The Obama Administration at 100 Days: The Black Agenda Report Card
by BAR Managing Editor Bruce A. Dixon
Why a Report Card At All?
The hundred day report card is an enduring tradition in American journalism for a very good reason. It's journalism's job to help citizens make sense of the world, to seek the truth and tell it without fear or favor no matter where it leads. Three months and a week into a new administration, everybody knows where the mens and ladies rooms are, most of the key hires are in place, and the bus has definitely cleared the station. There's plenty of evidence by now to assess where it's going, and whether it's anyplace we really ought to be headed.
Should We Grade President Obama on What He Promised, or on What People Need?
The answer to this should be easy. It all depends on whether we imagine government derives its authority from the blessedness of anointed men and women in office, or whether legitimacy comes from the informed consent of the governed. Most of us who were not home schooled learned it the latter way: governments are legit only insofar as they serve the people. Limiting the scope of a report card to what politicians promise confers upon them the power to lock down our collective imagination and deny our hunger and thirst for justice before we can even express it.
Why These Categories?
Because these are the issues that matter to our people. As the journal of African American political thought and action, they are what our authors write about every week.
Health Care Reform (9 points)
Creating New Jobs and Preserving Old Ones (5 points)
Fully Funding and Preserving Public Education (6 points)
War & Peace (9 points)
Transportation (5 points)
Caribbean and Latin America (4 points)
Obama's Africa Policy; Our Brotherman and the Motherland (5 points)
Wall Street Bailout (6 points)
Debt and Foreclosure Crises (6 points)
Investigating Bush-era Crimes (5 points)
Criminalizing Immigration, Militarizing the Border (5 points)
Broadband For Everyone and a Just and Fair Media (5 points)
Environment (5 points)
Agricultural Policy, and Policy Toward Black Farmers (5 points)
Mass imprisonment (5 points)
Employee Free Choice Act (5 points)
Urban Policy (5 points)
Privatization of Government Agencies and Services (5 points)
1. Health Care Reform
President Obama himself declared that we should judge his first term on whether we get a national health care plan. While the exact specs of the Obama campaign have not been formally introduced, it's been no secret for a couple years now that Barack Obama and his advisors abhor any form of Medicare-For-All or single payer health care. When the president's people ordered their activists to convene a wave of health care house meetings in December, the demand most often voiced was for single payer, everybody-in and nobody out. Despite this, and despite polling data that shows a majority of physicians and a majority of the American people favor single payer health care, the Obama administration buried the results of those house meetings. Obama's series of regional health care "summits," although billed as the chance to get input from all the relevant have pointedly excluded any voices for single payer health care.
Currently, private insurance companies consume a third of every health care dollar for advertising, lawyering, salaries and bonuses, bad investments and the vast bureaucratic machinery they have created to deny coverage to the sick. We are the only nation where half the bankruptcies are caused by illness. The Obama health care plan, modeled on the failed "individual mandate" health insurance experiments of Massachusetts, Tennessee and other states will make health insurance like car insurance.
Everyone will have to buy a policy from a private company or face tax and other penalties, with no guarantee the policy will be either affordable or comprehensive. The myriad shortcomings of this plan are detailed in a report from Physicians for a National Health Care Plan, and in several previous BAR articles. When asked during the campaign whether he thought health care was a human right, Barack Obama said he thought it was. His health care plan does preserve the prifits of insurance companies.
Five points for admitting health care is a human right, minus one for suppressing discussion of single payer. Four out of nine.
2. Creating New Jobs and Preserving Old Ones
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, the nation had been in the Depression almost four years. The new president created some 800,000 jobs in the space of a few months. To be fair, this Depression hasn't been in effect nearly as long, and there are no insistent mass movements waging extralegal campaigns of strikes and civil disobedience going into the spring of 2009. So it's more complicated than measuring the hundreds of thousands of new jobs Roosevelt created against the hundreds of thousands Obama hasn't.
