There's a thing that happens with presidents. In their first terms, they're all getting ready to run for the second terms. In their second terms, they spend the first half setting up the dominos for their party in the midterms. Theoretically, they should be doing that in the fourth quarter of their terms, but, newsflash: Obama is out of fucks.
In the last year, the president has been on a tear on everything from immigration to militarizing police, pushing through radical political reforms that he didn't manage to shove through Congress. Doing it in the form of executive orders creates the risk that the next president will reverse those orders on January 21st (especially if that president is, say, Donald Trump, *collective shudder*), but he's still making an important point.
If these orders stand, they will change the experience of America for many Americans. If they don't, they will lay the groundwork for legislation that has a much better chance of long-term survival because it requires more than the stroke of a pen to dismantle. So let's take a look at some of the greatest hits of give-no-fucks Obama.
1) July 13, 2015: Pardons 46 nonviolent drug offenders
The American criminal justice system is in need of critical reforms from the ground up: Policing, courts and trials, privatization of prisons, the death penalty, and so much more. One of the most serious problems within the system is the glut of nonviolent drug offenders crowding the system, courtesy of "tough on crime" laws from the 1990s when everyone was convinced that crack cocaine would be the downfall of America.
Along with the rest of the War on Drugs, such laws were wildly ineffectual when it came to addressing issues with drugs in the United States — like rising HIV and HCV infections in rural areas because of backwards policy about needle exchanges — but they were really effectual at getting young black men into prison. Young men of color are profiled by police, often don't get fair trials, and end up in prison as a result of mandatory sentencing.
Many states are reevaluating mandatory sentencing and rolling back such laws — see prison realignment in California — but that doesn't change things for the over one million Americans sitting in prison for nonviolent drug offenses without ties to gangs or organized crime. Pardoning 46 prisoners is a symbolic move, but an important one.
2) December 17, 2014: Let's all smoke Havanas
Now that the Cold War is very, very over and the U.S. embargo on Cuba is beyond ridiculous, the president's decision to work on reestablishing diplomatic relations was a smart foreign policy move. Taking the task on quickly was also advisable, not just because the clock is ticking on his administration, but because it's long past time and acting rapidly makes it harder to oppose by turning it into a fait accompli.
Even if you're not into cigars, grab some mojitos (for those for whom they are relevant), or consider enjoying vintage cars, which is what I plan to do when I make landfall.
3) July 21, 2014: Protecting LGBQT federal workers from discrimination
Fewer than half of U.S. states offer LGBQ employment protections, and even fewer also extend that to trans employees. The president can't force state legislatures to extend such protections, but he did mandate that all federal contractors abide by an executive order prohibiting gender and orientation-based discrimination. It could be the first step in a federal antidiscrimination law, although the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) doesn't look like it's going to be the one now that it's been so diluted.
Such legal protections do not, of course, guarantee total freedom from discrimination, but employers will have to be able to demonstrate cause for termination, and they establish legal grounds for a suit. That's very, very good news for an economically vulnerable population.
4) May 18, 2015: Taking our guns and going home
Citing the growing and disturbing use of military equipment among U.S. police forces, the president issued recommendations against certain supplies in civilian policing. That includes "track armored vehicles" and "weaponized aircraft," both of which, yes, are owned and operated by some domestic law enforcement agencies. Under the recommendations, the military would no longer be allowed to transfer such equipment to law enforcement.
Civilians are not the enemy, and with a police shooting happening nearly every day, this is clearly only one aspect of a larger family of necessary reforms, but it's a good start. Naturally, law enforcement agencies told him he was overreacting.
5) February 12, 2014: Fair pay for disabled workers
In an order increasing the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, the White House specified that the order applies to disabled workers, too. This is a marked departure from conventional attitudes in a nation where disabled people can still be paid subminimum wage and typically make less than nondisabled counterparts in equivalent positions.
As with LGBQT employment protections, the move sets a precedent, reinforced by a disability hiring mandate at federal contractors. If you want to nab those lucrative federal contracts, be prepared to support your workforce.
6) Ongoing: Your immigration policy sucks
After some rough ground, Obama seems to have found his footing and he's proposing immigration action left and right including deferred action on deportations. Notably, despite rumors to the contrary, the orders do not include moves like extending Obamacare to immigrants (who, for the record, pay into the U.S. tax system but do not necessarily take advantage of the refunds and services they're entitled to, thereby propping up the very system conservatives accuse them of abusing).
This isn't to say that Obama has a solid record on immigration. He's setting records with deportations, hinky immigration raids, privatized immigration detention centers, and a growing number of immigrants in detention without hearings or trials.
7) January 2015, 2015: Paid sick leave
Paid sick leave was one among many initiatives promised in the State of the Union, but it along with paid maternity leave is a critical political and social reform and it's remained largely off the table for now. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations without these basic benefits, and that could be about to change. If Congress succeeds in passing a bill extending sick and maternity leave protections to workers, it will make American workplaces healthier and happier.
8) January 9, 2015: Free community college (for most)
While initiatives for free community college are inching state by state, it would be easier to have a cohesive national plan, which is exactly what the president proposed. His plan comes with some catches, excluding wealthier students and also cutting off funding after two years — many students take longer because they need to work, take care of family members, and engage in other tasks while in school — but it's a very strong start in an arena where the U.S. has been lagging.
9) July 2015: Regulating climate change into obscurity
After talking fancy in the State of the Union on the subject, the administration is finally moving forward with a number of initiatives and rules to strategically address climate change. These include mandates to cut emissions and close polluting power plants. Needless to say, they are not popular with climate change deniers, conservatives who dislike the initial outlay of cash required to improve efficiency, and firms with vested interests in polluting industries, like oil and gas companies. The EPA is already looking at legal challenges to rulemaking that hasn't even happened yet.
Aaaand mic drop.