Last week President Obama fulfilled the constitutional requirement and time honored tradition of addressing the State of the Union before a joint session of Congress. The much anticipated annual speech carried even more weight this year as the nation’s first African-American President faces a tough re-election fight in November. While Republicans listened intently for areas in which to score political points against President Obama, and Democrats waited to hear assurances that the President was in sync with voters; Black voters were paying attention for clues that some of the pressing issues confronting African-Americans were indeed on the agenda.
Since the election of Barack Obama, Blacks have been in a quandary. Most African-Americans understand the unique and tenuous position the President holds as the first Black to occupy the Oval Office. African-Americans have tempered any criticism or disappointment in the President out of fear that it would be exploited by those who are none too happy at the race of the man in the White House. At the same time, African-Americans have struggled against the natural urge to raise concerns about their status under the weight of a historic economic downturn; giving this President the benefit of the doubt that he indeed has their best interest at heart. Blacks have “understood” the President’s reluctance to directly embed race into his rhetoric and not make any specific reference to “Black” or “African-American” in his policy prescriptions. Still, there is a constant search for clues or signals that the President clearly understands the dimension of Black dislocation in the labor market and the need for continued vigilance on the part of the federal government on matters of civil rights.
The President delivered his speech last Tuesday night in the Capitol against the backdrop of this air of anticipation among African-Americans and the specter of giving his Republican opponents red meat upon which to feed their critique of him. In many ways, by staking his speech on “income inequality” and “fairness,” President Obama was laying the groundwork for a campaign that recognizes the unfinished business of Black ascension and full citizenship. Without any specific references to race, the President was describing a basis for governance that is very much in keeping with the goals and ideals of the nation’s historic transformation as a result of the civil rights movement.
Though modest by comparison to the historic big vision agendas of FDR’ “New Deal,” JFK’s “New Frontier,” and LBJ’s “Great Society, the Obama fairness doctrine still speaks to the possibilities of Black progress. It does not have the big bang allure of those grand visions, but does address some practical policy prescriptions that, if taken up and pursued, could set the stage for a more transformative platform later in a second Obama term. The hard truth is that little will get done between now and the fall election and that any possibilities that the President’s recommendations will see the light of day rests upon a Democrat controlled House. There are several prominent policy areas that are of significant relevance to African-Americans that the President touched upon.
Where are the points of convergence for the African-American community in the President’s State of the Union speech? The first is in the area of tax policy and the President’s support of adjusting the tax code to embed greater fairness and the extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. By adjusting the tax rates and requiring more from upper income earners, the President is by virtue of the income distribution, helping African-American taxpayers. Such a change in the tax code in particular helps the Black middle class that has been devastated during the economic downturn. The attention that was drawn by the release of the tax returns of Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney provided a vivid example of the favorable tax rates on investment income as opposed to earned income.
The extension of the payroll tax cut would give employers relief and should particularly benefit small business owners, the segment of the economy that has been generating the most jobs. An extension would conceivably encourage hiring and jobless African-Americans would hopefully be among some of these new hires. African-Americans have been hardest hit by unemployment during the recession and their hiring has yet to show significant improvement during this anemic recovery. Black men and young African-American adults are faring worse among all groups and this predicament has fueled calls for the White House to develop a targeted approach to Black joblessness. The extension of unemployment benefits is a high priority for African-Americans who face a higher hurdle and a much longer time before re-entering the labor market.
The issue of jobs is also central to the President’s call for some of the savings accrued from our military exiting Iraq be directed toward infrastructure projects. The massive surface transportation Act is up for reauthorization and the White House is seizing on war savings as one way to pay for improvements to the nation’s crumbling network of bridges, tunnels and roadways. Since the transportation law will require a funding mechanism, and Republicans are likely to oppose an increase in the gasoline tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund, military savings is one way to make sure these much needed repairs and new projects are funded. For African-Americans, the challenge is how to penetrate the ranks of the construction trade unions to gain access to these jobs. Despite the perceived alliance between labor and the Democratic Party, access of Blacks to unionized construction jobs is still problematic. Despite popular belief, these are not “government” jobs but jobs contracted to private construction firms that are responsible for their hiring for projects.
Faced with reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, President Obama reiterated his call to give school districts more flexibility in weeding out poor performing teachers in exchange for giving teachers more creative freedom and moving away from the emphasis on standardized testing that has given way to “teaching to the test.” Education reform is one of the great policy gulfs for African-Americans, with Blacks still too little engaged in current efforts to restructure public education. The manner of school structure and curriculum/instruction are important areas for Blacks to monitor as African-American students have generally fared poorly under the standardized testing regimen and continuously feed what some policy experts define as an “achievement gap.” The President also called for changes in student retention policy and proposed keeping students in school until they are 18 years old, abandoning the practice of allowing them to dropout at age 16. This is a controversial proposal as there are arguments for and against the mandatory retention of students. It remains to be seen if the idea gains traction, particularly among educators.
In the area of higher education, President Obama called for colleges and universities to control escalating tuition costs that are increasing the student loan debt burden as government issued student aid remains relatively flat. Financing has become a significant barrier to a higher education for Black students. Throughout the country there have been student protests on campuses to object to tuition hikes as public colleges pass down the costs of budget cuts onto students. As institutions have been squeezed they have increasingly raised tuition and cut student services, including intercollegiate athletics. The President suggested that federal aid to institutions of higher learning would be partly determined by the steps campuses are taking to stabilize and lower tuition.
The mortgage meltdown has impacted African-Americans with many middle class enclaves that were once considered to be upwardly mobile facing a rash of home foreclosures. Homeowners face losing their homes as their properties are “under water,” valued at less than the mortgage. In some instances, homeowners are abandoning properties, leaving their personal finances in peril and creating pockets of decay in neighborhoods. The inability to secure or refinance mortgages has also crippled the Black community. In his State of the Union speech President Obama announced he was sending a plan to Congress that will allow refinancing at historically low rates and producing savings of about $3,000 per year for homeowners. The plan will aid homeowners no matter if their loans originate through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or a private entity. The plan will also require the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee underwater mortgages. The entire plan is projected to cost $10 billion. Rental housing was not addressed by the President but the Federal Housing Finance Agency is expected to announce a program soon to address that segment of the housing market. The President also announced the creation of a Unit on Mortgage and Securitization Abuses to investigate the practices that contributed to the mortgage meltdown. The new unit will be headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and it will focus on large-scale fraud. The President proposed a small fee on large financial institutions as a way of paying for these programs.
President Obama already upset Republicans with the recess appointment of Richard Cordray as Director of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The President suggested a stronger hand in holding financial institutions accountable.
All of these proposals will come up against a bitterly partisan divided Congress, with many Republicans vowing to reject all of the President’s initiatives and making it clear that his defeat is their first priority. Despite his own soft approval rating, President Obama does have the advantage of facing off against a Congress that has a historically low approval rating. At some point congressional Republicans are going to have to show some results or face the wrath of voters and the onslaught of the Obama campaign.