(Senate - January 17, 2017)

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[Pages S328-S330]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []

                        PRESIDENT OBAMA'S LEGACY

  Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, yesterday I went to the White House. It 
was a great celebration of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs being 
recognized in the White House by our President from Illinois, Barack 
Obama. Of course, he is a White Sox fan, and he didn't apologize or 
change his stripes, but it was a great day of celebration. During the 
course of it, he said it was his last public event in the White House, 
and I came to realize that we are only days away from a new President 
and President Obama leaving.
  I think back to a memorable moment in my life which most people 
wouldn't have remembered, but I will never forget. It was July 27, 
2004. The place was Boston, MA. At the last minute, I was called on to 
introduce a friend of mine, a skinny lawyer and State senator from 
Illinois who was about to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 
Democratic National Convention. His name was Barack Obama. I had known 
him for several years. I knew he was an extraordinarily gifted 
politician, and I knew he was a very good person.
  I had seen him inspire many audiences back home, including some in 
the most unlikely places. I once saw him hold spellbound a group of 
blue-collar workers and farmers in Carroll, IL--a town which in the 
1960s was completely devastated by racial tension and the presence of a 
local branch of the Ku Klux Klan--but even I was not prepared for the 
powerfully moving speech Barack Obama gave after I introduced him in 
Boston. It has been quoted in the Times. He told us:

       There is not a liberal America and a conservative America--
     there is the United States of America. There is not a Black 
     America and a White America and Latino America and Asian 
     America--there's the United States of America.

  He went on to say:

       The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red 
     States and blue States; red States for Republicans, blue 
     States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We 
     worship an awesome God in the blue States, and we don't like 
     Federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red 
     States. We coach Little League in the blue States, and, yes, 
     we've got some gay friends in the red States. There are 
     patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots 
     who supported the war in Iraq.

