On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his second State of the Union address, as called for by the United States Constitution. This will also be his fourth speech to a joint session of Congress.
It is hoped that there will be no more of the egregiously disrespectful conduct exhibited by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, with his “You lie” outburst (a violation for which he received a mere hand slap penalty from the House of Representatives).
However, there has admittedly been a strong reaction from the right to Obama’s massive legislative successes of the past two years. This has given rise to the Tea Party phenomenon, and Obama himself acknowledged that he took “a shellacking” during the November 2010 elections in which the GOP took over the House. Many Democrats fear that Obama and the party’s hands are tied for the next two years, and that is a real concern. But Democrats have much to applaud already in one of the most productive legislative periods on record.
Will the shellacking be followed by a shackling of Obama’s legislative agenda? This leader has impressed with his skill, and it’s unlikely that we won’t see flashes of those skills in the coming months.
As the first African-American to attain the highest office in the land, President Obama can legitimately claim many accomplishments along the pathway of change in and for America during the 24 months since his inauguration. Troops are steadily being drawn down from the Iraq military adventure without panic or loss of face, as occurred in Vietnam.
The Lillie Ledbetter legislation the president signed has provided the strongest legal basis yet for comparable worth in the workplace for American women.
There are new regulations on credit card companies. There is a relatively strong set of regulations and constraints regarding financial institutions and consumer protection in the U.S. Financial Reform Act. All these measures, the White House staff says, help all of America, including the Black community.
During the 2011 speech, which will probably be great oratory, what can Black Americans expect to hear? And, more importantly, what can they expect in tangible terms from the next two years of Barack Obama’s first term?
The most practical answer to both questions regarding our most pragmatic of presidents is very probably more of the same.
That “same” means a thick mesh of third-or-fourth page news-producing decisions that have benefited the Black community in distinctive ways; with one or two headline-crashing exceptions to that rule. That “same” means the president not specifically targeting in public the goals, projects and activities he wants done to satisfy demands of the Black community. The tasks and projects just get done without fanfare or bombast.
For example, with the 2010 Executive Order and the corresponding White House initiative on HBCUs, nearly $100 million became available to HBCUs in the 2011 budget, along with financial access to regular annual federal support for an expanded list of these schools, all not available to them since the Lyndon Johnson era. Few but insiders knew. A second example is the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which appropriated monies to settle the Cobell Indian lawsuit and the Pigford II Black farmers’ lawsuit, although this one was publicized a little more widely than other such Obama efforts.
As a matter of fact, if one did a random selection quiz of most Americans, as one recent poll did, very few even among the President’s supporters, can name 10 of the most significant executive orders, pieces of legislation, senior appointments or other tangible results scored by the Obama presidency. In the Black community, which still supports the president heavily in spite of rhetoric to the contrary, that percentage is even lower.
How then can Blacks expect more, when there is no regular assessment of what has already been done? The answer may lay in the nature of that expectation.
Two Angelenos from different generations interviewed recently on this issue–Robbye Davis and Opal Young put it this way. “Our president has not embarrassed us. He has been prudent, ethical, a gentleman and a brilliant political scholar. He may very well be too smart for them. Black folks need their leaders, particularly in this case the leader, not to make them put their heads down in shame. The president has good home training, and he makes us proud. We expect him to keep on that path. Just stay on the high road.”
Additionally, the very symbol of Obama and the first family being in the White House still holds sway among virtually all Blacks, both inside and outside of the USA. Internet mail continues to demonstrate President Obama’s tremendous international reputation and popularity. He is still the reference point for breaking the greatest glass ceiling of the Black community’s life experiences. To many in the Black community, it is enough that according to the stats, Obama has accomplished more in two years than both Mr. Bushes did in 12.
So, even without being able to recite a substantial portion of the president’s accomplishments, it just feels like he’s doing all right, several community denizens added.
“He’s a credit to the race, and we expect he will continue to be. For me, that’s enough. Long as they don’t Arizona him, he’ll be fine,” said a Mr. Roberts.
But whether some in the Black community still demand that the president lay out and subscribe to a specific Black agenda or not, given the perpetual state of the Black American population–17 percent unemployment, high prison incarceration, high HIV-related deaths, high mortgage foreclosures, high drop-out rates, lowered average life expectancy, high urban criminal statistics and other negatives–there will continue to be scrutiny and assessment of Obama as long as he is anywhere close to the reins of American political leadership.
For example, every president gets the Census Bureau End of Term Assessment, eventually. That means this president, too, will be measured based on whether the average American made progress or lost ground during his administration.