What we see is a failure of imagination on the part of the Obama administration. Not only does the First Black President declare it's the job of the private sector, never government, to create jobs, a stand closer to Herbert Hoover than to Franklin Roosevelt --- his "stimulus packages" have refused to fully fund the operations of local and state governments. Full funding for local governments would preserve the jobs of teachers, water department workers, librarians, coaches and park district workers, public safety employees and others who are being sent home in the tens of thousands. It's a piece of low hanging job and vital service preserving fruit the Obama administration refuses to harvest.
One point out of five for the Obama rhetoric on green jobs, and the $10 billion directed toward high speed rail..
3. Fully Funding and Preserving Public Education
There is no good news here. While Obama's Secretary of Education has not called teachers unions "terrorists" as his Bush-era counterpart did, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is as committed to de-funding and privatizing public education as his predecessors. Obama's pick for Secretary of Education is an underqualified stooge whose longest lasting job was as a pro basketball player, and who has not a single hour of classroom teaching experience. Duncan's innovations as Chicago Public Schools CEO, detailed in a December BAR interview with longtime Chicago teachers union activist George Schmidt, include the closing and privatizations of dozens of schools in African American communities and the summary firing of their mostly black teachers and principals, and the handing over of several inner-city Chicago middle and high schools to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
No Child Left Behind, the bipartisan corporate Bush era "education reform," which allows schools and entire districts to be threatened with closure and privatization, seems destined to remain intact for the forseeable future under an Obama administration.
Zero points here of a possible six.
4. War and Peace
From 2003 onward, Barack Obama staked his political career on conveying to voters the impression that he opposed the war in Iraq, while vigorously signalling to the bipartisan freign policy establishment that he was really one of them. By early 2008 Obama closed the circle, openly endorsing the Bush "surge" and war aims in Iraq, confirming that thirty or fifty or seventy thousand troops, depending, could remain in Iraq throughout his first term. Unlike John McCain, who said the US should increase troop levels in Afghanistan because "we" are "winning," Obama wanted to boost the number of American boots on the ground there because "we" are losing. Halfway though his first week in office, Obama was launching missiles from drones at Pakistani mountain villages.
While the US spends more on things military than the rest of the world combined, the Obama military budget is higher than Bush's. Though the laughable "war on terror" is gone from our government propaganda, all or most of its machinery remains in motion under the new administration.
Barack Obama has kept Robert Gates, a bloodstained Reagan-era war criminal as chief of the Pentagon, and designated the bloodthirsty Susan Rice as National Security Advisor. Susan Rice is an enthusiastic advocate of genocidal military intervention practically everywhere on the African continent under the monstrously hypocritical cover of "stopping genocide."
The president says he will talk to Iran, which is worth a point, but continues the Bush policy of threatening Russia with NATO expansion right up to its borders, which takes away the single point.
Zero out of nine points.
After more than a half century of disinvestment, the US passenger rail network is the laughing stock of the developed world. Passenger railcars have not been manufactured in the US for decades, and no high speed rail exists at all outside a single line in the northeast. Investment in high speed intercity rail was one of the first promises broken by the Clinton administration.
The initial investment of $10 billion, apparently pushed at the president's personal initiative is a modest start, with the potential to create tens of thousands of new jobs, though not right away. Obama probably knows that $100 billion over his first term would be a minimally reasonable down payment on a world class passenger rail network, which will be cheaper and more sustainable than America's dependence on highways and air travel. Assuming he does have the vision, the question are whether he has the political will, and whether, after allowing Wall Street to pillage and loot the US Treasury under the guise of a "bailout," whether we have the money, and how much of it can be executed before the price of fuel makes air and highway travel prohibitive.
Also, existing urban mass transit is in tatters, thanks to management that believes transit is a profit center rather than an economic right. Those awaiting an Obama commitment to the future of urban mass transit on the scale of his pledges to intercity rail may have a long wait. After all, urban mass transit is identified, in the minds of many, with African Americans, a political identification the First Black President determined to avoid wherever possible.
Four points out of five.