  He only spoke for 17 minutes at that Boston convention--17 minutes--
and in that time, he gave voice to what another tall, lanky lawyer from 
Illinois once called ``the better angels of our nature.'' He touched a 
longing deep within the hearts of millions of Americans who wanted to 
believe in those better angels, who wanted to believe in what Barack 
Obama called ``the audacity of hope,'' the audacity to believe that 
America, which had achieved so many miracles, was capable of even 
greater goodness. People inside the convention hall and millions 
outside who heard that speech all had the same reaction: I have seen 
America's future.
  I remember going back to Illinois a few days after that convention 
and campaigning with Barack as he was running for the U.S. Senate. He 
went to the most unlikely downstate towns--Calumet, IL; Freeport, IL. 
Huge crowds were coming in from adjoining States because they had seen 
him give that speech at the Democratic Convention. I knew there was 
something special about him.
  His grandmother called him after he gave the speech. She gave him 
some advice. ``You did well,'' she said. ``I just kind of worry about 
you. I hope you keep your head on straight.'' Good advice for all of 
  A little over 4 years later, my friend--then the U.S. Senator from 
Illinois--was elected the 44th President. On inauguration day 2009, 2 
million Americans stood shoulder to shoulder outside on the Mall near 
the Capitol dome and cheered as the son of a father from Kenya and a 
mother from Kansas placed his hand on the family Bible of Abraham 
Lincoln and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United 
  For the last 8 years, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle 
Obama, their daughters Malia and Sasha, and First Grandmother Marian 
Robinson have made their home in the White House. What an irony--they 
were living in a house originally built by slaves.
  The audacity of hope. The awe-inspiring strength of America to 
continually seek and stretch to be that ``more perfect Union.''
  Part of the miracle of America is also the peaceful transition of 
power from one President to the next. As we prepare for the transition 
to a new President, we would do well to look back on the historic 
Presidency of Barack Obama. He was elected and reelected President both 
times convincingly.
  His grandmother would be proud that he has not only kept his head on 
straight, he has held his head high, kept his priorities straight even 
amidst often unprecedented, unyielding opposition and searingly 
personal attacks. As First Lady Michelle Obama told us, the motto for 
the entire Obama family has been ``When they go low, we go high.'' We 
have seen that grace in them time and time again.
  President Obama is a profoundly good and decent man who has served 
America with dignity and integrity. He has been thoughtful, calm, and 
resolute--never rash or impulsive. He is a disciplined leader who has 
grappled honestly with complex challenges facing America and the world, 
and he has delivered solutions that improved lives.
  In his farewell speech in Chicago, President Obama quoted the 
fictional hero Atticus Finch, reminding us: ``You never really 
understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . 
. . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'' Putting 
himself in another person's shoes, seeing life through another person's 
eyes, and finding shared hopes is a lifelong habit and a special gift 
of this President.
  He has tried his level best to heal and unite our divided Nation. His 
accomplishments are significant, and history will record many of them 
as profound.
  He was first elected at a time when America badly needed hope. 
President Obama inherited--inherited--the greatest financial and 
economic crisis since the Great Depression. The country had lost more 
than 2 million jobs in the previous 4 months before he was sworn in. By 
inauguration day, the country's top four banks had lost half their 
value in less than a year. There was an urgent danger that not only the 
American economy would collapse, but the economy of the Western world 
was teetering in the balance.
  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, called the stimulus bill, 
saved the U.S. and global economy from a major crash and helped create 
the conditions for recovery. Unemployment today is at 4.9 percent. 
America has just seen the longest streak of private job creation in the 
Nation's history. To borrow a phrase, thanks, Obama.
  Our friends across the aisle said: Let America's auto industry die. 
The Obama administration said: No way. They decided to place their bets 
on American manufacturing and workers instead. The Center for 
Automotive Research estimates that the special bankruptcy process for 
General Motors and Chrysler saved at least 1.5 million American jobs. 
Detroit has posted record profits for 7 years in a row. Barack Obama 
would not give up on American autoworkers or American auto companies, 
and it paid off.
  Predatory lending and other systemic abuses were the cancer at the 
heart of the great financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator's time has expired.
  Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that I be 
recognized for an additional 5 minutes.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
  Mr. DURBIN. Thank you, Mr. President.
  Under this President, Congress passed the most comprehensive overhaul 
of financial regulations since the Great Depression, protecting 
consumers and taxpayers.
  President Obama inherited a Federal budget hemorrhaging red ink. 
Under his watch, the budget deficit has fallen $1 trillion, despite 
record investments in education, green energy, broadband, high-speed 
rail, medical research, and other high-return priorities.

[[Page S329]]