The 2009 version of that report evaluated George W. Bush’s administration and found that he left America substantially worse off than he found it, when he came in as president in 2000. The standard indices of that evaluation, including median household income, level of poverty, childhood poverty, and the number of citizens without health insurance, demonstrated that Bush essentially flunked the presidential course, earning the dubious distinction, according to the Economic Policy Institute, of being the only known American head of state to have led the country into eight years of economic decline. The median income declined, overall poverty increased, as did childhood poverty to alarming proportions, and there was a major increase in the number of Americans without health insurance.
When George H.W. Bush left office in 1992, the median American income was $46,603; when Bill Clinton left office in 2000; it was $52,500, and when Bush, the younger, left, it was down 4.2 percent to $50,303.
The number of Americans living in poverty when G.H.W. Bush left office was 38 million; when Clinton left it was down 6.4 percent to 31.6 million; but and when G.W. Bush left in 2008, that number had increased by 21.6 percent.
Children in poverty declined under Clinton and increased under Bush, the younger, and those without health insurance declined under Clinton and increased under Bush.
It is entirely too early to do this kind of in-depth assessment of Obama’s presidency. But using the current indices, he just might do all right. Those indices are clearly towards the positive right now.
But for those wanting to evaluate Obama today, or those who want to refute negative claims of Obama’s achievements thus far in office, Our Weekly provides a longer list elsewhere in this edition. The highlights of that list of accomplishments that greatly benefit the Black community include:
1. Getting unemployment benefits extended for another 13 months so more than 3.5 million Americans could continue getting monies for food, housing and other essentials.
2. Getting payroll taxes and taxes on small businesses reduced so more money is in people’s pockets, and there is more incentive for small businesses to hire folk.
3. Signing an executive order to implement the President’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and directly increasing the federal financial support of HBCUs, together allowing a significant number of those colleges to stave off bankruptcy.
4. Getting the Black Farmers’ $1.3 billion dollar reparations legislation done and signed.
5. Appointing two remarkable women to the United States Supreme Court.
6. Signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which drastically decreases the impact of disproportionate mandatory/minimum sentencing for first-time drug abusers and those convicted of simple possession. A large number of Black American men and women are currently incarcerated because of these old-school “Rockefeller Laws,” and many more were on the way.
7. Signing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, after having already signed an executive order declaring assaults against gays as hate crimes.
8. Signing the first significant piece of legislation in nearly 100 years that called for comparable worth pay in the workplace (the Lillie Ledbetter Act).
9. Ordering FEMA and the EPA to once again report directly to the president, ending the mismanagement cycle for natural disasters and environmental issues seen during the Bush administration (remember Katrina?).
10. Ordering the White House and all federal agencies to respect the Freedom of Information Act, thereby overturning Bush-era limits on accessibility of federal documents.
11. Making significant cracks in the old boys’ network of constant contract procurement by ending no-bid federal contracting; banning tax delinquent and tax non-payment individuals and companies from bidding on federal contracts; ordering the removal and banning of lobbyists from serving on federal and White House advisory panels and boards, and ordering the Open Government Directive, which mandates all Cabinet departments to advocate, promote and implement public transparency and citizen participation in department initiatives.
12. Authorizing the U.S. auto industry rescue plan and two GMAC rescue packages that essentially saved GM and Chrysler, and thus thousands of auto industry jobs.
13. Authorizing a $789 billion economic stimulus plan, which included one-third in tax cuts for working-class and middle-income families, one-third to states for infrastructure construction projects, and one-third to states to prevent the layoff of police officers, teachers and other civil servants at risk of losing their jobs because of city and state budget shortfalls.
14. Authorizing and signing legislation that changes the relationship between credit card companies and the card-holding public. This includes banning the raising of rates arbitrarily and without advance notification, especially if customers are paying bills on time.
15. Signing the historic Wall Street reform bill that was designed to put in new regulations and federal oversight to end the kind of abusive practices that helped start and fuel the current recession, and to promote consumer safety through the presence of a powerful Consumer Protection Commission.
16. Signing legislation establishing the Promise Neighborhood Program.
17. Re-funding arts education nationally in public schools.
18. Fully funding the National Endowment for the Arts for the first time since President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
19. Changing NASA’s current and future mission and tripling its funding.
20. Doubling the monies available for Pell Grants.
21. Signing hate crime legislation to cover acts of homophobia.
22. Resurrecting funding and respect for the EEOC, which investigates racial discrimination in the workplace.
23. Tripling the budget to hire more FDA meat inspectors.
24. Signing legislation to protect college students from predatory lenders and onerous pay-back schemes.
25. Signing legislation to fully fund the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the first time since 1956 to honor our commitment to returning and former soldiers.