6. Caribbean and Latin America
Given that one black person in ten in the US has a spouse, sibling or parent born abroad, most often from Africa or the Caribbean, administration policies toward these regions have a special resonance in the African American community. Obama deserves a half point for shaking hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and another half point for not striking the usual full frontal crudity pose toward Cuba at the inter-American summit earlier this month. But massive taxpayer subsidies of US agribusiness to dump millions of tons of genetically modified corn, soybeans and other products on Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico, Central and South America continue to crush local agriculture, deepening food dependency in and driving immigration from these countries. There is no sign that an Obama administration is reconsidering any of these policies.
The brutal occupation of Haiti by a US financed proxy force of so-called peacekeepers, also continues unmentioned by the US press, and unremarked upon by the Obama administration.
Lots of room for improvement here. One and a half points out of four.
7. Obama's Africa Policy: Our Brotherman and the Motherland
In recent years the US has provided arms transfers, military training and military assistance to more than 50 out of Africa's 54 nations. Hence Africa is the most war-torn region on earth, containing millions of square miles in which hospitals, schools, agriculture, industry and civil society have collapsed into vast law-free zones, such as the eastern Congo, where 5 million souls have perished since the mid 1990s. These law-free zones have proven an ideal business-friendly environment for the extraction of Congo's timber and mineral wealth, including 90% of the world's coltan, an essential strategic mineral found in every cell phone, computer, aircraft and modern electronic device. Resources extracted from law free zones in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa invariably find their way into "legitimate" markets of Western Europe and the US.
While the death toll in neighboring Darfur the death toll is a twentieth or a hundredth that of the Congo, according to Mahmood Mandani and others who are in a position to know, but the Obama Administration, just like the Bush Administration before it, calls Darfur a "genocide," and not the Congo. The difference, say many, is that the Sudanese oil is being pumped out by the Chinese, while the profits from 5 million Congolese dead end up here. The "genocide" label is about as truthful as Saddam's WMD, another excuse for military intervention.
Barack Obama has been to Somalia, but his administration continues the twenty year low-intensity war against that unhappy country. Somalia hasn't had a central government in two decades not because its people don't want one, but because successive US Republican and Democratic administrations brand as "terrorist Al Qeada sympathizers" any Somali government that won't grant the US the exclusive rights to the untapped lake of oil beneath the country.
The Bush administratin established AFRICOM, the US imperial command on the continent, a move so unpopular that only one African government in 54 will dare openly accept it, fearing the wrath of their own constituents. Although it is a military command headed a black US general AFRICOM is seconded by a civilian from the State Department, and liberally sprinkled with representatives of every US civilian governmental, and some ostensible non-governmental entity which does business in Africa. Thus AFRICOM deliberately blurs the line between US civilian and military involvement on the African continent, and even more thoroughly militarizes US policy toward Africa.
Nobody who thinks half a minute about it imagines that the militarization of Africa, and of US policy toward Africa is a good thing. It has been US policy for more than two decades. Among the bipartisan designers of this policy are Obama's top foreign policy advisors including Madeline Albright and Susan Rice. You can look awfully hard for some good news in Obama's policy toward Africa so far, and find no reason for optimism.
We'll give him one point out of five anyway, for no good reason. Call it hope.
8. Bailing Out Wall Street
The extent to which Wall Street and the Obama administration are in bed with each other is deeply disappointing to most Americans, according to a recent NBC News Gallup poll.
Not a single economist, regulator, or financial analyst who predicted the bursting of the bubble economy, and there were many, has been hired by Obama's financial gurus, and every financial policy seems aimed at rescuing speculators rather than the American people. Rather than recognize the systemic crisis of capital for what it is, the end of business as usual, all the Obama 'stimulus" paackages are offered in the folorn hope that that lending can be re-started, another bubble re-inflated, and business can be resumed as usual.
Zero points out of six.
