How much has the extraordinary wave of hope that swept the world four years ago, when US President Barack Obama was inaugurated, been borne out by his first term in office?
Why do I think it is so vital that he wins again this week, for the US and for the world?
Let’s remember that Obama inherited a very deep hole, a hole most Americans did not imagine existed. When he came in, we had lost 4 million jobs in four years — 800,000 jobs evaporated in January 2009 alone. Since that time, we have created 5.5 million new jobs. That is more than 30 straight months of job growth in tough economic times. In addition, Obama had to confront banks that, through their greed, had forced record-breaking home foreclosures. The global economy — from the US to Europe and around the world — was at the point of total collapse. The banks were bailed out.
The automotive industry had collapsed. Now, because of the Obama administration’s policies to rescue the auto industry, we are the No. 1 auto-producing nation again. Autoworkers are once more working three shifts and producing high yields. The auto industry is back, though Republican rival Mitt Romney said: “Let them go bankrupt.”
Furthermore, when Obama came into office, we were caught in a war of choice — an immoral, bad choice — in Iraq. Former US president George W. Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair dealt us a severe blow. The whole world was telling them not to wage war — I was speaking in London at Hyde Park on the day of the big protest. We told them there was no basis for going into Iraq. Since then, we have lost British and US lives, resources and honor, and they have not been humble enough to apologize. That war cost us trillions of dollars, which took us from a budget surplus to a budget deficit.
Now we have left Iraq and the administration has implemented a plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan, which is coming to a close in terms of US involvement. Billions of dollars spent on war can now be redirected to jobs, investment and economic development at home.
There is a lot more we must do to be seen as leading the world by right. We have become addicted to leading by might and it takes some time to restore confidence and credibility. We are not there yet, but we are moving in the right direction.
So yes, when Obama took office, the US and the world were in a deep, dark economic (and political) hole. However, now we are moving through fields toward the mountaintop. Though we have yet to reach that point, the arrows are pointing in the right direction — jobs, industry, healthcare cover all on the rise, wars on the decline.
Romney and the conservatives have derided the comprehensive healthcare plan as “Obamacare,” but the truth is that Obama does care. People would be dead without health insurance and young people benefit as they can stay on their parents’ health plans into their 20s. The insurance companies were charging higher and higher fees for ever lower cover and they claimed the right not to insure people. Obama broke up that kind of exploitative behaviour and today 30 million more Americans are covered. Obama’s historic healthcare legislation will stand the test of time.
All of this was achieved despite the attempt by the Republicans to demean the president. They called him a liar. They said that he is not an American, he is not a Christian, he is illegitimate.
Romney offers no positive alternative for the US. We are currently in the throes of a weather crisis, Hurricane Sandy, which has wreaked havoc on the east coast. Railroads, subways, roads, bridges, houses, banks, whole communities have been devastated. Romney once said we do not need FEMA, the federal government agency now coordinating the rescue and recovery program related to these disasters. He says “state authorities” (not the federal government) should handle that devastation — and private investors.
The fact is a state alone cannot handle such problems and private investors should not be profiting out of such misery. It is the role of central government to be a part of the emergency repair and to be a part of the clean up and reconstruction. Because of an act of nature, there must now be a massive investment in infrastructure. It will create jobs and contracts, new technology as well as other scientific advances.
Obama had made the case for that before the disaster — for the need to invest in infrastructure, in roads, buildings and bridges, to reinvest in the US to put Americans back to work. Now that he is leading us in this crisis, even his adversaries are saying he is doing a good job. The president’s leadership during Hurricane Sandy is steady and confident.
I said in an article in the Observer newspaper four years ago that Obama’s inauguration was a magnificent moment in a five-decades-long race for civil rights in the US and in the world as a whole. Has his first term stood up to the extraordinary hope he inspired? For black Americans, a ceiling has been removed. An African American, a woman or a Latino can now believe that their path through life will carry them as far as their dreams can imagine. If Obama can do it, it inspires women to think they can do it and Latinos to think they can do it. So the barrier to our dreams has been removed.
However, you cannot have racial reconciliation unless you have racial justice. Our Rainbow friends in the UK call it Equanomics — racial equality and economic justice. Black people are still facing tremendous racial injustice; we are No. 1 in home foreclosure; the banks target us. We are No. 1 in infant mortality. No. 1 in short life expectancy. No. 1 in unemployment. We are still very much on the margins.
A few have done well enough to become symbolic examples. You look at Colin Powell, you look at Oprah [Winfrey] and you look at some great athletes, but you cannot measure the progress of the masses of black Americans by the symbolic value of extraordinary achievers. It is like swimming the English Channel. It’s not the distance that makes it difficult to swim — it is the undercurrent. That is what we are struggling against — an undercurrent based on centuries of enslavement, institutional race inequalities and unfounded fears.
I look at the US embracing Olympic medallists, black and white; embracing the impact of black music upon the culture. You would think those achievements would have brought more reconciliation, but we seem to be cherry-picking — selectively recognizing black success while still disregarding racial injustice.
The scar on the US’ soul is racial injustice. It is the key to equality, workers’ rights, children’s rights, environmental security and ending war. So how this issue is handled is the key to the salvation of our nation. Martin Luther King would say that the pursuit of racial justice is the way to redeem the soul of the US. Obama’s achievement can only be seen as part of a long battle for civil rights. What one must appreciate is that his ascendancy is a long journey that can be traced in modern history He did not come to us unilaterally. He came out of a 64-year process.
In 1948, then-US president Harry Truman ended military racial segregation. The Supreme Court knocked down decades of legal segregation in the Brown vs Board of Education decision. We won a big victory in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, leading to the end of segregation by 1964. We won the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, ending discrimination at elections. We staged the anti-Vietnam war protests. From 1948 to 2008, there were 60 years of victories: overcoming obstacles, removing walls, pulling down barriers. Obama comes out of that process. He is a result of the years of struggle. He is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He ran a fast, able leg of the race we are in. He is a member of a team.
So has the issue of race in US politics been transformed for all time? Absolutely not. The forces of hostility have in a strange way been reinvigorated, their fears have been revived, their anger has been rekindled, the mean spirits have resurged. The US has a deep-seated commitment to unfounded racial fears and, win or lose, those fears will not go away.
There are attempts to take the civil rights victories back. Our opponents are fighting the civil war of 1865. They are trying to pit states’ rights against a more perfect union, the federal government. If Obama loses, they will be empowered to undermine years of work. If Romney wins and puts right-wingers on the Supreme Court, the courts could rule to undermine the entire movement made by King. Who appoints the next Supreme Court justices will determine the next 50 years of the US.
The scale of Obama’s achievement is not just a matter of his complexion, but the direction in which he has tried to take the country. He has done a huge amount, but a unified US could have achieved twice as much. Instead, the Republicans have been planning how to make him a one-term president since the time of his inauguration in January 2009. Their mission was not about job creation, bank reconstruction or to revive manufacturing. Their mission was not to rebuild. Their mission was at all costs to undermine his authority.
If Obama wins, conservative right-wingers will not stop fighting ideologically. We must maintain our struggle to prevail. We need to keep taking the nation forward by hope and never backward by fear. We need to keep hope alive.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr is the president and founder of the Rainbow Push Coalition.