It feels easy to miss President Obama already. President Donald Trump’s massive, mysterious political career could be as bad as many people fear. Or it could be okay. Most likely it’ll end up somewhere in the middle. Now is the perfect time to remember that Obama actually got better the longer he was in office, mostly trading drone assassinations for commuting the sentences of drug criminals. His year-one and year-two faults got further away. With days left of his reign, his virtues stand out more starkly than ever. But nothing sums up the man’s mixed legacy quite as much as his own words on his most frustrating issue: criminal justice reform.
Last week, the Harvard Law Review—of which Obama was the first black president—published 56 pages of him summing up what he did and didn’t do on criminal justice reform. Like the man himself, his writing is impressive, intellectual and nuanced, not to mention frustrating, dishonest and cagey. An easy example to pick at is Obama touting that his administration changed the sentencing disparity for crack crimes versus powder cocaine. They did indeed—and even required the reform to be retroactive, which is an impressive victory. On the other hand, the disparity was changed from 100-1 to 18-1. In other words, the gap is hardly closed. Why the continued disparity for the same substance?
I’ll tell you why. As aptly demonstrated in the Harvard Law novella, unconscionable compromise is the name of the game when it comes to politics. Obama could have been a much worse president on this issue. He could also have been much better president on criminal justice altogether, particularly because he came into his presidency after having already been blunt about his use of marijuana and even cocaine. Because Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, the time was right for an Obama to not do much except stay out of the states’ way. Too many Americans have tried marijuana or know someone with a record they don’t necessarily deserve. Many of us have grown tired of this decades-long experiment—the FDA’s “War on Drugs”—to deny the fact that humans use drugs.
It’s awesome to see a president write ‘There is no growing crime wave.’ How often do our elected officials tell us to panic less?
But we’re not really tired enough of it yet. Obama touts how, during his terms, bipartisan efforts were put forth to dial back our criminal justice system’s excesses, which is fitting, since it was both parties that bought conceived of the war on drugs in the first place. He also mentions a reasonable bill “that would have reduced but not eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses — from twenty years to ten years, ten years to five years, and five years to two years.” But, according to the president, the bill didn’t even reach a vote, thanks to Republican disinterest. In short, America continues to struggle with reforming its punishment for future criminals. Despite the 1,300-plus people Obama has granted clemency to, most of the people who don’t belong in prison are still there, no matter how easy it now is to get a weed brownie in Colorado.
We’re not done yet. Obama sums that up with all of the thoughtfulness he has. In a country that is waiting for Nixonian, fear-mongering Trump to be sworn in, it’s awesome to see a president write the words “There is no growing crime wave.” How often do our elected officials tell us to panic less?
But even so, it is frustrating to read his insightful commentary when you know he could have done more to solve this. His entire piece is the Obama presidency, with all of its intellect, charismatic promise and subsequent disappointment. Obama spent the majority of his time in office not using the mighty presidential pardon powers he’s now doling out generously. He expended his political capital on his healthcare bill and fought for the rights of young undocumented immigrants with the DREAM Act while all the same authorizing record numbers of immigrants be detained and deported.
Obama was correct about so many important issues, such as the damage of solitary confinement and the waste of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. But he said nothing of it until he was safely into his second term. What we he waiting for?
Well, he was waiting for the subtle public winds to change. Obama’s legacy will be a good one, especially on this issue. He deserves that. But it’s also certain that his reputation for “courage” and “forging ahead” will be wildly exaggerated in the years ahead. Because, at some point, marijuana reform and moderate prison reform became okay when it had previously only been the issue of radical leftists, libertarians and occasionally, sane conservatives. For a long time, nobody in office except your Ron Pauls or Barney Franks tried to do anything about the issue, and most people didn’t even mention it as a problem. Now it’s essential.
Obama gets points for not standing in the way of the changes people are demanding. But what do we do now, with a president-elect who stokes fears of a “war on cops” and picks a drug warrior like Jeff Sessions as attorney general? All of Obama’s progress on criminal justice is subject to reform. If the mood of the country continues toward a backlash again critiquing cops, and worrying about racism, it will be. Obama gets it more than most, and his piece proves that. He just didn’t have the courage to admit it for his first six years in office.