9. Debt and Foreclosure Crises
For ordinary people, the financial crisis has become a debt crisis. Mortgage, consumer and credit card debt have mounted to unpayable levels, as the parasitic masters of capital attempt to extract an interest payment out of every transaction. Acquiring a college education, for example, has become virtually impossible for most Americans without incurring a five figure debt at usurious interest rates. The Obamas, despite their much higher than average income, were unable to pay off their college loans till a couple years ago, when they received royalties from his best-selling book. Until there is a commitment on the part of the Obama administration to lower interest rates on current and new consumer, mortgage, and student loans, to restricting interest rates in future lending, and a restoration of bankruptcy laws that enable individuals to liquidate their debt and start anew, we cannot give Barack Obama any more than a single hopeful point out of six.
10. Investigatng the Bush Era Crimes
Unlike the nation's political elite, a substantial majority of the American people want the Bush crimes against humanity and the Constitution at least investigated, But the Obama administration on every front seems to affirm a bipartisan elite consensus that government officials are above the law. The Obama vision of reconciliation without truth incentivizes further violations of law on the part of government, If there were negative points, we would award them here.
Zero out of five.
11. Criminalizing Immigration and Militarizing the Border
Despite some promising campaign rhetoric in which Obama declined to adopt the racist and scapegoating language of Republican and many Democratic politicians toward immigrants, the Obama administration designated Janet Napalitano, the evil twin sister of Phoenix sheriff Joe Arpaio to head the Department of Homeland Security. In our opinion, this is an executive agency which should never have been formed, and ought to now be dissolved. Under the Obama administration, construction of the border wall continues.
Obama gets one point for rhetoric, and another point for not deploying troops to the border. Two out of five.
12. Broadband For Everyone, Low Power Radio, and a Just and Fair Media
One of the administration's professed goals is the extension of broadband availability to underserved rural and urban areas. The designation of $7 billion for this purpose, and the nomination of former FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein to supervise its dispensation is a promising start. But the failure thus far to neutralize corporate forces who want to keep any broadband mapping data concealed from the public is a loathsome concession to cable companies and telcos. Obama's new FCC chief has not yet been confirmed, and so cannot be judged. The administration says it is for network neutrality, and has not opposed low power FM radio as far as we know. Its position on media consolidation and the future of music remain unknown.
Two points awarded here for substance, and one for hope. Three out of five.
The so-called "Cap And Trade" scheme favored by the Obama adminstration enacts the reprehensible suggestion of Obama advisor Larry Summers' that African and other less developed countries are I"underpolluted" by establishing a corporate "right" to pollute, along with a financial market to buy, sell, trade and speculate on the value of these imaginary pollution "rights." It doesn't appear to have reduced carbon emissions in Europe, according to Dartmouth's Dr. Michael Dorsey, but it has made a lot of traders and speculators rich. , and is a product of the same market-as-solution-to-everything exhibited during the Bush years. A tax on carbon emission s would be more straightforward. No points there, and none for "clean coal" either.
The Obama adminstration gets a single point for talking up fuel economy standards and green jobs, with another thrown in for hope. One point out of five.
14. Agricultural Policy, and Policy Toward Black Farmers
The broad Obama policy toward agribusiness is unlikely to be good news. Obama is committed, for instance, to ethanol, which often takes more energy to produce than it does when burned. On the other hand, one of the first acts of Obama's new Secretary of Agriculture was to meet with black farmers of the Southern Federation of Rural Cooperatives. After decades of malign neglect toward African American farmers, a single meeting isn't much, but it's hopeful, worth two points of a possible five.
15. Mass Black Imprisonment
Some things are too hot for a First Black President with no real allegiance to African Americans as a community to touch, but too important to the lives of millions in that community to ignore. Not long ago, Obama declared that despite an incarceration rate seven to nine times that of white America, blacks were "90% of the way to equality." If the First Black President cannot grow a pair on this issue, and come out for restorative justice, elimination of disparate penalties, banning of incarceration of juveniles with adults or an end to indeterminate sentencing, he deserves no points. It's tough, it's a high standard, but a fair one.
Zero out of five.