This is not an easy column for me to write. It’s never easy to tell someone you like that he’s a disappointment. I like Barack Obama. I liked him the first time we met back in 2006 when I took a small group of journalism students to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the then-freshly minted U.S. senator.
I liked Obama even more when an aide to his presidential campaign invited me to a July 2007 speech he gave laying out his commitment to improve life for people in urban America — which for most politicians is a euphemism for black America.
“Today’s economy has made it easier to fall into poverty. … Every American is vulnerable to the insecurities and anxieties of this new economy. And that’s why the single most important focus of my economic agenda as president will be to pursue policies that create jobs and make work pay,” Obama said that day to his mostly black audience.
At that time, the nation’s overall unemployment rate was 4.7%. Whites had a jobless rate of 4.2% while the black unemployment rate stood at 8.1%. Today, the black rate is 15.5%, nearly double that of white job-seekers.
I don’t blame Obama for the economic conditions that are responsible for so many blacks being out of work. The seeds of this problem were planted long before he moved into the Oval Office. But I do fault him for not doing more to fix this problem.
The poor in urban America, he said in that 2007 speech, “suffer most from a politics that has been tipped in favor of those with the most money, and influence, and power.” And then he asked rhetorically, “How can a country like this allow it?” To which he answered, “We can’t.”
But so far, under his leadership, he has allowed it.
Finding work for the jobless is the best anti-poverty program this nation can mount. But while the Obama administration spends $608 million during the first 17 days of its involvement in Libya’s civil war — it can muster neither the money nor the will to combat black unemployment.
The president’s failure to fight this problem as vigorously as he wages war abroad gets a pass from black leaders, many of whom complain to me privately but remain silent in public. They’re reluctant to challenge Obama the way Martin Luther King Jr. did Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
America “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor” so long as it was involved in the Vietnam war, King said in a speech in which he called for an end to that bloody conflict.
Last month, as the Obama administration applauded the creation of 216,000 new jobs and a slight dip in the overall unemployment rate, the gap between whites and blacks without work widened as the black unemployment rate inched up.
In December 2009, when the black unemployment rate was just 5.5 percentage points higher than the national rate, Obama told USA TODAY that he didn’t think he needed to do anything special to close this gap. Now that it is nearly 7 percentage points higher, black leaders should demand that the president devote as much attention on this problem as he has on ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and in pushing for immigration reform.
They should demand an end to the wasteful spending on wars that can’t be won and insist that the resulting peace dividend be used to finance that revitalized urban policy — the one Obama not so long ago promised would be the focus of his economic agenda.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.