ASKIAM and Charlene Muhammad Final Call Correspondents

State of the Union deals with Main St., but what about Martin Luther King Drive?

WASHINGTON ( President Barack Obama formally ended his first year in office with his first constitutionally mandated report on the State of the Union on Jan. 27, with a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress.

Even as Mr. Obama reached out again and again, tilting his policies toward the Republican minority in both Houses of Congress, liberal, grassroots organizations and Democratic members gave him generally high marks after his speech, while Republicans for the most part simply scowled and “sat on their hands.”


“One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by a severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse and a government deeply in debt,” said Mr. Obama as he began his 71 minute address. “Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression.

“So we acted–immediately and aggressively. And one year later the worst of the storm has passed,” he said. And despite a slow, mostly a “non-recovery” for those who have been the worst off in the society, those at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, Mr. Obama’s optimistic mood seems to have carried the day.

A full two-thirds of the President’s address was devoted to the economy, the central theme of which was job creation. Mr. Obama outlined a series of steps his administration hopes to take to aid middle-class families and spur job growth.

While some Democratic members of Congress confessed they did not expect, in advance to agree with the president about everything, the areas of concern were often Mr. Obama’s promise to expand funding for nuclear energy, and his proposed domestic spending freeze–not necessarily items considered most important to Black people.

There was specific mention of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” for gays in the military and talk of suffering on Main St., and in Elkhart, Ind., where the president sought White votes. However, there was no specific mention of suffering in Harlem, South Central Los Angeles or on Martin Luther King Drive–where Black voters supported the president in overwhelming numbers.

Studies have shown Blacks enduring disproportionate pain with higher unemployment, less income, more home losses to foreclosure and receiving little if any money from the federal bailout funds approved by Mr. Obama. But that particular pain found no mention in the State of the Union address to the dissatisfaction of some and was a move defended by others.

Some felt the speech was a solid challenge to the GOP to get beyond just saying no and move legislation, while others felt the president had neglected a major constituency.

“It was a core Democratic speech, to be sure, but he called out both sides,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told The Final Call, shortly after Mr. Obama’s speech. “Democrats: ‘Govern. You’ve got the biggest majority in decades.’ Republicans: ‘Obstruction is not governing either,’” Mrs. Norton continued.

“He gave a speech far more devoted to domestic policy, when you consider that he is the Commander-in-Chief and there are two wars. He recognized that people wanted to hear what he’s going to do for those who are out here suffering. His focus on jobs, on money from the banks, small business to make jobs, that’s what people want to hear,” Ms. Norton said.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus gave Mr. Obama similar high marks immediately after the address. “I think the President laid out both where we’ve been and now where we need to go,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said, “especially around job creation and making sure we can get the American economy really flowing the way that it needs to. And I think he also said ‘I’m not going to quit on the big stuff,’ things like health care, and I was glad to hear that message.

“We heard great news, about continuing the fight to rebuild our schools. We heard great news about continuing the struggle to rebuild the Department of Justice and its ability to enforce our civil rights laws and our Constitution, and about making job creation job one,” Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP told The Final Call. “So his call for leadership from both parties–pushing his own party not to run for the hills, saying he will continue to fight, but also telling the Republicans to stop being ‘The Party of No’ and bring some ideas to the plate–is critical.

“Because the reality is we’re about 10 million jobs short in this country. And right now, if you take his ideas, and Congress’s ideas and it doesn’t even get us half way. We cannot, we cannot talk about rebuilding Main Street in this country until we talk about rescuing Back Street.”

Analyst: Shameful neglect of Black supporters

“I think that it’s shameful that the president has neglected African American people, and the constituencies of Black America and it’s even more tragic that Black people won’t be critical of him and won’t demand, out of self respect and dignity of their individual and collective identities, for this president to respond to their call of responsibility,” said Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a scholar, author, early supporter and Obama surrogate speaker.

During the Democratic primary, Dr. Dyson backed Mr. Obama while his wife was a vocal supporter of then-presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We are indeed constituents and it is not only an unfortunate ignoring of the major constituency that supported President Obama in his bid for the highest elected office of the land and it’s a shameful repudiation of the subtle feelings and citizenly solidarity that Black folk expressed with Mr. Obama. Sure, the extra part was the fact that he’s a Black man. We’re Black people. We supported him. Well, we don’t just support any Black person. We support Black people with our best interests in mind,” Dr. Dyson argued.

Support for Mr. Obama came from the “sense that he would make America make sense for the most vulnerable populations in the country, often including African American people,” said Dr. Dyson.

“And so as a constituency and a voting bloc, we have merited favor and deserve credit and recognition for who we are and this balderdash about being universal is repudiated by the fact that he and a Joe Biden had a conference on the middle class. Small business is a particular constituency. Gays and Lesbians, Transgender and Bisexual people are a particular constituency. Latinos are a particular constituency. First Nation people or American Indians are a particular constituency that he’s appealed to.

“And the business community, in terms of bailing out AIG and General Motors, are a particular constituency so this is just nonsense to obscure the reality that Black people are both a voting constituency and a bloc of citizens who deserve to be heard by Mr. Obama and whose needs should be addressed by him,” he said.

“What I heard the President say is: We’re going to focus on jobs, jobs, and he talked about chronic unemployment, not just the more recent unemployment.” said Rep. Edwards, a first term member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He also talked about innovation creation, creativity, and creating jobs by building education and strengthening our education system. I think that’s part of the Black Agenda. I thought (the speech) was a home run. He doesn’t need a grade on this one because he cleared the bases,” Ms. Edwards said.

