Top Ten Ways President Obama has Expanded our Rights, in Rev. King’s Footsteps

In holding his inaugural on Martin Luther King Day, President Obama is underlining his achievement as the first African-American president and the first and only to win two terms. But he is also honoring the legacy of Dr. King, without whom the phenomenon of Barack Obama would have likely been impossible. It is appropriate on this day to remember Dr. King as a liberator, as one of the activists who made the 1964 Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act possible, who was instrumental in uplifting the oppressed and obtaining justice for the wronged. And, despite the many points on which the president’s policies differ from those King would have favored, it is right to credit Obama with those measures he has implemented to expand our rights and remove oppressive practices.

h/t Yung Joe

1. President Obama worked with Congress to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, which extends health insurance to 30 million more Americans. Dr. King himself had said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman” according to eyewitness Dr. Quentin Young of Chicago.

2. The very first bill President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. Only 5 Republicans voted for it, and it would not have been passed in the previous administration. It forbids paying women less than men for doing the same job, a situation that had been common in corporate America.

3. At a time when controversy is still dogging the film “Zero Dark Thirty” regarding its depiction of torture, it is worth remembering that one of President Obama’s first acts was to prohibit torture as it had been practiced by US government personnel under George W. Bush and to bring the US into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. The United States of America, President Obama proclaimed, does not torture.

4. He had the Environmental Protection Agency at long last move against coal plants spewing mercury poisoning into the environment. This step may be among his more consequential, since it not only protects citizens from being exposed to a virulent nerve poison but also has led to the closing of unprecedented numbers of dirty coal plants, reducing US carbon dioxide emissions a little.

5. Obama put the first Latina on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

6. Obama saved the workers of the US auto industry from losing their jobs as the companies went bankrupt. Instead, the US auto industry is now back and has added over 100,000 jobs.

7. The president signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009), which extends existing hate crime protections to cover crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, or disability (previously religion, race, color, and national origin had been covered).

8. For many lower-income Americans, including students, credit cards are an easy way to get a loan, but the loans are of course extremely high-interest and came with a whole host of hidden costs that made it difficult for the poor ever to get back out from under their indebtedness. Obama passed credit card reform, banning some of the worst excesses of this industry.

9. He signed the Claims Resolution Act, which committed $4.6 billion in funding to settle suits by black and Native American farmers, whom the government had swindled out of loans and royalties on their natural resources over the years.

10. He created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect consumers from predatory practices by financiers and bankers.

The life’s work of Rev. King was aimed at expanding human opportunities and removing the shackles created by bigotry. He worked for individual dignity and for an expansion of civil and human rights, to encompass those left out of America’s Establishment rights regime. On this day it is worth stepping back from partisanship and cynicism to recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and under extremely difficult circumstances, Obama has in the above ways honored King’s values.

Posted in US politics | 44 Responses | Print |

44 Responses

  1. The Lily Ledbetter Act does not forbid paying women less than men for doing the same job. It merely extends the length of time a woman can sue for unequal pay.

    • Right; it was already illegal to pay women less for the same job.

      What this bill did is make that law enforceable, after the Supreme Court had gutted it.

  2. I looked at the title and thought it was a satirical piece. Then I realized you were serious.

  3. well, i’m sorry but this is pretty sad. celebrating “window dressing achievements” is pitiful. fact is obama has continued to bush regime on steroids, has sucked up to the plutocracy and bailed out the super rich while scheming to cut the social safety net and instigating liberal fascism.
    lily ledbetter notwithstanding, there are few blacks better off than 4 years ago. blacks like everyone else are being sold down the river.
    the cult of personality is i suppose part of the authoritarian mindset.

  4. In 2008, Barack Obama promised change.
    In 2009, Barack Obama fulfilled his promise and changed.

    He changed from a liberal Democrat to a neocon neo-Republican.
    He changed from a tough principled negotiator to a weak bipartisan appeaser.
    He changed from an advocate of rule-of-law to an enabler of torture & summary executions.
    He changed from a professor of constitutional law to a sponsor of unconstitutional laws.
    He changed from a defender of government transparency to a persecutor of whistleblowers.
    He changed from a master of equal opportunity to a slave of lobby & corporate interests.
    He changed from a Nobel Peace Laureate to an interventionist War President.
    He changed from a champion of civil rights & democracy to a protector of autocratic regimes.
    He changed from a neutral & honest broker to a pseudo Israeli ambassador.
    He changed from a promising visionary statesman to a myopic reactionary leader.
    He changed from an inspirer of audacious hope to a guardian of conservatism & despair.

