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.
"I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy," Obama added. "We shouldn't be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards. America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race.
President Obama discussed the need to rebuild America, and how our crumbling infrastructure puts the country at a disadvantage when compared to its competitors. "Everyone here knows we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over the country. Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our skies are the most congested in the world. It's an outrage," Obama said.
"Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us a economic superpower. And now we're going to sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads? At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?" the president asked.
President Obama also invoked President Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, who was responsible for the Transcontinental Railroad, the National Academy of Sciences, and the first land grant colleges. And he used a Republican folk hero to make a case for a government role in investing in society.
"Ask yourselves -- where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn't had that chance?" the president asked the crowd.
And finally, President Obama addressed economic inequality, the need for fairness in the tax system and for the rich and corporations to pay their fair share and help the economy. "I'm also well aware that there are many Republicans who don't believe we should raise taxes on those who are most fortunate and can best afford it," the president said.
"But here is what every American knows: While most people in this country struggle to make ends meet, a few of the most affluent citizens and most profitable corporations enjoy tax breaks and loopholes that nobody else gets. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary -- an outrage he has asked us to fix," Obama noted.
Should we keep tax loopholes for oil companies? Or should we use that money to give small business owners a tax credit when they hire new workers? Because we can't afford to do both," the president said. "Should we keep tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires? Or should we put teachers back to work so our kids can graduate ready for college and good jobs? Right now, we can't afford to do both."
President Obama is at his best when he is in campaign mode and speaking to his base with populist themes. Without question, he employed this strategy to a certain degree. Yet, simultaneously the president's address was an exercise in compromise -- compromise with Republicans who are less popular than the president, and whose policies are unsupported.
For example, Obama borrowed the GOP talking points on reducing the deficit, during a recession, by cutting so-called entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. This, even as the majority of the public blames Bush for the nation's economic woes and calls for a tax increase for the wealthy, as opposed to cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
In addition, in his address Obama failed to discuss the impact of globalization, as unfair trade deals dump foreign products on U.S. shores, and corporate incentives ship jobs out of America's urban centers to cheaper labor markets in Asia.
The president's progressive critics point to his tendency to cave in and give away the store to his adversaries, essentially compromising away his bargaining chips before the compromise even begins. Some poignant examples include the administration's failure to fight for a public option or single payer system in health care reform, and the recent abandonment of plans to toughen Bush-era EPA smog regulations in light of Republican opposition.
Obama's first economic stimulus was helpful and kept the U.S. out of a depression, but was inadequate to life the economy out of the doldrums. He identified the need for a second stimulus in December 2009, yet did not fight for one.
Now, with a jobs bill consisting mostly of tax cuts, the president seems eager to embrace and legitimize the economic philosophy of his adversaries. Granted, many of the tax breaks Obama proposes are of a more stimulative variety. Republicans should support it because it incorporates some of their favorite ideas.
But there is a chance the GOP-controlled Congress will reject the half-measure at face value, if their stone-faced, applause-free reaction to his speech is any indication. In that case, Obama would have been better served to propose a more vigorous, multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package to bring jobs to the millions of jobless Americans. Perhaps such a proposal would fail in Congress as well. Nevertheless, without putting up a fight and making his best case to the public, we will never know.
Moreover, the first black president, who made conspicuous appeals to the black community during the 2008 election, has been M.I.A. on the crisis of black unemployment -- or at least in speaking out on the problem in public. Given the devastating impact of the recession on urban communities, Congresswoman Waters demanded that the president care as much about unemployed black people, including 45 percent of black youth, as Iowa swing voters.
"I wanted him to say something about the intolerable rate of unemployment in the African-American community. He didn't quite get there," Waters told CBS News after the speech. "But he talked about long-term unemployed, he talked about disadvantaged youth."
"I would have had even bigger plans, but it was a big plan and it included some of the ideas we have been pushing," she added.
Perhaps the president's African-American critics expect too much when they demand that he explicitly mention black unemployment. Then again, he owes them a great deal. Blacks are the most reliable and faithful constituents in the Democratic base. They will not defect to the hostile territory on the other side, particularly with Barack Obama as the occupant of the White House.
However, the 2012 election is nigh. And if unemployment remains chronically high -- as it likely will be, jobs bill or no -- President Obama may have to deal with an unenthusiastic black electorate that stays home on the Election Day.
Meanwhile, the other side caters to their base, which includes the Tea Party, billionaires and hard right wing values voters. From time to time, the president needs to show that he cares about black people, as symbolism can go a long way.
David A. Love
Commentary by David A. Love