There is a lot of talk going on among the pundits about how President Obama is leaving no enduring legacy — that his progressive actions as president, few and small that they may have been, were written in the sand of executive orders, which can and likely will be erased within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In fact though, while there is truth to that observation, there is a legacy of President Obama that will last. It’s just that it’s a terrible one: His failure to prosecute and put an end to the many crimes and constitutional violations of the prior George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration, like torture, the horrific and unconstitutional war-crime prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the Tuesday morning White House drone murder-planning sessions (which he actually institutionalized); the continuation of a program of mass incarceration (mostly of males of color); the expansion of the NSA’s domestic and international surveillance program, aimed at monitoring all electronic communications domestically and eventually globally; his signing instead of vetoing of a renewal of the wretched USA PATRIOT Act and related constitutional atrocities; and of course the decision to authorize a trillion-dollar upgrade of the US nuclear force, including the development of “useable” tactical nukes, coupled with the emplacement of nuclear missiles along Russia’s western border. I could go on, but in the interest of brevity I’ll let the reader finish this list of horrors.
It’s too late now to undo most of this legacy of horrors, but there are still some things that our ill-deserving Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president could yet do as a lame-duck and largely powerless president before Trump’s move into the White House to at least do penance for his failures, and to perhaps salvage some measure of integrity as a legacy. Here’s my list:
1. At this point, with Trump waiting in the wings ready to reverse them, any new executive orders would be a waste of time, without even any symbolic value. But there is one power conferred specifically in the Constitution which Obama owns until the minute Trump finishes taking the presidential oath, and that is the power to commute sentences and to pardon. To date, Obama has been one of the most stingy presidents in history in his application of this awesome power. He should start wielding it like a saber, cutting the chains of all those languishing in jails around the country who are non-violent offenders, primarily for possession of drugs, all those sentenced to lengthy terms or to life in prison for minor crimes because of harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines and especially “three-strikes” laws, all those sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as minors or even young kids, all those sentenced to death in a system that we all, including this president, know were tried, conficted and sentenced by a wholly unfair and corrupted judicial system that excludes from capital juries anyone who opposes the death penalty, all those young people in juvenile detention who were sentenced without a lawyer, and all those jailed because of unpaid debts. Obama could go further: He could pardon all those in prison who have served, say, five years of their sentence and who are over 60, or perhaps 50 years old. Statistics show that older people do not commit much violent crimes. If rehabilitation is to mean anything, then keeping such older prisoners in jail any longer is simply a self-destructive, incredibly costly act of national vengeance, not intelligent and humane justice.
2. While he’s pardoning people, the president, who set a new low in government openness by prosecuting the most whistleblowers of any president in history, should acknowledge his error and pardon all of those brave people who have tried to warn about government abuse and corruption, starting with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, both of whom currently face espionage charges if they were to leave their respective places of asylum, Russia and the London Ecuador Embassy, and Chelsea Manning, serving hard time at Leavenworth for the “crime” of courageously exposing the US military’s war crimes in Iraq. Those whom he prosecuted who have served their sentences should be retroactively pardoned so their records are cleared.
3 The president should use his power as president and commander in chief to close down the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base’s obscene extrajudicial military prison. Congress acted to prevent such a thing by insisting the president would have to review each case individually, but there is no definition of what such a review must be comprised of. He should simply take the time to look at each case, and then render his decision — pardon or commuted sentence, which latter option could be a sentence to Leavenworth or some other such escape-proof facility, where each still-incarcerated inmate would then be afforded a timely civil trial with full Constitutional rights.
4. Obama should immediately, again acting as commander-in-chief, order the US Army Corps of Engineers to shut down further work on the Dakota Access Pipeline and to deny any permit for crossing the Missouri River anywhere near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation or Sioux sacred lands (much of which was stolen by various treaty violations over the years). He should dispatch federalized US troops to the scene with orders to prevent further police actions by the local Sheriff or other police authorities in North Dakota against Sioux “water protectors” and their backers.
5. Finally the president should simply apologize to his millions of backers — the people who elected him to office overwhelmingly in 2008, and the smaller number who stuck with him in 2012 despite his first-term failure to honor his pledge to deliver “change” as their president — for his failure to turn the country away from its march towards oligarchy, economic decline and police-state repression. He should urge them to be politically involved and to wrest the government back from the plutocrats and anti-freedom fear-mongers.
If he does all of the above, and only if he does them, can he walk away from the White House leaving any enduring kind of positive legacy.
Don’t hold your breath folks.