The countdown to President Obama’s last one-hundred days began on Oct. 13. Already, the President has committed to spending his waning days in office by campaigning for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President. Indeed, he has put his legacy on the line, telling black people at his last Congressional Black Caucus dinner that he will be personally insulted if folks don’t get out to vote for Hillary. Instead of staking his legacy on the results of the November elections, however, President Obama might be better advised to improve his legacy by taking bold actions in these last days of his presidency.
What might he do to positively affect the African-Americans he far too frequently scolds? For one thing, he might step up the pace of the pardons and sentence commutations for nonviolent drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American. In 2011, then-Attorney General Eric Holder said there were as many as 10,000 federal drug offenders that could be released. While President Obama has offered pardons and commutations, only a fraction of those whose sentences could be commuted have been. For whatever reason, the Department of Justice has moved at a snail’s pace with commutations. President Obama could direct Attorney General Loretta Lynch to bring more pardon applications to his desk. He would make a tremendous impact if the number of nonviolent drug offenders with sentences pardoned or commuted were closer to 10,000 than 1,000.
President Obama might also consider a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). At its peak, UNIA had millions of members in 1100 chapters in 40 countries. Garvey was wrongfully convicted of mail fraud and deported from the United States in 1923. Garvey was really only guilty of loving black people and organizing us. President Obama could lift up an organizer, correct a historical wrong, and signal that he is not as indifferent to black people as he sometimes seems. Such a small gesture would go a long way toward contributing to his legacy.
The president might also consider the request from the Institute of the Black World 21st Century to appoint a commission on reparations, named for John Hope Franklin, who chaired former President Bill Clinton’s commission on race. Obama could do this by executive order and the commission could potentially hold a few hearings in the month after the November election. This would be a small gesture, but it would go a long way toward continuing an important conversation about the origins of our nation’s wealth gap.
Obama could also use an executive order to direct unspent Department of Education funds to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). What if he directed at least $1 million to each HBCU, pushing Kim Hunter Reed, acting executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, to go to each federal department to release unspent funds for contracting and scholarship opportunities? These dollars would make a great difference, especially at our nation’s smallest, private HBCUs. The president made important points in his recent visit to North Carolina A&T State University at a gathering hosted by ESPN’s “The Undefeated” and led by anchor Stan Verrett. He could combine talk with action by aggressively addressing HBCU issues as his term winds down, making amends for the ways his administration treated HBCUs earlier.
President Obama has lots of unfinished domestic and foreign policy matters, and there will be numerous demands in these last 100 days for him to address a plethora of issues. As a lame duck, he has limited tools — the executive order and the bully pulpit. Congress may return after the November election chastened, especially if Republicans lose the presidential race, and inclined to cooperate on some legislative matters. It is more likely, however, that they will continue their obstruction to anything President Obama proposes.
Still, President Obama has the power to do more both symbolically and substantively in these last days of his presidency. I’d urge him to consider some of the things he can do to address the African-American community that has steadfastly supported him, even when he has not been so supportive of us.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available via www.amazon.com