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Four Reforms Obama Should Highlight in the State of the Union

After a year of unrest at home and abroad, the president will use Tuesday’s State of the Union address to hit the reset button and outline his agenda for the coming year.

  • Erik Opsal
January 19, 2015

After a year of unrest at home and abroad, President Barack Obama will use tomorrow’s State of the Union address to hit the reset button and outline his agenda for the coming year. Here are four ideas Obama should commit to in order to secure democracy, justice, and the rule of law in 2015 and beyond.

1.) Stem the Flood of Big Money Since Citizens United

Five years ago, Obama stood before Congress and explained how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision would allow special interests to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections. Justice Samuel Alito famously mouthed the words “not true” in response.

But the facts are clear: Outside spending has exploded since the ruling — and average voters are being pushed further to the margins.

According to a Brennan Center report released last week, outside spending on Senate elections has more than doubled — from $220 million in 2010 to $486 million in 2014. This arms-race spending has also led to a major increase in the influence of a few wealthy donors. Across all federal elections since Citizens United, just 195 individuals and their spouses have given almost 60 percent of the $1 billion spent by super PACs. Even worse, much of this spending comes from “dark money” groups that conceal the identity of their donors. Of the nearly $1 billion outside spenders poured into the last three Senate cycles, $485 million was dark money.

In tomorrow’s address, just one day shy of the 5th anniversary of Citizens United, President Obama should decry this historically high outside spending, which threatens to drown out the voices of those who can’t afford large contributions. He should call on Congress to stem the increasing influence of money in politics by passing legislation requiring disclosure of campaign spending, prohibiting coordination between outside spenders and candidates, and adopting small donor public financing. And he should announce that the administration will take executive actions to prevent dark money from corrupting government.

2.) Reduce Mass Incarceration

The turmoil in Ferguson and New York City has put a spotlight on criminal justice in America. Tomorrow, the president can move beyond a national debate on race and policing by refocusing on the larger problem: a criminal justice system that responds disproportionately to crime. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. This system of mass incarceration has a sharp racial tilt. But a generation of research shows we can reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration. In fact, as Attorney General Eric Holder noted at a Brennan Center conference in September, since Obama took office, both crime and incarceration have decreased by 10 percent — the first time that’s happened in 40 years.

The president can start by using federal funds to support local policing practices that work. Each year, the federal government sends more than $4 billion to states and cities for criminal justice. Too often, these funds are used to unnecessarily arrest and incarcerate people. Instead, we should use that money to fund what works. Many cities have diverted low-level offenders to social services instead of arresting and prosecuting them. In Chicago, for example, the city’s murder rate went down 18 percent since it began training police officers in increasing community trust. More cities can use these strategies. Congress, the executive branch, and law enforcement can work together to ensure the money the federal government spends builds community trust and effectively reduces crime and incarceration.

Finally, Obama should also call on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act and REDEEM Act — two criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support.

3.) Protect Voting Rights and Modernize Elections

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. With the blockbuster film “Selma” offering a powerful portrayal of the march that helped galvanize support for the landmark law, President Obama should use tomorrow’s speech to note the continued need for strong voting rights protections and call on Congress to restore the VRA.

And with politicians continuing to pass voting restrictions in the states, the president can take several actions to help improve voting for millions of Americans. First, he should call on states and Congress to adopt recommendations from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. These noncontroversial, bipartisan proposals — including modernizing registration and adding early voting — will upgrade the voting process, increase efficiency, and reduce the chances of fraud. Second, Obama should announce strong executive actions to expand voter registration in America.

4.) Enhance Privacy and Security

After the tragic events in Paris, President Obama should speak to the need to protect our country — and to uphold our core constitutional values in doing so.

Obama should emphasize the need to move forward with legislation to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Last year, Congress failed to pass the USA Freedom Act, which would have reined in overly broad government surveillance programs. The president should signal his administration’s support for those reforms and call on Congress to include them in any surveillance legislation in the next Congress.


The State of the Union is an opportunity for a president to offer bold ideas and a grand vision for the nation — to literally reach for the moon, as John F. Kennedy did more than five decades ago. With two years left, President Obama has much more work to do to fulfill our founding principle of democracy and justice for all.