It’s said of Jimmy Carter that he’s America’s best ex-president. Barack Obama, on the other hand, may be shaping up as its best soon-to-be-ex-president.
Obama is a “lame duck,” in the twilight of his term, and lame ducks are presumed to be ineffective. Yet this alone has been an action-filled week. The US and its nuclear allies signed a deal with Iran. Obama himself called for reforms that would cut the US’s appallingly high number of people—especially black people—in prison. This Monday, America’s diplomatic relations with Cuba—another of Obama’s recent surprise moves—will formally recommence.
Last month the president’s signature health-care reform survived a Supreme Court challenge that could have sunk it. He won fast-track authority for a large, international trade deal that his own party tried to torpedo. He can even bask in the Supreme Court’s decision (though he played no part in it) to legalize same-sex marriage. His recent speeches on marriage and race have reawakened the rhetorical power that he seemed to lose right after taking office. And by the time he leaves, unemployment will likely be near its pre-crisis low.
The lame-duck label belies the fact that, unencumbered by politics, late-term presidents often achieve big things. George W. Bush launched the Iraq war “surge.” Bill Clinton got China into the WTO. Ronald Reagan helped end the Cold War. Even so, this year and the next may rank as one of the most productive lame-duck periods in modern US history.
Some of these achievements are less solid than they look (the headline unemployment rate masks an also-shrinking labor force and other structural problems) and some of them are accidents of timing (the Iran talks, for example, began 10 years ago). But if nothing else, Obama, who has disappointed many of his supporters over the years, is finally delivering the hope he campaigned on, and could yet walk out looking like a hero.—Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
What America will do for, and to, Cuba. Tim Fernholz visited the island to explore how closer US ties might change it after decades of socialism. His answer: less quickly than you think, though there’s already a US-driven housing boom, Havana is becoming an international fine-art hotspot, and a new breed of Cuban entrepreneur is on the rise.
The hidden cost of bacon. Lily Kuo reports from one of the world’s smelliest places: a North Carolina county dotted with the open cesspools of hog farms, and explains how it’s poor, mostly black American communities that are paying the price of the world’s demand for cheap pork.
How the geeks at NASA won the internet. It was a need to use fewer characters that first prompted a NASA public-affairs officer to have a spacecraft tweet in the first person. Seven years later, the US space agency has one of the world’s most successful social-media strategies. Adam Epstein charts its evolution.
The strange affair of the minor metals. Ordinary Chinese may have lost billions of dollars to a company that offered suspiciously good returns on trading obscure metals like indium. Gwynn Guilford and Heather Timmons investigate, and explain what it reveals about the plight of the Chinese retail investor.
The dragon-makers of Mumbai. For Quartz India, Shelly Walia visits Prana Studios, the company that made Khaleesi’s dragons in Game of Thrones, and learns why its brand of special-effects is a growth industry.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Fight for your right to break sanctions. Unfairly targeted by EU sanctions regimes? These lawyers are here to help. Politico tracks the tactics used in a campaign to get the family of a former prime minister of Ukraine off the sanctions list. The gist, for any of you lawyers out there: “thousands of billable hours.”
The US Northwest is due for a really big earthquake. A meticulously reported, elegantly written, and utterly terrifying piece about scientists’ warnings of a Big One near Seattle. The US disaster agency FEMA is planning for tens of thousands of deaths, and there is little that can be done to prevent them, reports the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schultz.
Forget trying to shop ethically. Boycotting clothing brands no longer works, writes Michael Hobbes for the Huffington Post. The rise of subcontracting puts the worst offenses beyond the reach of consumers and brands alike. But a solution may lie in Brazil, which shows how countries can force their industries to police themselves.
The misleading war against GMOs. Yes, there are problems involving genetically modified foods, writes William Saletan in Slate, but none has to do with their being genetically modified. Examining four GMO battles, he concludes that the campaigns against GMOs have been waged by ideologues relying on lies, distortions, and quackery.
The sheer chutzpah of El Chapo Guzmán. Alma Guillermoprieto in the New York Review of Books ruminates on the drug lord’s cocky escape this week from Mexico’s most notorious prison, through a mile-long underground tunnel carved just tall enough so he wouldn’t have to stoop. “One laughs,” she concludes, “only until the rage sets in.”
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