(The Root) — President Obama earned praise for his spirited speech on the economy at Knox College. His willingness not only to propose bold ideas but also to dare Republicans to oppose them — followed by a challenge to the GOP to propose better ones — seemed to signal the emergence of a more assertive Obama in his second term.
But although the rhetoric was inspiring, a darker reality looms over the rosy picture that his speech attempted to paint. The president cited statistics that "over the past 40 months, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs," and "this year, we're off to our strongest private-sector job growth since 1999," but the picture is much bleaker for many Americans.
Doug Hall of the Economic Policy Institute has dubbed the 2000s the "lost decade" because of growing income inequality and economic instability for working- and middle-class families. According to a 2012 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Across all states, the average income of the richest fifth of households was eight times that of the poorest fifth as of the late 2000s. New Mexico, Arizona, California, Georgia, New York, Louisiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Mississippi face the largest gaps." These numbers are certainly not the fault of President Obama, but to date, his policies have done little to turn the tide, particularly in communities of color.
According to data from Pew:
The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data from 2009.
These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.
Furthermore, unemployment among black Americans is 13.7 percent — nearly twice the national average of 7.6 percent. Even worse, while the national average has remained steady over the last two months, figures among African Americans have risen slightly. The Huffington Post cited the Economic Policy Institute's assessment of the current economic situation of black America as follows: "African Americans have essentially been living through a perpetual, slow-moving recession."
There is plenty of blame to go around for this state of affairs: a prolonged and dramatic economic downturn that rattled white middle-class families as well as black low-income ones; an obstinate Republican-controlled House determined to see a Democratic president, the first black one, fail; and, of course, racial inequality. But ultimately, presidents tend to get just some of the credit for a nation's success and a lot of blame for its failure, and if black Americans continue to sink on the first black president's watch, Obama's legacy will likely be perceived as that of the lifeguard on whose watch people drowned.
The only way that will change is if some of these dismal numbers change, particularly those affecting communities of color, before he leaves office.
It's not too late, and there are policies the president has fought for that have not made a difference yet but certainly could in the long term. Recently published data indicates that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcies in the United States, meaning that the Affordable Care Act could be a game changer for Americans' physical as well as financial health. Additionally, with student-loan debt surpassing credit card debt, his efforts to make college more affordable could have a tremendous impact on low-income and middle-class Americans.
Black students struggle more than others to finance higher education, and yet they are often from backgrounds in which a college degree can play a greater role in transforming their class status and ultimately their lives. The president has acted to expand work-study programs, but by making student-loan repayment more manageable, and demanding more transparency from colleges and universities about financial aid and the risks of debt, he could significantly improve the financial health of younger people of color in the future.
Currently, however, the president's record for improving the economic circumstances of struggling Americans, particularly in the black community, is one that he is unlikely to be proud of. It is also a record that could seriously tarnish the legacy of his historic presidency, unless he makes some serious strides before leaving office. It's not too late yet, but soon it will be.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.