  He brought us the Affordable Care Act. I am not going to dwell on it 
because I spoke on it before when the other Senators were on the floor.
  There was a skit on ``Saturday Night Live'' last week that talked 
about, would the Republicans be happy if we banned the word 
``ObamaCare''? Can we stick with the Affordable Care Act since it is 
helping so many people? Sometimes we think that is what this is all 
about: We have to get rid of it because it has his name on it. Well, we 
shouldn't. We should reflect on the good that it has done and make sure 
we do nothing less in the future. Health insurance costs are going down 
at the fastest rate in 50 years. Medicare gets an additional projected 
10 years of solvency because of the Affordable Care Act. Numerous 
Republican Governors, including Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, have 
used Medicaid expansion of ObamaCare to reduce the uninsured in their 
  On the issue of climate, I will defer to my friend from Rhode Island, 
who has stepped off of the floor for a moment, but when it comes to 
this, President Obama has taken climate change seriously. He does not 
view it as an unproven theory or a Chinese-authored hoax; he believes 
it is a fact, and so do I. It is a threat to the existence of humanity, 
and we are running out of time to prevent a climate catastrophe.
  Americans built on the historic breakthrough at the 2015 U.N. summit 
on climate change in Paris. When that summit ended, 195 countries 
joined the United States and agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  The President once told a group of young people: ``I refuse to 
condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that is 
beyond fixing.''
  We have a safer and more secure America. This President brought 
troops home--massive numbers of troops--who were dispatched around the 
world in harm's way. He understands we can't fix all the world's 
problems. We learned that the hard way. He banned the use of torture. 
We have seen the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. troops from Iraq 
and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is 
history, and ISIS is on the run.
  Under President Obama, Americans led the successful global effort to 
conquer an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and he helped preserve a 
democratic Ukraine, despite the aggression of Vladimir Putin of Russia. 
He has restored relations with Cuba after 50 years of a failed policy. 
The President and John Kerry had enormous diplomatic success with the 
Iran agreement to protect our friend and ally Israel and many other 
states in the Middle East.
  I want to close by saying that his efforts in two areas are personal 
to me. Criminal justice reform, this President is determined to make 
sure our sentencing laws are just. There are things going on now that 
are just indefensible. We have been jailing people and imprisoning them 
for drug crimes for decades--unacceptable. The President is determined 
to get this done. We did part of it. I hope we can do more.
  Finally, let me just say that this President, more than any, has 
really shown a caring for the DREAMers, a bill I introduced 16 years 
ago, so that those who came to the United States as children, through 
no fault of their own undocumented, would get a chance. That was it. He 
put together DACA, an Executive order which gave them that chance.
  We have to work now to protect these bright, young people. I am so 
encouraged that Speaker Paul Ryan, at the CNN town meeting last week, 
acknowledged this and said he was willing to work to make sure we 
protected them. Barack Obama was the one who gave them this 
opportunity, and now it is up to us to follow through and give them a 
fair shake in life.
  Mr. President, to reiterate, the affordable Care and Patient 
Protection Act that our colleagues across the aisle are now rushing 
headlong to repeal--without anything to replace it--represents the 
greatest advance in economic fairness and security for most Americans 
since at least the creation of Medicare 50 years ago.
  ObamaCare has made the health coverage of all insured Americans more 
secure and more valuable by: outlawing discrimination based on pre-
existing conditions; eliminating costs for checkups, mammograms and 
many other preventive measures; and allowing young people to stay on 
their parent's policies until age 26--among other new protections.
  It has reduced the ranks of uninsured Americans by 20 million, and it 
has saved money. That's not a matter of opinion, it's a fact.
  According to an analysis by the respected, nonpartisan Brookings 
Institution, health insurance exchange premiums are 44 percent lower 
today than they would have been without ObamaCare.
  Health insurance costs are going down at the fastest rate in 50 
  Numerous Republican Governors--including Vice President-Elect Mike 
Pence--have used the Medicaid expansion in ObamaCare to reduce the 
uninsured in their States. That's a good thing.
  But now President-Elect Trump and our Republican colleagues tell us 
that they want to repeal ObamaCare, cancel those patient protections, 
go back to the days when insurance companies write all the rules, and 
leave 20 million Americans without insurance.
  They say they will come up ``fairly easily'' with something better 
than ObamaCare.
  I say to my friends: If it were easy, it would have happened already. 
Work with us to fix the things that can be improved, not kill it. Lives 
are at stake.
  President Obama understands that climate change is not an unproven 
theory or a Chinese-authored hoax, it is a fact. It is a threat to the 
very existence of humanity and we are running out of time to prevent a 
climate catastrophe.
  Under Barack Obama, America went from being the chronic spoiler to 
being a world leader in global climate change negotiations.
  We reached a sweeping bilateral climate pact with China to cut 
greenhouse gas emissions--something critics said could never happen.
  American built on that historic breakthrough at the 2015 U.N. summit 
on climate change in Paris. When the summit ended, 195 countries had 
agreed to lower greenhouse-gas emissions.
  The President once told a group of young people: ``I refuse to 
condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's 
beyond fixing.''
  He has done his part to keep that commitment. We should build on his 
progress, not reverse it.
  The cornerstone of President Obama's foreign policy is a recognition 
that America remains the world's one indispensable nation and that we, 
and the world, are safer when America chooses engagement over either 
isolation or unilateralism.
  He also understands that America cannot fix all of the world's 
problems. We have to choose wisely, based on our ideals, our priorities 
and our limits.
  He banned the use of torture. He has seen the withdrawal of the 
majority of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has been 
decimated, ISIS is on the run, and Osama Bin Laden is dead.
  Under President Obama, America led the successful global effort to 
contain and conquer an Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
  And we helped preserve a democratic Ukraine against Russian 
  President Obama announced plans to restore normal relations with 
Cuba--reversing 50 years of a failed policy that done at least as much 
harm to America's relations with our neighbors in this hemisphere as it 
had done to depose the Castro regime.
  The President and Secretary of State John Kerry made a momentous 
diplomatic success in negotiating an agreement to prevent Iran from 
gaining nuclear weapons, protecting our ally Israel and many nations 
across the Mideast.
  The Iran nuclear deal holds the promise of defusing a ticking time 
bomb. If Iran fails to live up to that promise, we will know quickly 
and we will take the steps to stop them.
  I want to touch briefly on two other issues that I have worked on 
very closely and to which I am deeply committed.
  The first is the growing, bipartisan movement to end America's era of 
  America has 5 percent of the world's population--and nearly 25 
percent of the world's prisoners. That ignominious fact is largely the 
result of inflexible antidrug laws that disproportionately punish 
people of color, especially poor people of color.