    Barack Obama promised change, so he changed.

    • @IResistDe4IAm – Well said.

      I am a fan of Dr Cole, however, this sad cheerleading really undermines his credibility. Even if the President did accomplish *some* good (some of these really are a stretch), the truth is that he has been a strong net negative for the Bill of Rights. Our ‘rights’ are contracting, not expanding, and he has very clearly accelerated this process.

      • Mr. Cole is listing some good things Obama has done. He does not say anywhere in this post that Obama has not done bad things. Nor does he say that the good outweighs the bad.
        There are many leaders who deserve to be credited for the good they’ve done, even though their overall goodness is equivocal. Fidel Castro, for example, can be credited with providing education and healthcare to his people, yet he was brutally repressive. Pointing out someone’s achievements is not always cheerleading.

      • I think Juan Cole is uncharacteristicaly wrong.Respecting
        human rights and the Constitution are not among these.

  5. And . . .

    1. Obama has used the 1917 Espionage Act more than all previous presidents combined to abuse and persecute whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou.

    2. In health care reform, he gave insurers _everything_ they demanded while excluding single-payer advocates from the discussion altogether.

    3. Economic inequality continues to grow rapidly while social mobility suffers.

    4. Despite token Wall Street/finance reforms, nothing has stopped or even slowed Wall Street in its race to a new bubble. Obama has repeatedly surrounded himself with idolaters of Wall Street.

    5. Obama has asserted the right to use drones anywhere, and has excused, ignored, or concealed American killings of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.

    6. Obama has claimed the right to assassinate American citizens.

    7. He has failed to close Guantanamo. Despite claims of ending torture, his administration tortured Bradley Manning and there are numerous reports of torture continuing at Bagram airbase. His “ending” of torture seems more like a redefinition.

    8. Obama showed every indication of personally opposing the CFPB (as he personally opposed Elizabeth Warren), but he found himself confronted with a majority in the US population that expected him to stand by at least _some_ of his rhetoric.

    9. His administration continued the Bush rush to bailout Wall Street, but four years later, the vast majority of those directly mauled by the banks in the foreclosure crisis have seen _no_ assistance of any kind.

    10. Whatever his personal thinking about Israeli occupation and right-wing Israeli war criminals, Obama has continued to fund Israeli atrocities in the West Bank and Gaza.

    11. On climate change, Obama has been as bad in action as any Republican. It seems clear that, like the oligarchs he serves, Obama feels safe in the conviction that, no matter what happens, the US government will be able to extract from the average American whatever is needed to keep the 0.1 percent safe from any and all negative outcomes of their crimes.

  6. Like MRD above I initially thought this posting was satire. The Obama administration has continued the Bush administration policies in so many key areas that they are well-nigh indistinguishable from them. As I say my initial reaction to this posting was that it was satire, then to my horror I realised it wasn’t. I’ll leave the last word with an American:

    You cannot be serious

    link to


  7. Credit card reform is a “significant achievement? If this is the list of achievements that will be Obama’s legacy as America’s first black president, it is a sorry list indeed. These achievements pale beside drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, expanding war in Africa, the destruction of Libya, indefinite detention, NDAA, Guantanamo remains open, Bagram continues apace, and the torture of being cleared for release yet remaining in prison in Guantanamo. It’s not time to step back, it is time to move forward.

  8. The Affordable Care Act will enable low-income people in states that accept the medicare expansion to have Medicare coverage, regardless of age or gender. Progressives who pooh-pooh this are demonstrating their lack of concern for the poor.
    And most people whose medical coverage is being improved by the ACT don’t give a whit about how it affects the insurance agency .

  9. Regarding the automotive industry, it should be remembered President Bush, as a lame-duck president in 2008, initiated the first automotive bailout of both GM and Chrysler, which was lauded by Democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

    It was President Carter who approved the highly successful bailout of Chrysler in 1979 at the height of a recession as the very first federal subsidization of a failing automaker.

    Britain had previously prevented the collapse of Rolls-Royce and the U.S. has also saved Lockheed, an aerospace defense contractor, from bankruptcy on grounds of national security.

  10. Torture! the treatment of Bradley Manning is torture, by all descriptions of what is being leaked/told about his confinement. with the death of Swartz, such hyperbole is inexcusable.

    So, if you believe Obama has ended the use of torture, i have some wetlands in West Texas for sale.

    Dream on about Obama and the US Gov. Obama is just another member of the “Faith Based” Fantasy Religion we usually call Republicanism.

