The Marine One moment that inspired Obama’s Charleston eulogy

This article is part of a series on Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDems discuss dropping Wasserman Schultz Mellman: Parsing the polls LA mayor: 'Donald Trump will not win California' MORE's presidency, nine years after he announced his White House bid on Feb. 10, 2007. To read the rest of the series click here.


President Obama was flying high above Los Angeles on Marine One last June when he received a startling piece of news. 

It was two days after a gunman shot and killed nine people inside an African-American church in Charleston, S.C., the latest in a string of mass shootings that have marred his presidency. 

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Obama was completing a West Coast fundraising trip, and over the din of the chopper’s rotor blades, he and his aides were tossing around gun violence statistics to share with the public. 

White House spokesman Eric Schultz, thumbing through Twitter on his BlackBerry, read aloud a story he stumbled upon: Survivors and relatives of the victims personally forgave the alleged shooter in court. 

Everyone, including Obama, stopped what they were doing to process the news.

“Forget the statistics for now; that’s what I want to highlight,” senior adviser Valerie Jarrett recalled the president telling aides surrounding him.

A week later, he delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his presidency — a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the Charleston
victims.

The president said the people of Charleston, in the state that birthed the Confederacy, rose above the motives of the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man who said he intended to start a race war. 

“It was an act ... that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin,” Obama said. 

“Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” he continued, as the 5,500 mourners at TD Arena erupted in applause. “God has different ideas. He didn’t know he was being used by God.”  

Guns and race

The Charleston shooting highlighted two of the most persistent problems Obama has confronted as president: gun violence and the nation’s racial
divide. 

Both represent pieces of unfinished business for Obama, who is not ready to cede the spotlight to those who are
vying to become his successor.

The public remains divided over the long-term impact of Obama’s presidency; just over half of Americans believe his administration’s failures will outweigh its accomplishments, according to a Pew Research Center poll. 

White House aides point to other data showing stronger support for Obama’s record. Half of Americans say they are better off than they were eight years ago, according to a January Gallup poll. Several surveys released last month show majority support for Obama’s unilateral actions on immigration and guns. And a June CNN poll showed 55 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of race relations.

Obama and his team are seeking to add to the president’s accomplishments, both with executive action and legislation. 

“There was a misperception, or inaccurate perception, that when the president was talking in his State of the Union address, that he was communicating that he is done working with Congress,” White House communications director Jen Psaki said in an
interview. “We’re certainly open for business.”

Not doing enough?

Obama has come under criticism from some African-Americans for not doing enough for their community.

“Historians are going to have a field day trying to juxtapose how in the era of the first black president, the bottom fell out for black America,” talk show host Tavis Smiley, a frequent critic of Obama’s handling of racial issues, said last month on Fox News. “Black people were still in many ways politically marginalized, socially manipulated and economically exploited.”

But in an interview with The Hill, former Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderEric Holder to headline fundraiser for Clinton The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE — the first African-American to hold the post — said it’s hard for him to “understand that criticism.”

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” Holder said. “You look at where this country is now as opposed to where it was when he took office ... people are in a much better place.”

The former attorney general pointed to his work at the Justice Department to protect voting rights and issues surrounding criminal justice reform. “People somehow divorce me from him. ... How do you separate the two of us? The things we did at the Justice Department are his achievements, too. 

“I think by raising these issues, by speaking about them, we’re in this period that is difficult but necessary if we’re ultimately going to make progress.” 

Holder, who is close to Obama, also predicted the president will ultimately “be devoting a lot of his attention” in his post-presidency toward his initiative My Brother’s Keeper.

Winning congressional approval of criminal justice reform would go along way toward addressing Smiley’s
criticism.

Obama and his team are working to hold together a fragile bipartisan coalition behind loosening minimum mandatory sentencing laws that have disproportionately imprisoned African-Americans.

The president in December hosted a number of lawmakers at the White House to discuss the issue, including some of his most vocal critics, like Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate votes to block financial adviser rule GOP mired in Zika dispute GOP duo unveils healthcare bill maintaining parts of ObamaCare MORE (R-Texas). And Jarrett has struck up a working relationship with an unlikely ally: Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden.

Guns: A disappointment

Guns is the other personal issue — and one that has been a disappointment for Obama.  

He failed to convince Congress months after his reelection and weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 to pass stronger federal gun laws. 

In an interview with the BBC last summer, he described the failure to move legislation tightening the nation’s gun control laws as “the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied.”

Obama’s latest executive actions on guns, announced in January, clarify who is “in the business of selling firearms” and therefore required to register as a licensed dealer. 

Licensed dealers are required to run background checks, but private sellers are not. The actions narrow what’s called the “gun-show loophole” — many dealers at shows and online don’t register and thus avoid checks. But the actions stop short of completely closing the loophole. 

Other unfinished business

Another issue where Obama still thinks he can take action in 2016 is immigration, where a major chunk of the president’s legacy hangs in legal limbo.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge of his executive actions issued in late 2014, after House Republicans effectively killed a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws.

A favorable ruling is Obama’s last chance to see his programs, which would allow as many as 5 million illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation, take effect while he is still in office. 

Obama comes under criticism from Republicans for abusing his executive power, while some Democrats argue he has dragged his feet.

Cecilia Muñoz, the White House’s point person on immigration, defended Obama’s decision to wait until the end of 2014 to take action on his own, saying he wanted to give Congress a chance to move. 

In multiple closed-door meetings with advocates and lawmakers in 2013 and 2014, Obama urged them not to give up on congressional action because it could provide more permanent relief to the undocumented
population. 

“He basically said, ‘You have given up too soon. The House of Representatives — the Speaker of the House is still talking about doing this,’ ” said Muñoz, the head of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. 

“We have a live Senate bill. We think we have the votes to get something done that I can sign. So you are pressuring the wrong person in focusing all of your advocacy attention on me.”

Obama is also expected to send Congress a last-ditch plan to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But it’s far from certain he will be able to shutter the prison before his term is up — despite the promise to do so that he made in his first week in office.

Lawmakers in both parties oppose moving detainees to U.S. soil, fearful of housing terror suspects in their districts. And if Obama decides to act on his own, he could face a legal challenge from congressional Republicans for running aground of laws blocking the prisoners from being kept on the
mainland. 

Obama’s last effort at adding to his economic legacy is a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal that is opposed by most Democrats and labor unions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: House loosens pesticide rules to fight Zika | A GOP bill that keeps some of ObamaCare | More proof of pending premium hikes Senate votes to block financial adviser rule Reid defends embattled VA secretary MORE (R-Ky.) has already signaled that Obama should not even make an effort on the pact until after the November elections, but the White House is determined to get the deal completed before he leaves office. 

Sitting in her office on Jan. 20, Jarrett was quick to note that Obama had exactly 365 days left on the job and insisted he will not slow down.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite for nostalgia, because he still has so much more he wants to get done,” she said. “He’ll save the nostalgia for a year from today.”