In a nation increasingly crippled by static unemployment, President Obama’s task tonight will be to deliver a plan for job growth. And as the community most affected by systemic, long-term unemployment, African-Americans will be his most attentive audience.
Despite the strides made to stimulate the economy, and the moderate success of Obama’s economic policies, the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for August showed an increase in the number of unemployed African-Americans at a rate of 16.7 percent from 15.9 percent the previous month. Hispanics trailed at 11.3 percent, and white unemployment was steady at 8 percent. The unemployment rate for black males was 18 percent — a full percentage point increase, and African-American youth were at a staggering 46.5 percent, up from 39.2 percent in July. The outlook is dismal for many Americans across colorlines, but far worse for this community that already contends with historic social and economic disadvantages.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans are now the highest it has been since President Obama took office, and the patience of some of his base is waning. The recent jobs fair organized by the Congressional Black Caucus conveyed the frustrations of many elected representatives and voters, who came to seek opportunity, but also to find a forum to express their grievances.
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Although the vast majority of African-Americans continue to support the president, and understand that the present state of the economy is largely due to the failed economic and foreign policies put in place under the Bush administration, Obama cannot escape criticism that he’s not been attentive enough to the needs of African-Americans in particular. Reasonable minds agree the president must be concerned with ailing communities and segments of the population regardless of race, but otherwise staunch Obama supporters like Rep. Maxine Waters argued that the president must focus on the needs of his most loyal voting bloc. And this reasoning has not fallen on deaf ears.
In fact, some of the most vocal and dangerously divisive criticism President Obama is fielding now comes directly from other African-Americans. Namely Princeton University professor Cornel West and television pundit and radio host Tavis Smiley, who recently embarked on a 15-city “Poverty Tour” in an effort to bring attention to the needy and what they say are the failings of President Obama’s White House to adequately address the needs of America’s poor.
In an Associated Press article at the end of July, Smiley said, “We can’t get this president or any leaders to say the words ‘poor’ or ‘poverty’, much less do anything about it.” West has made numerous claims that Obama is a puppet of Wall Street and big corporations at the expense of the working classes, going so far as to label the president a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs”. The professor was quoted as saying, “That’s why I feel profoundly disappointed and in some sense betrayed.”
However, unlike Rep. Waters, the criticism by West and Smiley has drawn scrutiny of its own, with many believing they are motivated by personal grievances, instead of a greater social interest. Although West campaigned for Obama in 2008, there has been very little contact with the president since.
And Smiley’s ego seems to have taken a harder hit, because of invitations declined, calls ignored or inauguration tickets not provided by the Obama team. But regardless of their reasons, Smiley and West still have a voice which resonates with many in the African-American community, and the president has been skillful not to ignore the discontent.
Both Obama and his White House have acknowledged the disproportionate burden experienced by African-Americans during this time of economic malaise.
In an Oval Office interview last week with an all black radio team, the president said, “What I think about every single day is how we can make sure more folks are going to work. And obviously the African-American community has suffered even more.” Kevin Lewis, the president’s White House Director of African-American media, addressed the concerns head on in July saying, “Reducing unemployment for all Americans, which disproportionately burdens the African-American community, remains a priority for the president and his administration.”
But the latest jobs figures released last week, which revealed the economy had produced net zero job growth, makes it clear President Obama has an uphill battle. His challenge is to develop effective policy to create employment opportunities sustainable enough to a make a difference for the long-term unemployed. And though his administration’s efforts to provide stimulus and incentives for business to higher are working with moderate success, the private sector job growth of 156,000 in July, was off-set by public sector lay-offs of 70,000. And this is the growing trend.
Obama’s policies have been thwarted by Republican efforts to reduce government spending at a time when most economists believe the role of the federal government is to invest. The massive cuts which the president was forced to agree to during the debt-ceiling debate, will now continue to have a depressive effect on job creation, causing the hemorrhaging of jobs at the state and local levels.
Obama knows this, and by all recent accounts it appears the president’s jobs speech will include somewhere between $300 and $400 billion of new spending on infrastructure and education, tax credits for job-creation, job training for those who have been out of work for 6 months or longer, an extension of the payroll tax, which allows the average family to keep more of their income, and and extension of unemployment benefits.
The full details are still unclear until the plan is officially released tonight, but some critics are already saying that this resembles another Stimulus package — not a Works Program the likes of which FDR developed in the 1930’s at the height of the Great Depression.
And herein lays the conundrum for this well-meaning president. The truth of the matter is, those who are most vulnerable, namely African-American, Latinos and the working poor of all races, need the safety net the president provided in the his original stimulus packages. Most politicians, and indeed this White House, have been afraid to tell the American people how bad the economy really is, and how long it will take to recover from the Great Recession.
To that end, without an extension of unemployment benefits, many in our communities would simply go hungry, with no job prospects in sight. And without an extension of the payroll tax, many working single mothers and families would barely have enough to pay rent, let alone food and clothing. President Obama is far more connected than the likes of West and Smiley give him credit for.
And Obama also faces a Republican Congress so hell-bent on his presidency’s demise; they would let those at the bottom sink. Obama’s actions last December, when he traded an extension of the Bush tax cuts to keep unemployment benefits alive, showed where his heart lies and who he actually cares most about.
Much like the Biblical proverb of Solomon and the two mothers, one real and one false, Obama’s loyalty to the very people who have been most loyal to him, may well be his Achilles heel. As the likes of Maxine Waters cries for him to play hardball with the Tea Party radicals, he has been too reticent for fear that failure to compromise would lead to stalemate, hurting the most vulnerable of our society.
So what will he say tonight? It remains to be seen. Last night’s Republican presidential debate which focused more on personality, than on job solutions, conveys one demonstrable truth: that this GOP field offer distinctions, without a difference. And rhetoric with no substance, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
President Barack Obama offers a clear difference with a less obvious challenge: to govern a nation so divided, it is still fighting the civil war. And the casualties are mounting.