  11. On #4: it wasn’t only the mercury/toxics rule that has made life difficult for the coal-burners. From coal ash to particulates to mountaintop removal to the cross-state pollution regs, the EPA has passed a number of rules that disproportionately affect the coal industry.

  12. The difference between Martin Luther King and several of the commenters above: Martin Luther King congratulated and thanked Lyndon Johnson for passing the Civil Rights Act.

    Because he had class, and perspective.

  13. Dr. Cole, I hate to say this, but you are trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    Obamacare has its benefits for some people but mostly the insurance corporations whose lobbyists were the principal authors.

    Then there are … well it looks like plenty has already been said in that regard.

  14. Obama also was the first president to admittedly personally approve individual extrajudicial assassinations – a practice which Amnesty International asserts violates international law.

    He continued to fund with billions of dollars the State of Israel, a repressive human rights violator, despite the Foreign Assistance Act barring aid to such prospective recipients.

    He also broke his campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

    His administration did not prosecute CIA agents involved in illegal torture.

    The president cannot be compared to Dr. King.

    • “Obama also was the first president to admittedly personally approve individual extrajudicial assassinations – a practice which Amnesty International asserts violates international law.”

      Amnesty International is hardly an authority on international law. It has an agenda and views the drone program through its own ideological lens. In fact, as has been asserted many times on this forum by several posters, there is ample evidence that supports the legality of the program, from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to the 2001 Congressional act.

      • I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” about the prelude to and the early days of the Great War (not the Global War On Terror, that we don’t call it any more, but WW I).

        Bill’s insistence that all the stuff “we” are doing is “legal” under “international law,” citing his two or three usual authorities. And of course the claim that anybody “we” target, or kill by oopsie, is ipso facto an “Illegal Enema Combatant” or one of their family or friends who are unwise enough to associate with them.

        Interesting how reminiscent his claims are of the claims the Boche used to justify burning Belgium and France and what they could reach of Russia, etc., and “executing” hostages and decimating streets and villages and cities on the ground that under “international law,” all that was perfectly legal, because whether in fact or in propaganda, Belgians had dared to shoot at the invading and attacking Boche, as “evil franc-tireurs,” and thus invited the implementation of Clausewitz’s Total War Doctrine. And besides, as the Germans told it, the Belgians started it by not just bending over and taking it from the git-go, ‘cuz Germany was after all Superior and the New Wave of Destiny.

        Yeah, I know, Bill — “That was different.”

        Interesting that you would try to denigrate Amnesty International as “having an agenda and an ideological lens.” I think Amnesty International’s staff includes a number of lawyers who specialize in and probably understand “international law,” that arbitrary and squishy notion, pretty well. That they do not espouse your position and the position of the folks you apologize for sure does not either impeach them, or validate you.

        “Legal,” my eye. But of course there’s no stopping the GWOT, now is there, or even trying to right-size and rationalize “our” game play…

      • In 2002, a CIA Predator drone attempted to “take out” with a Hellfire missile Gulbuddin Hekmyatar, a former Afghan prime minister serving in 1994 in the post-Marxist Afghan government. The missile missed its target. This assassination attempt – which went virtually unnoticed by the Western media – clearly violated the executive order of Prseident Ford barring assassination of foreign leaders.

        Hekmyatar had been a major warlord leader who was supplied militarily by the CIA and Saudis during the resistance of the Communist government in Kabul.

        After the failed CIA assassination attempt, Hekmyatar threw his support behing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and later offered a bounty on American military personnel.

        The U.S. government rarely if at all mentions Hekmyatar in public briefings or adverts to the fact he was once a key U.S. ally. Hekmyatar remains an influential and elusive Afghan rebel leader.

        The attempt to kill this Afghan leader was futile, illegal and inimical to American interests.

  15. Sorry, Juan. Like every other commenter, I find it hard to believe your kind words about the warmonger, élite-supporter, anti-worker, anti-poor people, pro-Reagan, POTUS whose only similarity to MLK is his “African-american” label. See the interviews on TRNN of Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report , or read the BAR article, to see the real differences.

    • Obama received 59.8 million votes. Even if some of these voters were voting against his rival, tens of millions nevertheless supported him. The, uh, 8 objections here aren’t “everyone.” I love you guys, but most of the objections above don’t have anything to do with my points, which they don’t refute, and also none of the posters has actually helped as many people as Obama. I am a critic of some of his policies but sheesh, let him have a day.

