02-19-2017  8:50 am      •     

President Ronald Reagan had his flaws, but he certainly could turn a phrase. In the 1980 Presidential campaign he asked a question that has resonated in campaigns ever since. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" the former California governor asked in his race against Democratic President Jimmy Carter. The people answered with a resounding "no," and Ronald Reagan was elected.

The question has been asked in every election since, but President Barack Obama spun it cleverly in the 2008 election, when he said, "At the rate you are going you will have to ask are you better off than you were four weeks ago." And so, just one year ago, in a stunning moment of history, the former Illinois Senator Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States.
I remember that election night, Nov. 4, 2008, as if it were yesterday, remember the tear trickling down the cheeks of Rev. Jesse Jackson at that cold park in Chicago, remember the exuberance of some of the commentators as the numbers came in. It wasn't even close, really, and all of us who were afraid to believe in the possibility of an African American president were chastened and excited. And many of us remain excited at this presidency, even as Obama's ratings drop to something around 53 percent in late October (from a high of 62 percent in April). The drops are understandable.
President Obama presides over the worst economic conditions in 70 years, with unemployment rates at all time highs, and consumer confidence at all time lows. He has ambitiously tackled some of the most tractable policy challenges, including credit reform and health care reform, even as he has had to manage military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and the declining popularity of our nation in the world (Nobel Peace price notwithstanding). And, our president has had to manage the hostility of the tea party Republicans whose disrespectful and obnoxious behavior has changed the tone of civic discourse and introduced an acceptable racism into what might otherwise be reasonable criticism about policy matters.
Challenges notwithstanding, there is a question that must be answered. Are the American people better off now than we were a year ago? The answer is an ambiguous yes. We are better off for the possibility of health care reform. We are better off for the possibility of credit card and banking reform. We are better off thanks to a stimulus that has saved some jobs and pumped some money in the economy. We are better off to the extent that the federal government is attempting to help with the foreclosure situation.
In terms of the labor market we are emphatically not better off. The unemployment rate was 8.1 percent when President Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20. It is 9.8 percent now. African Americans had official unemployment rates of 13.4 percent last January. Now the rate is 15.4. Those are only the official rates.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that it estimates overall unemployment as high as 17 percent. Using the same formula, the African American unemployment rate is 26.7 percent, a Depression-era rate. If you are a renter who is also jobless, you probably have not seen any positive impact of the public policy that president Obama is attempting. Are you better off than you were a year ago? It depends on where you stand on the economic totem pole.
Is it too soon for us to have this conversation? After all, President Obama absolutely inherited an untenable economic situation. He has approached it with energy and vigor, championing stimulus and counting on stimulus to trickle down to workers. My only criticism is that there are workers who would like to have the same priority that Wall Street and the bankers do. A federal employment program would make all the difference in the world for people at the bottom. An unemployment rate of 9.8 percent is all too high, and the cost of living with it is way too much.
Indeed, it is not likely that our economy can recover without a jobs program. People won't spend until they feel secure about their economic futures. We are moving into the holiday spending season, and what people spend in the next two months will make the difference between profits and losses for millions of retailers.
On election night, a year ago, our nation might have gone in another direction. Are we better off than we were a year ago? For sure. But we'd be even better still if we could put Americans back to work.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.


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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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