The Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission: Assessment of President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address

2 Mar

 

Preface

The principal mission of the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission is to continuously monitor and evaluate the policy priorities and legislative proposals of presidential administrations in relationship to the needs, issues, vital interests  and aspirations of people of African descent in the U.S. and globally.  Drawing from policy priorities of various constituencies, organizations and agencies within the Black community, the objective of the Commission is to assess how presidential administrations respond to or implement a Black Agenda.  The Commission asserts its prerogative to perform this function within the context of an American body politic where a wide range of interest groups mobilize, organize and lobby to advance their goals. This function is particularly important given the long history of the “color line,” prejudice, bigotry and structural/institutional racism, as a major impediment to  social, economic and political progress of Black people in the country. The Commission certainly acknowledges the significance of the election of the first African American President as a milestone in the history of the United States.  However, the virulent, negative reaction to President Obama by segments of our society is symptomatic of a racial subtext to some of the fierce policy debates raging in Washington.  In this regard, the “State of Emergency” afflicting millions of Black poor and working people, strongly indicates the urgent need for vigilance in monitoring how this and future administrations devise policies designed to  achieve justice and full equality for people of African descent in America.

It is also important to note that while the Commission derives information and policy recommendations from a variety of sources, ultimately its Assessments and Report Cards are formulated based on  the perspective that government has a definitive role and  affirmative obligation to advance policies and programs to eradicate  discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or age, to protect the public from excesses of corporations and private interests within a Capitalist economy, to promote social and economic  inclusion, equity/parity and  to facilitate/enable people in this country to realize a quality standard of living. 

Process for Developing the Assessment

▪ Members of SCPAC agreed that the President’s State of the Union Address would be evaluated in the following areas:
1. Tone
2. Strategic vision
3. General policy prescriptions and potential impact on the Black community
4. Policy Initiatives targeted to address issues/concerns in the Black community
5. Policy areas or issues not addressed
▪ Commission Members listened and/or reviewed the text of State of the Union Address and shared their analyses utilizing the areas above.
▪ It was agreed that the Commission would also evaluate responses from other sources in the Black community, e.g.,  the Congressional Black Caucus,  National Urban League,  NAACP,  National Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and await the President’s 2012 Budget prior to issuing its Assessment.

The Assessment

Tone

President Obama’s second State of the Union address must be considered in the context of important economic and political factors. On the economic front, though the “Great Recession” appears to be over, the recovery is anemic, leaving millions of people unemployed, underemployed, with large numbers of people also abandoning the labor market.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans continue to be adversely affected by the home mortgage crisis. Both phenomena fueled a mood of anger, frustration and despair that the Tea Party Patriots and Republicans were able to exploit to score stunning victories in the 2010 Mid-Term Elections. Republicans captured a substantial majority in the House of Representative, reduced the Democrats majority in the Senate, elected 21 Governors and won control of 19 additional state legislatures.  President Obama called it a “shellacking.”

Against this backdrop, President Obama sought to lift the spirits of the nation by engendering a sense of hope/optimism that better days are ahead.  Reminding the nation of American’s triumphs over adversity in the past, the President laid out a vision and prescriptions for “winning the future” by gaining and retaining a competitive edge in the global economy. 

The Commission gives high marks to the President for delivering a well crafted, inspirational speech with broad outlines of a plan to achieve the goals delineated.

Strategic Vision

Faced with the growing crescendo for immediate deficit and debt reduction largely orchestrated by the Republican opposition, the President appeared to position himself in the political center by pledging to recommend policies to cut the deficit and debt while encouraging “Investments” in areas that would grow the economy and create jobs. The President identified Education, Innovation and Infrastructure as the cornerstones of the investments to “win the future.”  He declared a freeze on wages for federal employees, a three year freeze on selected discretionary domestic programs and substantial cuts in the Community Action Program, Community Service Block Grants, home heating assistance and Education Pell Grants as illustrative of the “hard choices” the administration is willing to make in order to shrink the deficit and debt.  However, he warned Republicans that he would not tolerate a wholesale dismantling of the health care reform bill or drastic changes to Medicate and Social Security.
The President’s 2012 Budget basically follows the contours of his State of the Union address.  It calls for $ 3.7 in expenditures in 2012 with the elimination or reduction of scores of federal agencies. It provides for a $78 billion reduction in Defense spending and increases in revenue from new taxes on the wealthy amounting to $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years. The net reduction in the deficit over the 10 years is calculated at $1.1 trillion.

Policy Initiatives targeted to address issues/concerns in the Black community

Consultations with elected officials, civil rights leaders and advocacy groups in the Black community reveal an ongoing concern with President Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of the Great Recession on the Black community in terms of chronic unemployment, poverty, health disparities and high levels of incarceration. However, 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.  Despite social and economic indicators that suggest a need to target policies/programs to address conditions in the Black community, recent presidential administrations have been extremely reluctant to do so. Therefore, the frustration with this administration is not new.   As the first African American President, Obama may feel that he is vulnerable to accusations of a bias in favor of Blacks in formulating policy.  That notwithstanding, 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. Accordingly, the Commission will continue to evaluate this administration based on that expectation and report our findings to the community.

