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What Will Obama’s Legacy Be?

A look back at what an Obama presidency might have been—what it might have been had the stars been in alignment and had his inspirational campaign rhetoric counted for more than political catnip—reveals a cluttered trail of disappointments, half-measures, and, dare we say, betrayals. Basically, no one on either side of the fence got what they hoped for, which given the binary nature of politics, seems almost a statistical impossibility.

While the so-called mainstream Left regarded Obama as a millennial version of a “Rockefeller Republican,” moderate to a fault and as tame as dish water, the ideological Right wasted no time in labeling this dangerous person a “socialist.”

How soon we forget. In 1971, Republican president Richard Nixon mandated wage and price freezes across the board (U.S. employers were forbidden to give employees pay raises, and manufacturers and retailers were forbidden to increase the price of merchandise), and in 2008, Republican president George W. Bush temporarily nationalized the banking system. Oops. Yet who gets labeled a “socialist”?

The list of disappointed parties is staggering, beginning with organized labor. During his campaign Obama promised to give his full support to passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a labor reform that would allow workers to fill out a card saying they want to join a union (“card check”) rather than having to submit to an arduous and management-orchestrated NLRB election.

But when the time came to step up to the plate, Obama backed away. He and his attack dog Rahm Emanuel decided that (1) pushing too hard for something like this so early in his administration would unnecessarily alienate congressional Republicans, and that (2) even without the EFCA, there were no political risks, because labor had no choice but to remain loyal to the Democrats (“If you think we’re bad, try the Republicans”).

The same was largely true of education. Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, had the same basic approach to public schools as the Republicans, in that he favored funneling money to charter schools and saw the political advantages of demonizing the teachers unions.

Although Obama tried portraying Duncan (his Chicago crony) as an “innovator” and “visionary,” Diane Ravitch, the brilliant education writer, saw little difference between the philosophy of Arne Duncan and that of George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander.

Obama couldn’t even placate the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA continued to accuse this dangerous socialist of being “anti-guns,” despite Obama being the first president to repeal the prohibition against possessing firearms in a National Park. It’s true.

In a pathetically transparent attempt to extend an olive branch to the almost pathologically single-minded NRA, Obama clearly and demonstrably liberalized (rather than restricted) the country’s gun laws. But the intransigent NRA didn’t so much as flinch. The move got him nothing. Except for criticism from the gun-control lobby.

But there’s an opportunity for Obama to leave office in a blaze of glory. It can be done immaculately, resolutely and permanently, without a shred of opposition to prevent it. This is not to say it won’t create some shrieking and howling because it will. But the beauty part of it is that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

On Obama’s last day in office he needs to issue pardons for 10,000 prisoners currently serving time for non-violent, non-threatening, “non-scary” crimes. Conservative Republican Mike Huckabee, of all people, once observed that we put too many people in prison not because we’re afraid of them, but “because we’re mad at them.”

The advantage of a full pardon (as opposed to commuting a sentence) is that all is forgiven. It’s as if you never committed the crime, which allows you to apply for a job without the prison term on your record. It’s a second chance for people who aren’t dangerous, but who simply messed up. Or as an inmate at Chino prison told me, “We’re not just the ones who messed up; we’re the ones who messed up and got caught.”

So Obama needs to have the Justice Department come up with 10,000 men and women worthy of pardons. Besides releasing thousands of people who don’t belong in steel cages, the move might even set the stage for meaningful prison reform. God knows we need it. At the very least, these blanket pardons will launch a debate.

Also, Obama needs to pardon convicted murderer Leonard Peltier. Personally, I agree with those who claim he was railroaded, but even if he’s guilty, the man is 72 years old and has served almost 40 years in prison. Are we still “mad” at him?

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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