Should Blacks Be Satisfied with Obama’s Jobs Speech?

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Members of Congress as he makes his way through the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

In the midst of a great deal of prognostication and punditry out there in the media, the blogosphere, and America’s political chatterati, President Obama delivered his address on jobs before a joint session of Congress on Thursday evening.

Without question, of the broad cross section of Americans who are hurting in this crippled, hobbled economy, no group was more interested in what the president had to say than African-Americans. After all, black people are suffering from Depression levels of unemployment, as Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-California) recently brought to light. Over 26 percent of African-Americans either are unemployed or underemployed, the highest level in nearly three decades.

In his speech, Obama unveiled his $447 billion American Jobs Act, which offers a mix of tax cuts, jobs and infrastructure funding. Digging deep into the details and analyzing both the policy implications and the rhetorical symbolism of his speech, the president addressed issues that directly impact the black community and the rest of the Democratic base, and speak to their concerns. In other words, it is a good start, if nothing else.

However, consisting of two-thirds tax cuts, to some degree the president’s jobs plan resembles a conservative Republican proposal. Further, he did not specifically discuss the high rate of black joblessness — a unique situation, to be sure — and therefore failed to adequately allay the concerns of some of his prominent African-American critics.

“This past week, reporters have been asking, ‘What will this speech mean for the President? What will it mean for Congress? How will it affect their polls, and the next election?’” President Obama offered as introductory remarks in his address.

“But the millions of Americans who are watching right now, they don’t care about politics. They have real-life concerns. Many have spent months looking for work. Others are doing their best just to scrape by — giving up nights out with the family to save on gas or make the mortgage; postponing retirement to send a kid to college,” he added.

The president made a salient point that people do not care about politics, and he urged Congress to stop the “political circus” and “pass this jobs bill.” But we should remember that this is politics that we’re dealing with here, and this is an inherently political season. After all, we’re in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign season. Just look at the most recent GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library, which provided viewers with a clear difference in vision between the two parties.

The Republican Party has been accused of sabotaging the economy for political gain, with the primary goal of making Obama a one-term president. This point of view has evidence on its side, with the recent debt ceiling debacle as a case in point.

Meanwhile, the president, facing low approval ratings for his handling of the economy, must show that he is engaged on the jobs issue and actively working to turn things around. Obama should be concerned that his base, jaded, demoralized and lacking enthusiasm, will stay away from the polls next year, even as he seems overly preoccupied with attracting independent voters.

Obama’s jobs proposal consists of four main components. Glancing over the Obama jobs plan, it is clear that African-Americans would stand to benefit from some of its provisions, but not necessarily all of them:

  • Tax cuts. A tax cut for small businesses as opposed to large corporations, including an additional tax cut to businesses that hire people or increase wages. The extent to which a tax cut for small businesses will ultimately help black workers is uncertain. Although small businesses employ half of all Americans and account for 60 percent of gross job creation, African-Americans face extensive discrimination in hiring in that sector. Conceivably, to the extent that black businesses hire fellow blacks as employees, both groups would benefit.
  • Jobs. The proposal provides work for returning veterans, 280,000 teachers who were laid off due to state budget cuts, and construction workers repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and modernizing over 35,000 public schools. A new Pathways Back to Work Fund would encourage employers to hire disadvantaged workers, provide job training to these workers, and expand summer and year-round jobs for low-income youth.

Employment for veterans will benefit black people, who are disproportionately represented at around 19 percent of the military’s active-duty enlisted force. In addition, rehiring of public school teachers and rebuilding public schools will benefit the poor students and children of color who occupy many of these schools. Further, black youth and adults, who have fewer job opportunities and lower pay than their white counterparts, stand to gain from Obama’s program for disadvantaged workers.

  • Relief for the unemployed. The president would extend unemployment insurance for a year, help the long-term unemployed find a job and ban hiring discrimination against them. His plan also includes a tax credit for businesses that hire workers who have been unemployed for over six months. African-Americans are the most unemployed demographic in the United States and bearing the brunt of long-term joblessness. And many employers will not hire them because of their status. This is having a destructive impact on the black community.

For the foundation of his jobs plan, Obama cited a Georgia program embraced by Republicans, in which unemployed job seekers who collect unemployment insurance are engaged in temporary work to build their skills. This Georgia program deserves greater scrutiny, given concerns over its legality, and the claims from critics that it exploits workers who are not being compensated for the very real work they are performing.

  • Tax relief for middle- and working-class Americans. Cutting the payroll tax in half, saving families an average of $1,500 a year. Action by the president would eliminate barriers to the federal mortgage refinancing program, allowing more people to refinance their homes at low rates and stay in their homes. Black and Latino households have been particularly hit by the foreclosure crisis and predatory lending, as these groups lost 53 percent and two-thirds of their wealth, respectively, between 2005 and 2009.

According to the White House blog, “the plan won’t add a dime to the deficit and is fully paid for through a balanced deficit reduction plan that includes closing corporate tax loopholes and asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.”

The president, to his credit, helped his cause by displaying his backbone to his base and his adversaries alike. Now, that’s something his supporters like to see. On the offensive in his address to Congress, Obama appeared aggressive and assertive, even confrontational in his defense of some fundamental ideals such as labor rights, national competitiveness and economic justice.

“But what we can’t do — what I will not do — is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades,” the president said.

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