In the weeks since his State of the Union, President Barack Obama has issued a series of executive orders designed to stem a tide of growing economic and racial inequality that threatens to undermine the fabric of American society.
Obama’s efforts to pivot the political narrative toward a focus on economic injustice reflects the fact that, despite his winning two national elections and saving Wall Street and the U.S. economy from the depths of the Great Recession, our national economy no longer works for tens of millions of poor, working- and middle-class families.
The Obama administration’s stewardship of the nation’s economic recovery favored Wall Street over Main Street and banks over homeowners. The administration also realized, too late, that corporate capital preferred to sit on trillions in profits and reserves rather than invest in the economy.
Faced with a dysfunctional and highly partisan Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the administration’s new approach—what might be called Obama 2.0—is an attempt to utilize muscular executive action to make inroads on pressing issues of employment, immigration and racial justice for black youths.
This month the president ordered the Labor Department to revamp rules that shortchange millions of low-income wage earners out of overtime pay. The changes will enable millions of Americans to receive more income. Obama’s directive comes on the heels of his SOTU support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10.
Under pressure from immigration-reform activists who derisively refer to him as “deporter in chief,” Obama has ordered a review of immigration policies designed to ease growing tensions over the inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Calling himself the “champion in chief” of immigration reform, Obama continues to publicly support a pathway to citizenship for 10 million undocumented immigrants, even in the face of hardening Republican opposition to any form of citizenship for them.
Perhaps the initiative that has received the most attention is the president’s My Brother’s Keeper program, which pledged $200 million in private funding over five years to promote black male educational achievement and excellence. Obama’s relationship with the program is at once deeply personal and political. Inspired in part by the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death, Obama described the nation’s commitment to black male youths as “a moral issue” for America.
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is,” Obama observed after citing a litany of negative statistics regarding black boys’ experiences in school and the criminal-justice system.
Obama’s approach to these issues underscores the challenge of addressing the structural problems of unemployment, poverty and institutional racism within the limits of presidential power and without corresponding legislative victories.
Critics rightfully point out the numerous mistakes in strategy and tactics that roiled the president’s first term, despite the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act. And his inability to craft a unifying vision for a new New Deal emboldened an increasingly hysterical right wing that morphed into the modern-day Tea Party—a group that in the liberal and progressive imagination resembles the terrifying zombies from the television series The Walking Dead.
But whatever the genuine merits of such criticism, the era of sweeping legislation—at least barring some midterm election miracle—is over for now. Pragmatically, the best Obama can do over the next three years is to offer an alternative policy vision, as he recently outlined in his 2015 budget—one that stands no chance of congressional passage; sign executive orders that are as impactful as possible; and use the White House as a bully pulpit to promote a vision of American society that may wind up being fulfilled only after he has left office.
For now, boosting the paychecks of millions of Americans unfairly exempted from overtime laws is a good start, even if long overdue. Ending deportations aimed at appeasing right-wing voters and politicians who won’t be satisfied until all “illegals” magically vanish from our shores is a positive step toward political reform that, however long delayed, will never be denied.
And the act, even if largely symbolic, of acknowledging the crisis that confronts young black men in America is historic, even if the level of funding for My Brother’s Keeper doesn’t address the depth of need. More than five years after entering office with grand—indeed, almost impossible—expectations, the president remains bruised but unbowed. His political resilience against daunting opposition is at once an inspiration and exemplar of what’s at stake not only during the rest of his term in office but also long after he exits the national stage.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.