      • The running theme is that Obama’s most significant legacy may be that he made the republican assault on core democratic values a bipartisan thing, and that he has squandered the kind of hope that may not re-emerge for a generation. After condemning torture, pardoning the torturers and allowing Manning to be tortured fills people with horror and despair, so they can’t help but raise those points when you attempt to draw the comparison with MLK.
        Ditto for Obama’s pre-election embrace of international law, and post-election commitment to drone war at the cost of civilian lives. Ditto for the promise of transparency, and the subsequent War on Whisteblowers. Ditto for the horrendous Intellectual Property regime his people are trying to foist on the world (see ACTA and TPP-IP).

        Credit where credit is due is one thing – and all here besides the unsatisfiable must be happy that he won in November – but unless Obama’s second term is much different, his main legacy may be that he left Americans more cynical than ever about the positive potential of politics. Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs that the second term will be different. Hope dies hard.

    • “Sorry, Juan. Like every other commenter, I find it hard to believe your kind words about the warmonger, élite-supporter, anti-worker, anti-poor people, pro-Reagan, POTUS whose only similarity to MLK is his “African-american” label.”

      Speak for yourself, Rosemerry. You certainly do not speak for “every other commentater,” and you certainly do not speak for me.

  16. The best and most informative part of this post is the reaction to it. Thank god for the comments section.

  17. Almost all of the ‘good’ is negated by the ‘bad’. Immunizing torture, institutionalizing the murder of bystanders by remote control machines, perpetuating the empire by violence rather than by example…these are the permanent, unscrubbable stains. Bush gets an F-. Obama C+ but F in world citizenship.

  18. For those of us who still remember the craziness and poor leadership of the minions brought in by the Bush-Cheney admin, these baby steps are needed but much more has to be done. The Obama Admin needs to stop letting the chicken hawks call the shots on security issues and needs to be far more supportive of government whistleblowers – both civil service and those who are contracting or working as civil on the Military and Intel side. We need better government accountability – not protection for those abusers from the Bush-Cheney era still holding onto their government jobs. There were good people brought in, but alot also who didnt deserve it either. Government hiring needs to be made truly competitive and fix USA Jobs and the corrupt practice of “posting” a government vacancy then hiring a republican or someone already known while making the process “Look” competitive. State Department is one of the biggies at this.

  19. MLK was very outspoken against the Vietnam War and I surely would have strongly opposed Obama’s drone strikes. Also while in the White House, Bill Clinton pardoned well over 100 people. So did President Bush. To date, Obama has pardoned less than two dozen and commuted even fewer sentences. In 2012 the only one he pardoned was a turkey. Really he couldn’t find one victim of injustice? The criminal justice system and the drug wars are the most clear display of domestic racism in our time, and despite his own drug history Obama has done nothing to challenge them. In fact his DEA has done the opposite.

  20. I’ve read all the above comments.

    I think those who complain about Obama caving in to the insurance industry in the Affordable Health Care Act do not understand the politics involved here.

    Fact: the insurance companies refused to exempt preventive care from deductibles, refused to not limit total coverage, refused to let dependents under 26 stay on their parents plan, refused to give insurance to those with ‘pre-existing’ illness as part of the ACA.

    To me, this was the only way to go. For those who think he sold out to the insurance industry, how would you have gathered together a majority of the House and Senate to support the ‘public option’ much less ‘single payer system’? If you can’t respond to this question, quit complaining. The only legitimate response is to elect more ‘progressive representatives’ who will support progressive agendas. So go at it! The future awaits you.

    In fact,Obama signaled in June,2009, that he would use the Baucus Senate Democratic version of the law as his foundation. Instead of looking are the reality of compromise, so-called progressives oppose their own President until they almost lost the chance at passing ANY health care law in the autumn of 2009.

    If you think Obama or any other President can just abolish the private health care industry, which employees millions of people and is a major part of the economy AS IT NOW STANDS, with a stroke of a pen to the ACA, you have alot to learn about practical politics.

    2. I am not a fan of Obama’s foreign policy choices. However, after caving to Netanyahu

    • Obama could have gotten a public option by playing some political hardball with filibustering Senators.

      Obama could have said, “I might not have enough votes to overcome your filibuster, but you don’t have enough votes to overcome my veto. Forget about passing a budget until I get my public option on healthcare. I can show you gridlock like you ain’t never seen gridlock.”

      Do you think Congress could have impeached Obama in 2009, when he was in the full flush of his recent victory? Blue Dogs might not have wanted a public option, but they would have wanted a failed Democrat Presidency even less.

      Obama was in a superb position to employ all the leverage of the Executive Branch on the health care issue. He chose not to use it.

