It was just a couple of weeks ago that first lady Michelle Obama seemed to weigh in on how President Barack Obama’s legacy was shaping up thus far.
“When folks ask me whether I still believe everything we said about change and hope back in 2008, I tell them that I believe it more strongly now than ever before because—look—I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Michelle Obama told an audience of female leaders in Washington.
She went on to describe how the president had made good on many of the promises he put forth during his campaign. Things like bringing down the unemployment rate, changing the political discussion around same-sex marriage and changing people’s perceptions about the heights that black men can climb. The president has 27 more months in office, and that’s more than enough time for him to keep pushing forward with that checklist of “to do’s” he scribbled down back in ’08.
That said, “What Obama needs to do is … ” is perhaps the most uttered phrase of political observers and barbershop analysts over the past six years. So The Root asked five experts—a civil rights activist, a Democratic strategist, a politician, a psychologist and a historian—with five very different points of entry into this presidency about what they’d like to see him zero in on during his final stretch. Here are their edited responses:
The Rev. Al Sharpton: Civil Rights Leader, MSNBC Host
The Root: What does President Obama need to do to maximize his civil rights impact with respect to African Americans?
Al Sharpton: From a civil rights point of view, he ought to maximize his impact by:
1. Empowering and supporting—in a very aggressive way—the Justice Department’s dealing with the question of police misconduct. Obama can tell local police departments that are found to be biased in their patterns and practices that he will block federal funds if they don’t change. Obama should also push for legislation that works against the militarization of the police force.
2. President Obama should continue to deal with the disparities in sentencing—this is something that both Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have started, but they need to be much more aggressive. A part of Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative—which is centered on mentoring—should also address sentencing and the disparity in how blacks—especially men—are arrested and imprisoned.
3. The president should deal with the preservation of voting rights. The Supreme Court took out a lot of the teeth of the Voters Right Act by neutralizing Section 5, so now they must aggressively go into those states—as they did in Texas and South Carolina—to uproot discriminatory new election laws that have negatively and severely impacted the black vote.
If Obama deals with these things—policing, the criminal-justice system and the Voting Rights Act—in the next two years, it will make him the best civil rights president we’ve seen in the last decade. And let me say this—which most people have not dealt with—Obama’s reaction to voting rights, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are reactions we did not see from Presidents Reagan, Bush, Bush Sr. or Bill Clinton. You have to remember, Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima happened under Clinton, and Clinton didn’t say a word. So Obama has already said more.
Donna Brazile: Democratic Strategist, ABC News and CNN Contributor
The Root: What does President Obama need to do to make sure Democrats are well-positioned at the end of his term?
Donna Brazile: In his final two years in office, President Obama needs to implement his climate action plan to help control greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the metastasizing dangers of climate change.
Fortunately, the president has also stated that he will address our broken immigration system and implement executive orders—within the framework of the law—to address millions of immigrants who live in the shadows of American society. He needs to be bold and use his pen and phone to address priorities that congressional Republicans do not share, including 1) raising the minimum wage, 2) preventing gun violence, 3) making education affordable and 4) strengthening voting rights for all Americans.
Lastly, the president should ensure that the current economic recovery lifts more Americans out of poverty and back on the path of stronger job growth and opportunities for all Americans.
Peniel E. Joseph, Ph.D.: Tufts University Historian, Author of Stokely: A Life
The Root: Will President Obama be remembered as a successful president 50 years from now?
Peniel E. Joseph: In order to be remembered, for his remaining two-plus years in office Obama needs to concentrate on jobs and racial justice:
1. In addition to the Justice Department’s investigation of Michael Brown’s death, the president can curtail the government’s militarization of local police departments, which we saw on full display in Ferguson. Obama could also push for federal funds to transform the relationship between local black communities and law enforcement, including requiring police to film any stop they make.
2. Obama can make use of creative presidential executive action by crafting a narrative that acknowledges the desperate need for urban renewal and a new “war on poverty” in the 21st century. Immigration reform and environmental reform can be achieved through robust executive orders as well. The president must also ensure that Obamacare is as secure as possible.
3. In terms of foreign policy, resisting the urge to enter a costly and endless ground war in the Middle East is priority one. Then, stabilizing the Iraq-Syria border and increasing humanitarian aid to refugees under extraordinary pressure from the region's rogue actors. Obama should form an international coalition to aid conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine and other global hot spots—that will also be key.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.): Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit
The Root: Is there a way for the president to secure cooperation from Republicans?
Gregory Meeks: As President Obama enters the final two years of his presidency, he must continue to focus on reducing the income gap and creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially for women and minority businesses owners. He’ll be able to cut through the rhetorical distractions and partner with members of both parties who are willing to put America’s interests first in order to meet the very complex and undoubtedly difficult challenges that our nation and the world faces.
Kristin J. Carothers, Ph.D.: Instructor in Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center
The Root: What can the president do to encourage a healthier mindset in America with regard to bipartisanship, togetherness and, perhaps, racial unity?
Kristin J. Carothers: If the president would like to improve the morale of people of color in light of the string of wrongful death incidents the nation has witnessed, he should begin a national conversation on the impact that racial biases have on our daily lives.
It might be helpful to implement a truth-and-reconciliation commission—similar to the one South Africa used after apartheid—to address the disparities in how law-enforcement officials treat blacks and Latinos versus whites, and, subsequently, why blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal-justice system. The commission can also address the socioeconomic disparities that affect poor people, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
The truth-and-reconciliation process is one way to heal the long-standing psychological damage that our society has endured as a result of slavery. It would also be important to acknowledge how this country was founded at the bloody expense of its founding groups, the Native Americans. Now, I know that digging this deep back into our past will not be a popular idea, since people typically don’t want to deal with their psychological trauma. Nevertheless, I believe having an honest conversation may encourage people who felt previously disenfranchised to become a part of the political process.
I think the fact that President Obama was re-elected shows that we are able to overcome some aspects of our collective psychological trauma, and that our culture is slowly changing.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.