There have been many moments during the Obama presidency that can be characterized as historic, simply by virtue of having the nation’s first Black President occupy the White House. Last night was no exception as President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to present his jobs bill. The speech was not historic because of the President’s race; it was so because it marked a watershed moment for the nation because it was delivered against the backdrop of an economic crisis. For all of the ways by which a presidency is defined, it is the handling of a crisis that determines how history will judge the occupant of the Oval Office.
It was clear last night that President Obama was speaking with a sense of urgency and conviction that is perhaps borne by his recent battle with Republicans in Congress over the debt ceiling. While he has been known for inspiring oratory on the campaign trail and early in his presidency, the President’s speech last night was punctuated with a different sort of bravado that suggests he has reached a moment of self-reflection and is prepared to engage in battle with lawmakers over his proposal. It is the sort of “fire in the belly” that many of the President’s supporters have been waiting to see and his opponents doubted he could muster. Unlike the State of the Union speech when it appeared heckling from Republican lawmakers caught him off guard, President Obama seemed to be in a zone last night as he spoke powerfully to a Congress that has been beset by partisan bickering.
The plan offers some promising elements but the real question is whether they can be implemented quick enough to expedite the creation of the millions of jobs that are needed to revive the economy. There is also the question of whether African-Americans, disproportionately impacted by the recession, will benefit. Certain provisions of the plan such as an extension of unemployment benefits, tax credits to hire workers who have been unemployed longer than six months, and the hiring of low-income young adults should have a positive impact upon African-Americans if those aspects of the plan are executed. The use of tax credits for private sector hiring, certainly a way to give businesses an incentive to hire, are more suspect given continuing discriminatory practices in the labor market. Likewise, the idea of government spending on transportation infrastructure and school construction has appeal but barriers to Black workers access to the construction trades is going to have to be immediately addressed. The hiring of school teachers is also a positive step but we would hope much of the hiring would be directed toward urban school districts that have been severely impacted by state budget cuts.
The real take away from the President’s speech is that African-Americans must be fully engaged in the debate and legislative wrangling as the “American Jobs Act” is taken up by Congress. Too often we stop short in our engagement of the political process, and stay on the sidelines when the often messy process of policy making is taking place. We can’t afford to be complacent this time. There is too much at stake for the African-American community. We must mobilize in a way that we have not since the 2008 election and make our voices heard in Washington, and not just register our demands with members of the Congressional Black Caucus but with the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and Senate. The news media must also hear from us, local newspapers, cable television news networks, Internet news sites, and talk radio, so our expectations of this Congress are clear and there can be no misinterpretation of our concerns through our silence. For those who have been critical of President Obama over his handling of the jobs crisis, now is the time to step up and throw their full weight and support behind the plan that is on the table.
We hope President Obama will stick to his guns and make his case directly to the American public as he said he would during his speech. The President needs to board Air Force One and go directly into the legislative districts of Republican members of Congress that have been his primary critics. He might not find hostility but a willingness on the part of many of their unemployed constituents to look beyond their party identification for the sake of supporting a plan that could save jobs, create new jobs and provide the financial security for families to save their homes. We agree with President Obama that most Americans can’t wait 14 months for a lifeline, people need help now and they are tired of politics. If this is the defining fight of the Obama presidency, and if it risks him being a one-term President, we need to be dogged in our determination to hold Congress accountable and use our collective energies to get this jobs bill passed.