      Barack Obama’s failure to do his duty to those who elected him is the Number One Reason why the American people don’t have a public option for their healthcare, and why their tax dollars are being used for a mandatory subsidy to huge insurance companies instead.

        • If I recall correctly, as far as Obama was concerned the public option wasn’t even aborted in the White House. That came as no surprise to anyone paying attention to Obama’s first moves on health care, such as inviting a health insurance industry insider, Tom Daschle, to be his choice for Health Secretary – or the fox guarding the department of health’s hen coop.

        • Respectfully sort of have to disagree, professor.

          There has been a huge amount of discourse over at places like dailyKos and even nursing websites about what Obama and his people could have accomplished by doing the bully pulpit thing. Dems have been helping to drown the baby of the New Deal for quite a while, and I doubt that from all the managed care applied to the debate (like excluding representatives of single-payer or even “medicare for all” from the room) that even Serious Historians will give a true picture of what happened from 2007 on. Wiki, that always-impeachable source, offers this: link to

          The Villagers have their immutable political truths; the rest of us have, maybe, Obamacare. (My wife, like a lot of our fellow Americans, has serious pre-existing conditions, no possible non-employer private UN-surance. She is “lucky” to have a COBRA continuation for a little while yet, and under that ACA mishmash has to gGO WITHOUT ANY “HEALTH UN-SURANCE” for SIX MONTHS, before even qualifying for whatever we here in FL will “receive” from the “exchange” thingie. What could possibly be wrong with that situaton?)

          You tell me, from your perspective of a person who maybe has a pretty good group health deal through the University, that’s the best that could have been achieved, tell me as a veteran who gets VA single-payer quality care, and who now can “take” advantage of Medicare, and as a nurse who sees the flaws (fixable) in Medicare/Medicaid and the flaws (huge, cruel and inherent) in for-profit or even non-profit privatized UN-surance every working day.

      • “Forget about passing a budget until I get my public option on healthcare.”

        The problem with your above-cited statement is that the Democrats have not even submitted a budget the last four years. If your target was supposed to be the Republicans, you are targeting the wrong group. It is the Democrats who should have presented a budget but have failed to do so.

  21. I would have thought not choking on a pretzel was his most historic achievement.

  22. Maybe it’s all just a grand strategy. Be a careful apprentice the first four years. Accommodate as necessary those constituencies that could destroy any chance of re-election. Then go to the journeyman level on Jan 20, 2013, and kick all the butts you’ve been patronizing as an apprentice.

    He started the escape from the powerful, intelligent, and energetic 2008 base that elected him, as early as cabinet selection. Alliance with the base would have necessitated a boldness that would jeopardize his apprentice strategy to gain term II.

    Now on Jan 21 the journeyman is attempting to bring the 2008 base in from the cold, because without their vigor, kicking establishment butt is out of the question.

    We’ll know in a few months Barrack II is just the same old Barrack I, or a guy that ducked into a telephone booth and emerged in cool, really blue, tights.

  23. One of the moments in the primaries when Obama connected to the audience more than his opponent Hillary Clinton was when they were asked who MLK would support. Clinton predictably did the usual waffling about how he would support her ;-). Obama himself said that MLK wouldn’t support any of them but would be out in the streets building a movement that would hold their feet to the fire (from memory, cannot find the exact quote).

    Certainly we can all get behind wanting to live in a country that is moving in the right direction and having common achievements such as having elected a black president in the first place (and the minor points raised in the article)… but beyond that what is the point about writing a blogpost about Obama in Martin King’s footsteps now?

    MLK life’s work was dedicated to poverty, inequality, discrimination, war, and the spiritual decay connected with those issues.

    Household wealth of (especially black) people has largely been wiped out by the housing crisis. Inequality is highest since the 1920ies. Schools are re-segregating and Black incarceration figures are off the scale.

    But even if the opposite was true, and whatever one thinks of Obama’s record regarding poverty, inequality, and war, for the last couple of weeks the president has been involved in negotiations which may well involve rolling back the social safety net (grand “bargain”); if ever, now would be the moment to hold his feet to the fire.

    Generally, as a white guy I would respectfully suggest we leave it to racialized persons and women for that matter to assess their struggles themselves for now. I just don’t see how this is helping them; at worst it may give them the feeling of being put them on the defensive even more.

    From my experience, it has been a much more difficult but ultimately rewarding if humiliating exercise to focus on discrimination and inequality and their effects on us especially when one (unwittingly) finds oneself as a beneficiary. Martin King had a lot to say about spiritual decay in society and it was not confined to the minds of the oppressed.

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