12 January 2016 - 11:03 AM
The Disconnect Between Reality and Obama's Purported Legacy
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U.S President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday. In a break with his past addresses to Congress — where the president outlined his legislative priorities for the year — Obama is expected to use this speech to define his legacy and make an appeal to the U.S. population about the country's future.

U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the start of his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington in this January 20, 2015 file photo.

The upcoming presidential election looms large over Washington and Obama's speech is sure to reflect that the United States is in the midst of an election year.

The primaries for both the Democrats and Republicans have produced surprises. On the Republican side the emergence of Donald Trump as the frontrunner for the nomination has shifted the political debate inside that party to the far-right.

Meanwhile for the Democrats, the unexpected popularity for the self-styled socialist Bernie Sanders, and perhaps more importantly the ideas he says he represents, has brought in a cohort of young people hopeful for substantive change, drawing parallels with Obama's first campaign for the presidency.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently told CNN that during the address to Congress "you'll hear the president talk about making sure that every American has a chance to influence this democracy. Not the select few, not the millionaires and the billionaires, but every American."

McDonough's phrasing is telling, it is language that echos of the kind of rhetoric being used by Sanders, who has stressed the need to reduce the influence of Wall Street on U.S. politics. 

However, a casual observer of U.S. politics would note that type of language is dissimilar to that employed by Obama during his presidency. Obama is making a deliberate shift and Tuesday's address is part of a larger strategy to reshape his legacy.

President Obama wanted the end of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be the cornerstone of his legacy. 

With thousands of troops still in the region, and in a combat role, he knows he must re-define what his time in office meant for the United States. 

“What I want to focus on in this State of the Union address (is) not just the remarkable progress we’ve made, not just what I want to get done in the year ahead, but what we all need to do together in the years to come,” said President Obama in an online message ahead of the address to Congress.

Obama has one final year to change the narrative and influence the discourse for the next president. 

Tuesday's speech is the beginning of the effort to accomplish just that. 

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has already suggested that the president will be signing more executive orders in 2016. 

In his final State of the Union, expect Obama to: highlight his accomplishments, his intentions for executive actions, and appeals to the voting public.


After relentless grassroots pressure and a growing crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, Obama finally took executive action in 2014 and moved to defer the deportation of 5 million non-status migrants. However, several states took legal action to block the program and it remains in legal limbo. 

Obama does have the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy — which has benefited more than 500,000 people — to point to as success. 

However Obama's government began the year by launching an effort to deport thousands of families who had fled rampant violence in Central America. As part of this mass deportation effort, U.S. officials have raided home, something unprecedented in modern U.S. history, that not even Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, attempted to do.

If he wants to regain the trust of the Latino voter base, Obama could immediately end these raids and the mass deportations. He could also seek a new approach to aid to the region, ending funding for costly and violent militaristic solutions, which invariably end up funding armed forces with questionable human rights records, and instead fund social development in impoverished countries. 

Gun Violence

The White House has announced that during Tuesday's speech there will be an empty seat in the First Lady’s Guest Box to represent the victims of gun violence. Earlier in January, Obama announced a plan to address gun violence and implement some new gun control measures that do not rely on the approval of Congress.

These measures fall far short of what is needed to curb the rampant gun violence in the United States, although in this case the inaction of Congress is also equally responsible. 

According to critics, Obama's plan falls short since it does not require that every gun sale in the country be preceded by a criminal background check, it does not ban on gun sales to people on “no-fly” lists, and does not ban large capacity gun magazines.

Foreign Policy

Despite his inability to claim he ended U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama does have some foreign policy achievements to point to, among them the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba and the successful negotiation of deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program. 

Yet Obama also presided over the debacle that was the intervention in Libya, creating a quagmire in Northern Africa with repercussions for the whole region. U.S. policies in the Middle East are directly responsible for the rise of the Islamic State group and Obama has not shown any inclination to move away from military intervention in the region, continuing to quietly seek the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The U.S. armed forces continues its wanton use of drones to conduct strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, among other countries. According documents obtained by The Intercept, nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan "were not the intended targets" of the attacks.

Even his laudable efforts at normalizing relations with Cuba falls short at achieving substantive change. Although they now have embassies in each other's country, the U.S. blockade remains. 

Although Obama could blame Congress for failing to lift the blockade, which causes immense suffering for the Cuban people, there is much more he could do utilizing his executive powers.

​“The essential thing now is that President Barack Obama uses with determination his vast executive powers to modify the implementation of the blockade, which would give meaning to what has been achieved so far and permit for solid progress to continue,” said Cuban President Raul Castro in late 2015. 

Racial Justice

Obama's arrival to the White House was undeniably remarkable as he was the first Black person to occupy the highest office in the land. In a country with a history soaked in racially-motivated violence, the significance of Black person in that post cannot be understated. 

Yet it would be difficult to argue that Obama's time in office represented a concrete advance for Black people and people of color in general in the United States. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in putting the topic racial justice on the map but the movement on the streets has so far failed to translate into changes. 

Once again Obama has made important overtures, making an unprecedented visit to a federal prison in July, 2015 as part of his campaign to implement criminal justice reform. He also commuted the sentences for 46 non-violent drug offenders, the most presidential commutations in a single day since the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

But commuting the sentences of 46 offenders does little to impact the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. The U.S. prison population sits at 2.2 million, according to the Justice Department, having grown more than fourfold since 1980.

Black men are still being killed by police at a much higher rate than white men. The Guardian revealed that in 2015 the rate was five times higher for Black men versus white men, resulting in 1,134 deaths of Black men at the hands of police.

The U.S. Department of Justice does not need congressional approval to send the message that racist police forces cannot continue killing Black people with impunity. 

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