Minority groups want audacity from Obama on job creation

OPINION - The absence of jobs may be made worse by Obama's reluctance to take a more aggressive, personalized approach in pursuit of more public-works projects...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In the 13 months since his election, President Obama has generally enjoyed support among black Americans. A sturdy historical pride in the president continues, and no doubt some envy at his circumstance: at least he’s one black American with a guaranteed job for the next three years.

If only their own employment prospects were as rosy.

The unemployment rate for blacks has climbed to 15.7 percent. That compares with 13.1 percent for Hispanics and 9.5 percent for whites, according to a Nov. 6 report from the Labor Department. Black unemployment was 8.9 percent when the recession started in December 2007. In November 2008, the black unemployment rate was 11.3 percent for women, 12.2 percent for black men.

It’s a national issue — maybe the national issue — and Obama addressed it in characteristic head-on style in the Rose Garden on Nov. 6:

“When we first came into office our immediate goal was to stop the freefall that caused our economy to shrink at an alarming rate. We have succeeded in achieving that goal, as our economy grew last quarter for the first time in a year. But history tells us that job growth always lags behind economic growth, which is why we have to continue to pursue measures that will create new jobs. And I can promise you that I won’t let up until the Americans who want to find work can find work and until all Americans can earn enough to raise their families and keep their businesses open.”

President Obama still enjoys the goodwill of African-Americans, despite their enduring another year of living marginally. A CBS News/New York Times poll preceding President Obama’s 100th day in office found 96 percent of blacks supported him. Other more recent polls from CNN/Essence Magazine and Gallup have also found strong support. But black employment is an ever-lagging indicator of the state of the American economy, and patience is not an inexhaustible commodity.

A joint statement released on Nov. 17 from several leading nonprofit advocacy organizations says it plainly: health care reform is important, but in many more immediate ways, job creation is, or should be, top of mind for the Obama administration.

The six organizations — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Center for Community Change, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Economic Policy Institute and the National Council of La Raza — called on Obama to step up efforts at job creation, and said the president’s recent $787 billion stimulus program wasn’t enough to fight unemployment.

The groups called for more government spending for infrastructure and schools, billions to state and local governments to curb the predicted layoffs, and a government jobs program, “especially in distressed communities facing severe unemployment.”

”[T]he country’s jobs crisis could cause severe and lasting damage to generations of Americans – particularly people of color and children,” said the report, on the institute’s Website.

“This Great Recession is an unfolding social catastrophe,” observed Deepak Bhargava, Center for Community Change executive director.

Wade Henderson, the Leadership Conference president, put it in terms dire enough to be a warning, but galvanizing enough to be a call to action.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “This is the civil rights issue of our time.”

It’s no doubt with this in mind that the president convenes the Jobs Summit in Washington today.

Team Obama’s already moved one mountain, a bit. The president’s recent health care victory in the House was an important one, a first step to resolving a seemingly intractable national problem.

But while Obama has been rightly focused on health care reform, it bears mentioning that without jobs, Americans would miss most of the benefits of any health care reform bill. Since some degree of employer-mandated coverage is a feature of all the health care reform bills being considered by Congress, having a job will be foundational to getting health insurance in the first place.

And the absence of jobs may be made worse by Obama’s reluctance to take a more aggressive, personalized approach in pursuit of more public-works projects — the same kind of projects the organizations call for.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania sent Obama a memo in March calling for more political leadership instead of waiting for Congress to create a plan to improve the national infrastructure, the Los Angeles Times reported in April.

Rendell expressed concerns that Congress would lard any future plan to improve ailing U.S. highways, bridges and ports with “earmarks” and other pork-barrel priorities.

“It is very important that the administration be proactive rather than left reacting to congressional proposals,” said a draft of the memo, obtained by The Times.

“Despite an effective and bold recovery package, we are still facing a prolonged period of high unemployment,” the advocacy groups’ statement said. “Two years from now, absent further action, we are likely to have unemployment at 8 percent or more, a higher rate than attained even at the worst point of the last two downturns.”

That jibes with what may be the groups’ most sobering finding: They anticipate that one-third of the work force — and 40 percent of minority workers — will be unemployed or underemployed at some point over the next year.

Supporters in those six organizations, all of whom went to the mat for Obama little more than a year ago, are concluding there’s a lack of boldness — a lack of audacity — that’s baffling. Maybe even disturbing.

There’s no escaping the brutal hand the president was dealt by the previous administration: two wars, a housing crisis and an economy already in free fall the day he was sworn in.

It’s apparent that this president faces more than one Job #1. But of all the other tasks he faces, job creation may be the first among equals. For millions of African-Americans, this year, like last year, it is.