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Any assessment of President Obama’s first year must take into account the big mess he inherited on day one—two wars, a great and growing recession, the imminent collapse of our financial system and auto industry, a dysfunctional Justice Department, an unsustainable health care system and job losses that were being measured in the hundreds of thousands each month. Clearly, our ship of state was spinning dangerously out of control. And clearly, President Obama has kept it from sinking.
Our financial system is on the rebound. The auto industry was saved. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, is now focused more on protecting citizen rights than political privilege. And while solutions to rising unemployment continue to elude us, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during 2009, monthly job losses moderated substantially. They shrank from an average of 691,000 a month in the first quarter to an average loss of 69,000 a month in the fourth quarter. So I suggest we slow down and not judge the president based on one year of emergency course corrections. In my view, he should be judged at the end of his first term by the famous question Ronald Reagan posed during his 1980 campaign: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” One thing is clear: We won’t be better off if we don’t all roll up our sleeves and remember that “government of the people,” means we all have work to do.
We won’t be better off if the minority party in Congress continues to vote strictly down party lines in opposition to everything the president wants to do—from passing a stimulus plan to health care reform. We won’t be better off if we don’t take decisive steps to reduce rising unemployment which now stands at 10 percent overall and 16.2 percent for African-Americans. We won’t be better off unless we heed the words of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert who recently wrote, “Without a dramatic new intervention by the federal government the poverty rate for African-American children could eventually approach a heart-stopping 50 percent...already a third of Black children are living in poverty.”
One year ago, the election of America’s first Black president was a symbol of this country’s evolving racial maturity. But symbolism is not substance. While we applaud the president for moving the country from the brink of disaster, we have a lot more work to do before he and all of us can claim that we are better off than the day he took office.
(Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)
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