The State of Our Union Is Weak, But the 2012 Campaign Begins Now

But do we have two years to wait for real jobs investments while elections unfold?

By Kai Wright Jan 24, 2011

Welcome to 2012. I know, it seems like we skipped a year. Still, tomorrow night, President Obama will kick off his reelection campaign with his State of the Union address. 

He’ll sound an awful lot like the man folks voted for back in 2008. He will eagerly return to a message he delivered well in those halcyon, pre-crash days: that responsible investment in America’s future is the best way to both control the deficit and grow the economy.But the president will be playing catch up, because Republicans began the 2012 campaign back in 2009. And that’s the problem, not only for the president’s political fortunes but for our neighborhoods’ survival. Obama looks to be rediscovering his 2008 swagger two years too late.

Obama began winding up his State of the Union theme days ago. He spent the weekend building buzz around it with a video message sent to core supporters and through his weekly radio address. The speech will revive early-term ideas about "investment" in 21st century infrastructure, new technologies, education and other great-sounding, job-rich projects. The word "stimulus" has long been cut from Democrats’ lexicon, but the idea hasn’t changed much.

The political outlook has changed greatly, however, and for the worse. In all likelihood, the window for Obama’s proposed spending–which is the term GOP leaders prefer over investment–closed firmly in November 2010. Republican leaders in both chambers have already rejected Obama’s State of the Union ideas, well before they’ve been fleshed out, and certainly have the votes to stand in the way of progress. The 112th Senate screeched to a halt before it ever got moving, deadlocked in a debate over filibuster rules and the balance of power on committees. Never mind that members will break tradition and sit in mixed-party formation during Obama’s speech. Tom Coburn will give Chuck Schumer a lap dance before he lets even a presidential appointment get a vote, let alone a jobs bill.

The president will nonetheless repeat tomorrow what the White House has said for months–that he had to spend the past two years on the thankless task of stabilizing the economy, and now it’s finally time to create jobs. The still churning foreclosures and mounding debt in black and brown neighborhoods don’t suggest a stabilized economy anywhere except Wall Street, but let’s set that familiar fight to the side for now. The point is that whether we’re talking about creating jobs or seating district court judges, the time for making policy is gone. Starting tomorrow night, it’s all talk until we vote next.

And that’s frightening, because one cannot overstate how little we can afford two years of campaigning. Despite a building meme that we’re entering a new morning in America, that dawn has not come for working families. And in black neighborhoods, we’re a full decade into crisis at this point.

A Center for American Progress report last week was the latest to sketch out a grim picture that contrasts sharply with the president’s message of stabilization.

The jobless numbers should be familiar by now: nearly 16 percent among African Americans in the fourth quarter and nearly 13 percent among Latinos. Asian Americans appear to be doing better, but that’s only because the data is so lousy–it ignores vast differences between ethnic groups and between recent and established immigrants. In any case, these are all the hopeful numbers, as they don’t include people who have long since quit looking for work, or who have taken jobs that don’t pay enough or give enough hours to keep them out of poverty. We’ve reported previously here on the striking numbers among college graduates–a 2-to-1 black-white jobless ratio–and what that’ll mean for the longterm wealth gap.

But the real crisis is deeper than today’s jobs problem. The Center for American Progress report highlights what may be the most overlooked story of the recession: In black America, it only made a bad situation worse. 

African Americans never recovered from the 2001 recession. Back in 2007, at the height of the boom, black unemployment was still 8.6 percent; national unemployment today is 9.4 percent. The desperation that the lingering, turn of the century recession created in black America set folks up perfectly for the predatory subprime loans that wrecked the world. It should come as no surprise that, in 2006, black borrowers at all income levels were three times more likely to be sold subprime loans than their white counterparts.

Latinos fared better during the last decade’s boom, owing largely to construction jobs from the housing explosion. But that wasn’t enough to create real security, in part because the wages Latinos earned were so low. At the height of the boom, according to the Center for American Progress report, the median Latino worker earned less than three quarters of the weekly wages the median white worker took home. Today, poverty among Latinos is about on par with that among blacks–more than a quarter of people in both communities lived below the poverty line in 2009.

Rather than doing something to interrupt this downward spiral, states across the country are closing off public universities to undocumented students and sending black graduates into the world jobless and with skyrocketing debt. In 2008, 27 percent of blacks with bachelor degrees borrowed more than $30,500 to get them, compared to 16 percent of whites. These young people are the next generation of subprime and debt-trap borrowers.

The point is that there’s a dynamic relationship between entrenched poverty and predation, between closed-off opportunities and economy-destroying debt traps. The lesson of the latest recession ought to be that this cycle eventually spirals outward from the vulnerable poor to the falsely secure middle class. And unless Washington does something to shore up the economy for everybody, rather than just for bankers and CEOs, the purported recovery will remain little more than a Wall Street numbers game.

It’s nice to again hear the president making the case for smart investments. There’s little doubt he’ll out maneuver the naysaying, over-reaching likes of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. With luck, the campaign he launches tomorrow night–and its central debate over investment versus spending cuts–will establish a new national consensus that government is our friend rather than our enemy. The question is whether we can make it another two years while the campaign hashes that out.