In this line, President Obama summed up his commitment to give the last year of his historic, 8 year presidency his total effort by running through the finish line rather than sitting back and become a “lame duck president”. Along with giving more interviews and guest appearances, comedic moments, an approval rating at an all time high of 57%, and campaigning for Hillary Clinton, the President has had an ambitious year and hopes to set a defining finish as a President to be remembered.
The term “lame duck” is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “an elected official or group continuing to hold political office during the period between the election and the inauguration of a successor”. Yet, according to Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, the definition has evolved to a President in their last term. The intention of the original term was to depict how a US President would lose influence over their office once the next President has been elected. Lame ducks are thought to be politicians whom have taken a backseat to policies at the end of their careers. However, in practice President Obama has been anything but a lame duck. Let’s take a look at how he has added points to his legacy over the last year.
- Nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court
Senator Rubio is often quoted as critical of the President for trying to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court in his “lame duck” year because it breaks a precedent that a President hasn’t appointed a Supreme Court justice in his lame duck year for 80 years.
There are a few problems with Senator Rubio’s claim. The first being that Ronald Reagan had appointed (and the Senate had confirmed) Justice Kennedy to the stand in 1988, the year in which George H.W. Bush had been elected as the next President. Now, a counter argument stands to this example: Bush Senior was a republican President while the 2016 has yet to be decided The second would be that article 2, section 2 of the Constitution compels the President to nominate a Justice to the Supreme Court when a vacancy appears. Obama’s choice of a moderate candidate for the position and the heated response from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has intractably refused to offer Judge Garland a hearing, are examples of how the partisan divide in Congress has stopped the President from being able to fulfill his duties and will leave an impression on his legacy that Congress has partisanly prevented him from filling a vacancy which has caused Supreme Court ties, such as the one that blocked his immigration plan to protect 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and to allow them to work legally in the US. The tie blocked what effectively might have been a cornerstone in Obama’s legacy.
- Visiting Cuba and ending the embargo
During this time period in 1964, the world watched as it’s two foremost superpowers nearly erupted into nuclear war with Cuba as the battleground. Post-Cuban Missile Crisis, relations between the US and Cuba would be hostile or non-existent for the next 50 years. In 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Castro took the first step in normalizing relations with Cuba. Obama is the first US President to visit cuba in 90 years, removed Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, reopened the American Embassy in Cuba, restored daily flights to Cuba, and now has lifted the restriction on Cuban rum and cigars.
The impact of ending the Cuban embargo is important to President Obama’s legacy because the new era in Cuban-American relations will usher economic progress to Cuba, a country that is severely technologically lacking. The agreement will additionally allow the US to guide the Cuban government towards improving their stance on human rights and hold them accountable for human rights abuses against its own citizens.
- Visiting Hiroshima
Obama didn’t only make a first for Cuba, he made one for Japan too. President Obama was the first US President to visit Hiroshima in the 71 years since the atomic bombs dropped and changed the face of warfare and technology. He restated his commitment and hope for a world without nuclear weapons and additionally said that weapons of mass destruction require a “moral revolution” within humanity to prevent itself from realizing their capability ever again. Obama later went on to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and take a moment of silence to honor the victims.
The President’s visit was met with divided responses as many Japanese citizens protested near the memorial, demanding an apology from Obama for the bombings while others were “simply grateful for his visit” and believed that 71 years without a visit from a US President was too long. The visit portrayed not only Obama’s commitment to seeing a world without conflict, but equally showed his commitment to the US’s military allies abroad.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now scheduled to return the significant gesture by becoming the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor since the end of WW2.
- Stonewall Inn
Referred to as the “Rosa Parks moment” in Gay history, on June 28th, 1969 during a police raid (which were frequent at the time) on the Stonewall Inn (a popular Gay bar in NYC), the patrons of the bar, rather than succumbing to police harassment, fought back and rioted for their rights. This event kindled the modern LGBT Rights Movement with the Stonewall Inn as it’s birthplace. President Obama has officially designated The Stonewall Inn as a national monument, added it to the National Parks system, and highlighted the importance of the place and events that took place there in the bigger battle for civil rights.
