President Obama’s tough talk at his press conference yesterday signaled a more combative commander-in-chief who is primed to engage congressional Republicans in the aftermath of his victory on Election Day. Gone was the first term President who seemed to choose compromise as his first option and appeared uncomfortable with using the big stick the Oval Office provides an incumbent. The President was clear in stating his intention to let the Bush tax cuts expire and made a spirited defense of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice who came under attack from Republican senators John McCain (AZ) and Lindsey Graham (SC) over her early statements regarding the attacks on the U.S, embassy in Benghazi Libya. If the President’s supporters were waiting for a signal to see how he will approach his second term, they got one yesterday. Free of the burden of contemplating a campaign, President Obama appears to be feisty and itching for a showdown with a Republican Caucus that stymied most of his agenda the last four years.
In his remarks to the press, the President said, “I’ve got a mandate to help middle-class families and families that are working hard to try to get into the middle class. That’s my mandate. That’s what the American people said. They said: Work really hard to help us. Don’t worry about the politics of it; don’t worry about the party interests; don’t worry about the special interests. Just work really hard to see if you can help us get ahead -- because we’re working really hard out here and we’re still struggling, a lot of us.”
The question now is beyond the negotiations over a long-term deficit reduction plan, what’s next? For Africa-Americans who supported the President but expressed frustration over his ability to focus specifically on needs identified as critical to the community, the challenge now is to define priorities and the resources necessary to move the political needle. While there are numerous issues or areas that converge as “priorities,” there are a few that are unarguably critical to the social advancement and economic security of African-Americans. They are:
Employment: The recession has devastated African-Americans at no fault to the President. He inherited a crisis of historic proportion and it was understood by many Blacks that it would take time for President Obama to get a handle on a job recovery. Still, the unemployment rate for African-Americans has been persistently high and many Blacks have become a part of the long-term unemployed. This is the primary issue we believe will likely motivate African-Americans to increase their demands for government action to stem economic losses. One of the likely Obama proposals that Blacks will see as beneficial is investment in the nation’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels and schools. The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy will revive interest in this area and the need to improve the nation’s power grid. Investment in infrastructure could potentially yield hundreds of thousands of new jobs in major urban centers where there is a large African-American population.
Education: The “No Child Left Behind” mantra of the Bush days, and supported by the President are over as “Race for the Top” has become the signature education policy of the Obama White House. By making states compete for federal education dollars the administration is encouraging innovation and making states accountable for student outcomes. In addition, the President has been supportive of merit pay and has championed charter schools through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The administration has also made community colleges a centerpiece of its reform agenda, worked to ease student loan debt and pushed an initiative to help African-American students, in particular Black males. There appears to be a tremendous opportunity for an engaged Black community to weigh-in on the education debate and play an active role in reforming public education at the local level.
Gun Control: With the body count rising in Chicago and death by gunshot becoming a way of life in many cities, the administration has yet to take a formal stand against the proliferation of firearms in our country. Not even the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Gifford, and before that, incidents of gun violence on college campuses, yielded serious discussion on more restraint on gun ownership. Some mayors, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, have become more vocal in their call for stricter gun laws given their close proximity to tragedy on a daily basis. This is one issue that African-Americans will need to press the White House in light of the National Rifle Association inspired gun lobby and the specter of the Second Amendment.
Immigration: Yes, immigration. Contrary to popular belief and conservative media spin, all immigrants do not come from south of the border. When debates rage over the need for comprehensive immigration reform seldom are immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa referenced. For African-Americans the immigration debate also opens up a gateway to building stronger alliances with the Latino community and to find common ground on important issues across the policy spectrum. It can also replace the fear of displacement that many Blacks have, and the suspicion of some Hispanic groups that has gripped many Blacks, and move toward a collaborative agenda that addresses critical needs in both communities. If African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans can coalesce the union will represent a formidable voting bloc that could impact national and statewide elections for decades to come.
Small Business Ownership: When the President speaks about the importance of small business and entrepreneurship, many Blacks shake their head in agreement. There is an entrepreneurial class within the African-American community that could be an important component of a Black economic recovery. For that to happen access to capital for Black-owned small businesses and entrepreneurs must be jumpstarted and significantly increased and the regulatory and licensing path must be made less laborious. Small business ownership must also be encouraged in the Black community by the Obama administration and a special effort must be made to highlight small business success stories.
Civil Rights: Whether fighting off attempts to intimidate African-American voters and suppress their votes, or increasing the enforcement powers of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there will be a rising tide of voices in the Black community calling upon President Obama to be a more vocal advocate for civil rights in his second term. With record numbers of EEOC filings on the grounds of discriminatory employment practices, the President has an opportunity to affirm the federal government’s role in restoring and maintaining equity and preserving rights explicit in the U.S. Constitution. Another area of interest is policing and the continuing issue of police brutality and policies such as New York City’s “stop and frisk” that have been shown to target African-American males, as well as the disproportionate arrests of people of color and mass incarceration.
Federal Judiciary: There are vacancies on the federal bench and a possibility that a vacancy will occur on the U.S. Supreme Court. The President’s two appointments thus far to the high Court have been well regarded. Since both of President Obama’s appointees are white women, there is speculation that the next pick could be Asian-American or an African-American woman. Faced with a relatively young Supreme Court roster of justices who will serve for some time; President Obama, if the opportunity presents itself, will have to be strategic in his appointment(s) and the Black community more vigilant regarding the judicial appointment process.
Photo: The White House