representative of the way that most African-American young men interact with the justice system today. Instead, today’s criminal justice system mostly interacts with young Black men by putting them behind bars at an alarming rate. In recent years nearly one million African-Americans have been incarcerated at the federal, state or local levels. As many as one in three Black men born today will spend time incarcerated.
When they do leave prison, these men are largely unemployable and ineligible to vote, and often end up back in the system. This mass incarceration is destroying the Black community — it is, as Michelle Alexander writes, the New Jim Crow. And it depends on grand juries who act as a conveyor belt, quickly funneling tens of thousands of young Black men into prison.
The contrast with the Wilson grand jury is a stunning illustration of the racial double standards in criminal justice. We should undo that double standard by offering similar protections to every young Black man who is arrested in this country. If grand juries across the United States regularly deliberated for twelve weeks rather than twelve minutes, it would become physically impossible to incarcerate a million African-Americans. If every grand jury heard seventy hours of testimony from sixty witnesses over three months, it would mean the end of mass incarceration in America.
Of course, racial double standards have been lived reality throughout American history. But perhaps the sheer visibility of the grand jury in this case will call attention to the problems of how grand juries usually operate. Ironically, the Ferguson grand jury provides a model for how to end the over-incarceration of African-Americans today. I hope that a thousand more grand juries will follow its lead.
By: Kaimipono Wenger, Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California; The Daily Beast, November 30, 2014