Policy areas or issues not addressed

It is impossible to mention every issue in a State of the Union Address. However, the Commission was disappointed that the words “poverty,” or “the poor,” were not mentioned one time during the President’s speech.  There were also no references to inequality, unions nor criminal justice. On the international front, there was no mention of Haiti one year after the earthquake or an indication of how marginalized populations would be included or affected by America’s quest to “win the future.”

Observations

▪ The overall theme and strategy for “winning the future” points the nation in a productive direction both in terms of transforming the character of the economy internally and positioning America to remain number one in the global economy.

▪ The Commission looks favorably on the President’s proposals to fund his “clean/green energy agenda” by ending taxpayer subsidies to oil companies, and his pledge to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in 2012. The $10,000 education tax credit and elimination of banks from the student loan process are welcomed aids to working and middle class Americans.

▪ The health care reform bill, while imperfect, nonetheless will provide access to vital health services for millions of people including African Americans who currently lack access and benefits.  The Commission also applauds the President’s stance on Medicare and Social Security as programs of vital interest to people of African descent.

▪ The Commission is enthusiastic about the potential of investments in infrastructure, and green technology as initiatives which could serve as a catalyst to rebuild decaying urban centers across the country, potentially producing millions of good jobs with decent wages and benefits.  Urban inner-city areas are the epicenter of the State of Emergency in Black America in terms of unemployment, joblessness, poor housing, inferior education, crime and violence.  These initiatives could begin to ameliorate these devastating conditions.

▪ There is serious concern about the impact on Blacks, working people and the poor of substantial cuts in the Community Action Program, Community Service Block Grants, Home Heating Assistance and Pell Grants. Speaking to the issue of deep cuts in Community Development Block Grants,  Emmanuel Cleaver, President of the Congressional Black Caucus captured the sentiments of many leaders in Black America  with these thoughts: “I personally expressed my concern to President Obama on the pending cuts to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), 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.”
Conclusions

▪ On balance the Commission concludes that President Obama has articulated a vision of economic growth and opportunity which offers some promise for people of African descent.  Nonetheless, targeting is still necessary to end structural gaps/disparities between Blacks and Whites.  It is imperative that the State of Emergency in Black America be confronted head-on.

▪ The Commission supports the President’s concept of bringing the deficit and debt under control in the context of strategic investments to “win the future.”  In this regard, while the President has adopted a “scalpel” rather than “meat axe” approach to deficit and debt reduction, the Commission strongly concurs with economists who advocate much deeper cuts in military/defense spending to avoid painful cuts in social safety net programs as enumerated above. 

▪ It is important for the President to educate the public on the need to improve the quality of life for the poor as a “moral obligation” consistent with “American values.”  In addition, the President should stand firm in defending the collective bargaining rights of unions as vital vehicles for promoting a higher standard of living for workers and the middle class. 

▪ In anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, it appears President Obama’s State of the Union Address was an attempt to carve space on the political spectrum as a “pragmatic progressive,” reaching out to his liberal-progressive base with policy proposals they favor while appealing to independents by demonstrating his willingness to “take on his own party” by cutting programs popular with the base.  The verdict is out as to whether these calculations will ultimately result in “change we can believe in.”

The Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission

Honorary Chairman, Posthumously
Dr. Ronald Walters-Pre-eminent Political Scientist and Professor Emeritus
Convener
Rick Adams – Co-convener, Western Pennsylvania Black Political Assembly, Chairman, Institute of The Black World 21st Century Board of Directors, Pittsburgh, PA.
Members
 Dr. Michael Fauntroy- Associate Professor, Public Policy, George Mason University, Washington, DC
 Dr. Tricia-Bent Goodley-Professor of Social Work, Chairperson, Community Administration and Policy Practice Sequence, Howard University, Washington, DC
 Dr. Duchess Harris-Associate Professor, American Studies, Macalester College, St. Paul, MN
 Dr. Marc Lamont Hill- Associate Professor, Education and Anthropology, Columbia University’s Teachers College, New York, NY
 Dr. Julianne Malveaux- Pre-eminent Political Economist and President, Bennett College for Women, Greensboro, NC
 Dr. Patricia Newton- President-Elect, Black Psychiatrists of America, Inc.
 Makani Themba-Nixon-Chief Executive Officer, The Praxis Project, Washington, DC
 Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika-President, African American Leadership Project, New Orleans, LA
 Attorney Nkechi Taifa-Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Institute, Washington, DC
 University of Maryland, College Park, MD
 Dr. Boyce Watkins, Professor, Finance, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY

Ex-Officio Member
Dr. Ron Daniels – Distinguished Lecturer, York College, City University of New York, President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
Staff Assistant
G. Rosaline Preudhomme – Management Consultant, Institute of the Black World 21st Century, Colonie, NY

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