Barack Obama, the most unlikely of anyone to occupy the Oval Office just a decade ago, has often said that he will never again have the chance to do as much good for so many as he has during the past seven years as president. His seventh State of the Union Address this week was President Obama’s first attempt in his final year in office to shape the history of his presidency as the ink recording his legacy begins to dry.
President Obama opened his final address by saying he wanted to focus on the future but then summarily ticked off many of the major accomplishments of his administration during his hour-long speech before Congress citing big wins including the Affordable Care Act, the recovery of our national economy from the Great Recession, his efforts on climate at home and abroad, as well as the elimination of public enemy number one – Osama Bin Laden.
However, the president also noted a number of items he plans to continue focusing on in the coming months as his presidency races towards sunset. The speech contained no less than 20 items that make up what could be called the Obama bucket list - some very possible, many more aspirational – that sets the agenda for the nation today and potentially for the next presidential administration tomorrow.
Here are the top five issues from that bucket list that could have the greatest long-term impact on the nation.
5. Protecting children from gun violence
More than 18,000 American children and teens are injured or killed each year due to gun violence, according to the Brady Center to End Gun Violence. The president has described the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT where 20 children were killed as one of his worst days in office. Enacting common sense gun safety laws, including background checks, closing gun show loopholes, and limiting the size of magazines for automatic weapons has received broad support from the majority of gun owners, law enforcement officers and the American people. These reforms could also reduce the number of mass shootings in America.
4. Bolstering the country for “change”
Americans are more anxious and angry than ever despite the extraordinary economic progress we have seen since the end of the Great Recession. While more than 14 million private sector jobs have been created during the past 70 months, everyday Americans remain concerned about their economic situation. Compound that concern with the perception of growing threats from terrorists around the globe, and the field is ripe for sowing seeds of fear among the American people.
In his address, President Obama noted that, “Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future, who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears.”
Obama also challenged us not to give in to the fears that brought us the permanent scars left by slavery of native Africans, Jim Crow laws impacting African Americans, Japanese internment camps during World War II and the recent calls to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. This type of bigotry and hate goes against everything for which we stand.
3. Enacting broad political reforms needed to improve our ability to govern
In a surprise riff late in the speech, President Obama noted the systemic issues in our political system that ultimately inhibits our ability to govern. He called for reforms concerning congressional redistricting, campaign finance, and making it easier – not harder – to vote in America. Explicit in these reforms now and once achieved is the duty of Americans to engage in the process more than just every four years during presidential elections.
Remember, “Yes We Can,” and “Change we can believe in?” Well, “we” is the operative word there.
2. Realizing criminal justice reform
Black Americans continue to be negatively impacted disproportionately by the criminal justice system. While the president and the Justice Department took steps to reduce the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, blacks still make up 1 million of the 2.3 million Americans who are incarcerated. And, now the rest of the world realizes what black Americans have always known – that some members of the law enforcement community, regardless of race, are more committed to defending the shield and not crossing the blue line when African Americans are subject to police violence. As the Black Lives Matter movement tells us, this simply has got to stop.
During the speech, President Obama recognized criminal justice reform as one of the issues with current bi-partisan support where progress could be made with a commitment to real reforms. Newly minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, sitting behind Obama on the dais, nodded in the affirmative as the president mentioned the issue. Let’s hope they move on this soon.
1. Restoring civility and decorum to our political discourse… together.
During his highly celebrated speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, and later during his historic run for the White House, President Obama encouraged us to consider a political view that did not see us as red states or blue states but the United States of America. It was a worldview predicated on the notion of hope and change. However, that all came crashing down on the eve of the president’s inauguration in 2009, when a select group of high ranking Republican leaders vowed to stand in unyielding opposition to the president’s agenda before he had even taken his first night’s rest in the Executive Residence.
While owning up to his role in some times building fences rather than bridges during his time in Washington, President Obama vowed to spend his final days in the White House working to correct what he characterizes as his greatest regret since taking office.
Corey Ealons is a former White House spokesperson for President Barack Obama. He is currently senior vice president with VOX Global, a public affairs communications firm based in Washington, DC.