Mr. Obama, of course was not elected to be “The Black President,” his supporters are quick to point out. Black leaders must shoulder that responsibility, they said.

Black leaders must carry agenda, says lawmaker

“I think that the part of the Black agenda he touched on, really for me was education,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “When he said that’s the best anti-poverty program we can have right now. We’ve got to focus in. That’s the message for the inner-city and rural schools, where a lot of Black folks are. Part of the Black agenda is included therein.

“A large part of the responsibility of the Black agenda will be put on members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and we will take that agenda directly to him, as some of us in the financial services area did previously, to make sure that agenda for the constituents that we represent is continually heard, and we can deliver to our folks. We’re not going to give up on our responsibility as members of Congress, simply because we have a president that’s Black. We understand that he can’t be the one that’s (assigned) the Black agenda. That’s our job,” Mr. Meeks said.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a decorated veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, also gave Mr. Obama high marks. “I love the way that the President sort of moved toward the issue of civil rights and creating a society where everybody is included, by saying that we’re one nation, that we’re one people, and saying what his administration is doing–enforcing the civil rights laws, passing a hate crimes bill. I felt his commitment there,” Mr. Lewis said.

“Lets’ turn the question around: What do we as the Black community need to start doing to help this Black man be successful as the first Black president that we’ve ever had? We need to stop looking for what is he going to do for us,” argued David Horne, executive director of the California African American Political and Economic Institute and professor of Africana Studies at California State Northridge. “That shows our desperation. That shows how long we have not had somebody to care for us or to cater to us. If we ever put that man in a position where he’s focusing on Black folk, he will be rendered totally ineffective as president.”

“He has done a lot of things for Black folk and will continue to do that but it will be quiet, not in the headlines, and we need to stop trying to push him to say ‘I’m going to help Black folks.’ That’s nonsense. That means that we’re not being mature enough to understand, listen, we’ve never had a Black president before. We’ve never had anybody in charge. He did not marry a White woman. He is not running around saying ya’ll need to be like Clarence Thomas and some other people. What you have is a Black man with a Black wife, two Black children, who has never blinked one time about who he is. ‘I’m an African American.’ He’s always said that,” Prof. Horne observed.

“In other words, unless we want him to be the first and the last, then we need to stop making unreasonable demands on him,” Prof. Horne said.

Important symbolism of a Black president

Having a Black woman as first lady and a Black first family is an important, he continued. Mr. Obama enjoys a good relationship with the Black Caucus and has appointed Blacks to high profile positions and behind the scenes, Prof. Horne said. Dr. Horne feels “destructive criticisms of him that help the opposition, that help these White people who are trying to make him fail; that help these White people who are trying to make sure he gets out of office and who are trying to drum up enough anger and ferverency in the White community to try to have him shot. We need to stop helping them. I’m not saying we should not criticize him. I’m not saying that he should get a free pass, but the criticism has to be constructive.”

For instance, he said, President Obama is opposed to reparations but is willing to listen to Blacks make the case, so instead of public pronouncements there should be behind the scenes work to get him to support legislation proposed by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to put together a commission to study Black suffering and reparations, H.R. 40.

“People are expecting, ‘You just should be doing this. You just should know. You just should take this.’ Why should he know?” asked Prof. Horne.

‘He can’t be the president for everybody else’

In an interview prior to the State of the Union address, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor of education at Columbia University, said Blacks had been deprived in special circumstances and needed special help to undo harm inflicted over several centuries.

“I would argue that I don’t expect him to be the president just for Black people but he can’t be the president for everybody else except Black people either,” said Dr. Hill.

“We had a whole presidential campaign that was committed to targeting the middle class at the expense of poor people, so he’s made decisions at certain moments to identify other people. He made a commitment to protecting the state of Israel. He’s said nothing’s off the table to protect Israel. So he’s identified the interests of an even smaller group of American people, the Jews, than Black Americans. I’m not suggesting or saying that he’s doing anything wrong by protecting other Americans. I’m saying that we can’t be the only group of people who he can’t touch, whose name he can’t say.”

“The thing is I’m not asking him to do is come up with a Black people’s policy. I’m not asking him to come up with a Black people’s jobs bill. Not only would that be unreasonable, it would be political suicide for him to do that. However, if he were to just enforce the law that’s on the books right now, civil rights enforcement, for example, would stop the redlining that’s going on in Black neighborhoods where they can’t get into White neighborhoods. Civil rights oversight right now would stop much of the exploitation we see around mortgage foreclosure and giving people bad loans,” said Dr. Hill.

“I’m not asking him to create Black people laws. I’m asking him to enforce all the laws that are on the books. That’s what Eric Holder’s there for. That’s what the local agents are there for, to enforce the laws that are the books. If you do that, then all of a sudden we can address some of these Black people issues, which are indeed American issues.”

Blacks “don’t expect (Mr. Obama) to deal with the issue of race and Black people because he’s a Black president. We expect him to address the issue of race and deal with Black interests because he’s an American president. Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, our latest run of presidents, could never get away with saying what Mr. Obama said in response to the Congressional Black Caucus’ criticism of him, that I’m everybody’s president, not just the president of the Black people,” said Dr. Dyson.

“We knew that. We are not unintelligent. That’s an insult to our intelligence. That’s an insult to our political wisdom but it is a wakeup call to the fact that most Black people have not demanded anything of this president, didn’t expect anything of him, and therefore have gotten in return what they’ve asked, which is nothing.”