The Inn’s designation came a year after the Supreme Court’s decision to nationally legalize gay marriage under the first President to openly support gay marriage in 2012. The importance of the President’s designation of the Inn as a national landmark is cannot be understated as it further legitimizes the Gay rights movement and acknowledges the struggles that the LGBT community and America as a whole have endured to ensure equal rights for every American.
- Climate Change
Environmental consciousness will be remembered as a cornerstone of Obama’s legacy. From the beginning of his Presidency Obama has pledged to fighting climate change and now, internationally, he has made a significant step forward with the signing of the Paris Agreement at the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The historic deal, signed by 196 countries (the United States recognizes 195 countries and Taiwan as an addition but not as a sovereign country), pledges to limit the rise in global temperature to no more than 2 degrees celsius.
The deal requires every country to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses and the deal itself would be reviewed every 5 years. The deal is another step along Obama’s road to preventing climate change, as was his veto of the Keystone XL pipeline (a 1,179 mile pipeline meant to move carbon-heavy petroleum extracted from Canadian tar sands), which was met with a harsh backlash from Republicans.
- Criminal Justice Reform
In terms of record setting, Obama gets the gold medal for commuting sentences of nonviolent drug offenders. As of the end of November when he granted clemency to 72 federal inmates, the total number of communications Obama has granted has risen to 944, the most of any president and more than the last 10 presidents combined. In August, the president commuted the sentences of 111 nonviolent drug offenders, the highest number in a single month for any sitting president. Obama’s commitment to assuage the negative effects of the war on drugs, like life sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, is a part of his philosophy that Americans in the federal prison system deserve second chances. Obama is also the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and tour around it to see firsthand the inmates’ experiences.
Obama’s actions are representative of a larger criminal justice reform wave passing over America. Earlier this year the Senate passed a bipartisan bill meant to “reduce opioid usage, expand treatment programs, and prevent overdose deaths.” Additionally, there is another bipartisan supported bill in congress aimed to “change federal sentencing mandates” that has much potential for passage.
Obama’s vision for criminal justice reform seems to be coming true after all.
- The Medal of Freedom
The number of sentences commuted isn’t the only presidential record that Obama has set in the last year. President Obama has awarded the most Medals of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation, of any president at 114. On November 22nd, Obama gave the Medal for the last time in his presidency to those who have “touched [him] in a powerful personal way.” This years recipients have included Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Hanks, and Diana Ross.
The Medal is important to understanding Obama’s legacy because of the character of those to whom he has awarded it to. He has honored people of color was well as women at a higher margin than any of his predecessors and in his speech he highlighted Ellen DeGeneres’ important and monumental decision to come out as a gay public figure. Those who he has chosen for the Medal, from basketball stars to billionaire philanthropists, displays his affinity towards Americans and parts of America that he thinks are important but have been undervalued throughout our history.
- The liberal Reagan
President Obama has obviously pushed the country to make significant strides in policy and society during his two terms. He will be remembered not only as the first African-American President, but as a progressive, loyal, and patriotic American citizen who represents the best parts of this country.
Obama’s progressive outlook and desire to change the path America is on has prompted comparisons to President Reagan, a highly applauded Republican President who is often referenced by Republicans in events such as Presidential debates and is the poster President for the Republican Party because of his success and for paving a new, bright course for Republican Party. Through progressive reforms in healthcare, the economy, civil rights, foreign policy, and climate change President Obama has shifted the course of the country a few degrees to the left in ways President Clinton and President Bush (43) did not (to the right in Bush’s case). While Obama was enacting progressive policies, the country at the same time has seen a demographically more liberal shift under his administration. Of course, correlation does not imply causation so we cannot definitively ascertain that this liberal shift is a result of the President’s policies or actions but it is important to note in his legacy nonetheless.
We’ll miss you President Obama, thank you for your 8 years of service.