On Wednesday, former President Barack Obama held a Zoom town hall to call for police reform and legislative changes in the wake of the George Floyd protests. While it’s certainly commendable that Obama would use his significant platform to speak up on such an important issue, I’m left wondering why he didn’t make any of these changes when he was actually the president.
We’re still not far enough removed from Obama’s presidency to get a true grasp on how he’ll be remembered in the annals of history, but there seems to be a general feeling among many that Obama was a good president—especially when it came to civil rights. And from a glance, it’s easy to see why: gay marriage became legal during Obama’s presidency, marijuana was legalized in eight states during that time, and DACA protected roughly 700,000 immigrants from being deported.
But when it comes to these civil rights achievements, I have to use Obama’s own words against him: “You didn’t build that.”
While Obama did speak in favor of gay marriage during the 2008 Democratic primary, he didn’t do anything to legalize it; instead, it was the Supreme Court case Obergefell v Hodges. As he left office, Obama said that marijuana should be treated like “cigarettes or alcohol,” yet he refused to take action to do so while in office. The states that legalized marijuana did so of their own volition, and Obama even waged a private war on medical marijuana. As for DACA—that was an executive order Obama signed after failing to get the DREAM Act passed despite having a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress.
Not surprisingly, the temporary nature of the DACA executive order made it incredibly easy for President Trump to eviscerate, whereas having a codified law on the books like the DREAM Act may have made it more permanent. The same can be said for Obama’s general practice of allowing states more authority when it came to legalizing marijuana: it wasn’t codified into law, and it wasn’t a surprise when Attorney General Jeff Sessions started talking about using federal law to overrule state laws on legalization.
In many ways, Obama’s legacy can be characterized as applying a lot of band-aids but not fixing the actual injury. For instance, his high level of commutations (mostly for non-violent drug offenses) made him the first president since the 60’s to see a decrease in the federal prison population. But the laws that created the era of mass incarceration in the first place remained on the books.
A lot of these laws revolve around the War on Drugs, which is steeped in racism and has (to no one’s surprise) had a racist impact in the disproportionate ways it’s been enforced. Obama did nothing to confront this, and he did very little to address the issues of race and police brutality that are manifesting in worldwide protests today.
Let’s not forget that the Black Lives Matter movement began during Obama’s presidency, a direct response to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. And Brown’s murder led to massive protests in Ferguson, Missouri that are very similar to what we’re seeing now, albeit on a more isolated scale. There were protests, riots, clashes between protesters and police, and a very tangible frustration with the lack of accountability for the officer who killed an unarmed black man.
Obama’s response? He criticized the police response to the protesters, as he should have, and ordered a review of the use of military equipment by the police. It seemed like a promising first step towards demilitarizing the police, but as we can see six years later, that review changed nothing.
Not only did that review not actually lead to any form of demilitarization of the police, but Obama’s criticisms of the police response, in which he said “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests,” never manifested into any action. There was a slight uptick in the amount of body cameras used by police around the nation, but no structural changes to require them across the board. And obviously qualified immunity was not struck down, or even looked at, despite the fact that it empowered police to get violent with peaceful protesters in Ferguson, just as they’re doing now.
It’s great that Obama is speaking out against this now – it really is – but this man was president for eight years, during which he witnessed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and did nothing to prevent it from happening again. That kind of inaction cannot be excused, especially now that we’re seeing the results of said inaction.