[[Page S330]]

  In 2010, President Obama signed a law that I introduced with Senator 
Sessions called the Fair Sentencing Act. It replaced a Federal law that 
demanded dramatically harsher sentences for convictions involving crack 
cocaine than powder cocaine.
  I have worked with Democrats and some brave Republican colleagues for 
a few years to further reform Federal sentencing--to allow Federal 
judges some discretion in nonviolent drug cases, and eliminate ``three 
strikes and you're out law'' and other overly harsh and inflexible laws 
that are overly harsh and hugely expensive to enforce.
  In the absence of action from us, President Obama has used his powers 
to commute the sentences of more than 1,000 people--more than 50 times 
the number of people whose sentences were commuted by President George 
W. Bush and more than the past 11 Presidents combined.
  We can't have it both ways. If we don't want President's to use their 
lawful Executive authority to correct injustices, we need to correct 
those injustices ourselves. I hope we will do so in this new Congress.
  Finally, we must--we must--fix America's broken immigration system.
  And let's start by assuring DREAMers--those young people who were 
brought to this country as children and who are undocumented through no 
fault of their own--that we will not deport them from the only nation 
they have ever called home.
  I have come to this floor dozens of times to tell you their stories. 
They are scholars, American soldiers, researchers, doctors, engineers, 
lawyers, clergy members.
  DACA--the President's Executive order--allows them to stay in this 
country temporarily while Congress works to pass a comprehensive 
immigration reform plan that meets the needs of our economy, and honors 
our values and our unique and powerful heritage as a nation of 
  More than 750,000 DREAMers put their trust in our Government and came 
forward to register under DACA.
  What will happen to them if--as many fear--DACA is not extended?
  Immigrants are not a threat to America. Immigrants are America. The 
sooner we acknowledge that fact and align our laws with it, the better 
we will be.
  Mr. President, I could go on for quite some time about what President 
Obama, Vice President Biden, and their administration have meant for 
America, but time precludes that so I will close with these last 
  In that historic speech he delivered in Boston 12 years ago, 
President Obama told us that, in his father's native tongue, the name 
``Barack'' means ``blessing.''
  President Obama leaves office now as the most popular politician in 
America, and assured of his place in history. I believe that America 
has been fortunate--even blessed--by his service and sacrifice as our 
  President Obama has also warned us that ``History travels not only 
forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways.'' 
I hope that we can all pledge, regardless of party, to keep history 
moving forward.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. Lankford). The Senator from Rhode Island.
  Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that at the 
conclusion of the majority whip's remarks, I be recognized.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
  Mr. WHITEHOUSE. I thank the Presiding Officer, and I yield to the 
majority whip.