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Obama’s Next Consequential Change: Reducing Unnecessary (and Too Often Racist) Prison Time

I’m surprised at how many Republicans and Democrats are running for President. Jeb, Hillary, Rand, Bernie, don’t you realize what huge shoes you have to fill?

Tuesday’s Iran deal confirms something that has been clear for a while now: Barack Obama is one of the most consequential presidents in American history — and he will be a particularly towering figure in the history of American progressivism [Dylan Matthews, “Barack Obama Is Officially One of the Most Consequential Presidents in American History,” Vox, 2015.07.14].

Towering. Consequential. Yes, really: Iran, Cuba, guaranteed health coverage, financial reform, pay equality… and if all that isn’t enough Hopeful Change, now he’s going to take on the racially significant issue of mass incarceration:

Roughly one-third of the Justice Department’s budget now goes toward incarceration — one-third.  And there are outstanding public servants at our Justice Department, starting with our outstanding Attorney General, Loretta Lynch — (applause) — and we’ve got some great prosecutors here today — and they do outstanding work — so many of them.  But every dollar they have to spend keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison is a dollar they can’t spend going after drug kingpins, or tracking down terrorists, or hiring more police and giving them the resources that would allow them to do a more effective job community policing.

And then, of course, there are costs that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.  Because the statistics on who gets incarcerated show that by a wide margin, it disproportionately impacts communities of color.  African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of our population; they make up 60 percent of our inmates.  About one in every 35 African American men, one in every 88 Latino men is serving time right now.  Among white men, that number is one in 214.

The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men experience being treated differently under the law [President Barack Obama, remarks to NAACP Conference, Philadelphia, 2015.07.14].

(Talking about putting fewer people in prison… on Bastille Day! How appropriate!)

President Obama understates the size of his legacy. (White House photo by Pete Souza, 2015.07.13)
President Obama understates the size of his legacy. (White House photo by Pete Souza, 2015.07.13)

I’d think the high bar Barack Obama has set would scare candidates off. Maybe the Republicans are so appalled to see a Democratic President succeeding in so many ways that they think persuade their base with promises of Thunely do-nothingism. And maybe the the five Dems are all thinking, “Heck! President Obama has done so well, I don’t need to come up with my own agenda; I just need to ride his success and make sure no one stops it!”

But be forewarned, candidates: whichever one of you wins, you’re going to have to work awfully hard to not disappear into the historical shadow of your monumental predecessor, like Johnson after Lincoln, like Taft after Roosevelt, or Bush after Reagan.


  1. mike from iowa 2015-07-15

    Very good write up and unless you are a snotty nosed,whiny,spoiled white wingnut candidate there really isn’t much of Obama’s agenda that needs much work,except for healthcare.

  2. Liberty Dick 2015-07-15

    You forgot to thank Rand Paul for making this an issue…

  3. Roger Cornelius 2015-07-15

    When you go inside the history of another American president that faced constant opposition from his party and military you will understand how President Obama has been so successful.
    Abraham Lincoln had southern haters and northern detractors, his military frequently charted their own course and he was constantly replacing them.
    Despite that opposition Lincoln was able to free slaves and while fighting the Civil War was able to establish the east to west coast railroad. These are just two examples of Lincoln’s success, there are many more.
    While Boehner, McConnell, and the rest of the GOP continue their attempts to shame and weaken President Obama, he only grows bolder and stronger, just as Lincoln did.

  4. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-07-15

    That’s a good point Roger. I hadn’t considered that aspect.

    I find it really difficult to maintain an objective perspective on Obama due to the rabid Republican hatred. I’ve never seen anything like it. But then, we’ve never had a multiracial president before. I’ve gotten a clearer view of vicious racism* that I wish I hadn’t. I know that’s cowardly on my part, but it’s so disheartening.

    *I’m not referring only to politicians, but private American citizens especially.

  5. jerry 2015-07-15

    The long knives are out for him now though, even in the Democratic party with this deal with Iran and look to scuttle it with much effort. I would say that Obama should tell them and the country that if the deal is shelved for any reason, the draft must be reinstated in no uncertain terms. As we will be in a long and distant war on on front and one at home here, we must have the troops in place to keep all of this shootin going. Bring back the draft, that will help to drive folks to the polls and vote.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-07-16

    Oh Jerry. That is brilliant!

  7. Jon Holmdal 2015-07-16

    He was met to be our president. Family man, hard working and with the patience to deal with decisions that are so complex and with the intelligence to bring together the consensus of like countries around the world he has given us a better chance to coexist and benefits the common man.

  8. Eve Fisher 2015-07-16

    Jerry, I’m with you 100%.

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