Every January, every sitting President of the United States engages in the ritual of appearing before a joint session of Congress to deliver the annual “State of the Union” address. Though the Constitution only requires the President to submit an annual update to Congress on the condition of the nation, in the modern presidency it has become customary for the commander-in-chief to appear before lawmakers and a national television audience. While the speech often takes on the aura of high drama, particularly during moments of national crisis such as in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the address is really an opportunity for the President to outline his policy priorities. As such, the words delivered have significant meaning in terms of government priorities and budget considerations. In fact, it sets the stage for the introduction of the President’s budget proposal just weeks later.
The Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission, created to hold presidential administrations accountable to issues of concern in the Black community, assessed President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. It purposely delayed releasing its assessment to allow time to see how the administration moved subsequent to the address, the manner in which Congress responded, and to reflect upon how the proposed budget jibes with the President’s message. The Commission’s aim is to make certain that concerns most germane to Black Americans are given consideration by the White House and embedded in policy making coming out of the administration. The group assessed the speech on the basis of its tone, strategic vision, policy prescriptions, policy initiatives and the areas or issues that were left unaddressed.
The Commission generally gave President Obama high marks for the tone of the State of the Union address, noting, “…the President laid out a vision and prescriptions for ‘winning the future’ by gaining and retaining a competitive edge in the global economy.” The group noted that the President, facing a resurgent Republican majority in the House of Representatives, moved to the political center and offered a centrist vision. As an example, the Commission pointed to Mr. Obama’s focus on reducing the deficit, a rallying cry of Republicans on the Hill, and his call for a freeze on discretionary domestic programs. The President’s call for investments in education, economic innovation, and the nation’s infrastructure was also cited.
One of the growing points of contention with the Obama administration in some segments of the Black community is the lack of policy prescriptions specifically focused on the most pressing problems affecting Black Americans. The Commission did not shy away from this debate but did note that “…any objective assessment must cite the fact that President Obama is following a trend characterized by the gradual de-emphasis of civil rights and race based remedies resulting from a ‘White backlash’ to Black gains in the 60’s.” Issues that were raised as critical to the Black community were chronic unemployment, poverty, health disparities and high levels of incarceration. The Commission noted that the Obama administration is not the first to pay little attention to these concerns, and that the frustrations of Blacks with the White House follows a long pattern. However, the group declared, “…the Commission’s position is that it is a major abdication of leadership and responsibility for any President not to educate the public on the need to target policies to ameliorate the conditions of particular constituencies that are disproportionately affected by negative socio-economic conditions.”
The Commission also pointed out that in his State of the Union speech President Obama did not mention the words “poverty” or reference “the poor.” In addition, the President made no references to inequality, labor unions or criminal justice issues, according to the Commission’s assessment. The group also chided the President for not mentioning Haiti during the speech, as it came one year after a devastating earthquake rocked the country and caused massive damage and human suffering.
One of the most important observations the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission made concerning the State of the Union address was that President Obama did not articulate how marginalized groups would be included in his campaign to “win the future.” The group looks favorably upon the President’s green energy agenda and his pledge to end the Bush era tax cuts for high income earners, as well as his proposed $10,000 education tax credit and the removal of banks from the student loan program. It also applauded Mr. Obama’s stance on Medicare and Social Security, two programs of importance to the Black community. President Obama also received high marks for his emphasis on rebuilding the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure as an opportunity to create good wage jobs with benefits for residents in distresses urban centers across the country.
The Commission did sound the alarm on proposed cuts to the Community Action Program, Community Service Block Grants, Home Heating Assistance Program, Pell Grants and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). In regard to the latter, the group referenced the remarks of Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said in reference to proposed cuts in the CDBG program, “I personally expressed my concern to President Obama on the pending cuts to the Community Development Block Grants, which provides funding for local governments to carry out a wide range of community development activities ranging from housing to economic development and public service. I believe this is a time when we should increase funding for CDBG, not cut it.”
Calling the need to improve the quality of life for the poor a “moral obligation,” the Chisholm Commission called on President Obama to defend the collective bargaining rights of workers and the role of unions in promoting a higher standard of living for workers. It noted that the President was trying to avoid making draconian cuts to the budget, taking a “scalpel” rather than a “meat axe” approach, but that Mr. Obama must still address the structural disparities between Black Americans and whites if specific issues it cited are to be addressed.
Note: NorthStar News Contributor, Dr. Ron Daniels, President of the Institute for the Black World 21st Century, is an Ex-Officio member of the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission.