Cashing the Obama Check: Will It Come Back Marked ‘Insufficient Funds?’
“In a sense, we’ve come to the nation’s capital to cash a check...It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.” —Martin Luther King, I Have A Dream, August 1963.
The vote for the First Black President wasn’t just about race and racism. For tens of millions, it was a vote for peace abroad, for economic and social justice at home. Barack Obama sold himself to the American people as a transformative political figure.
Despite those who now urge Americans to tone down their expectations, many are prepared to collect on the hopes that swept Obama into office. Those hopes and expectations are what we call the “Obama Check.”
The question is, can we cash it?
Election night 2008 was over by 11:00 P.M. eastern time. Only two hours after the polls closed on the west coast, pundits called it for Barack Obama. Now that we know a black boy can indeed grow up to be president, it’s time to get over ourselves, over our wonder and amazed self-congratulation about how far we’ve come, time to look around to see where we really are.
The First Black President carries with him into the Oval Office the hopes and dreams and aspirations of many people he will never meet, but who imagine they know his heart and intentions. Although these things were not on the ballot, and were kept largely out of the discussions by the media and the candidates themselves, the tens of millions who voted for Obama did so because in the main, they want an end to the war. They want to see the military budget and the prison population reduced. They want single payer national health care. They want a more just economy and they objected strenuously to Bush’s—and Obama’s—bailout of Wall Street.
Their expectations of social and economic justice at home and peace abroad are, in Dr. King’s famous language, a gigantic and long-overdue promissory note. A check. The Obama Check. Barack Obama was elected in the hopes that he could help us cash this check. That is the change his voters believed in, that’s what they expect to see, and that is how an Obama presidency will be judged by history.
Can we ever cash the Obama Check?
The day Obama takes office; there will be an incredible 1.1 million African Americans behind bars, a proportion eight times that of whites. Before the mortgage market meltdown the wealth of black families was about one eleventh that of whites. Since then, it’s fallen off a cliff. Whether we look at education, at wages, at morbidity, mortality, unemployment or mass incarceration the gaps between whites and blacks in the U.S. are wide and still growing. With the nation’s First Black President installed, many whites will solemnly assure us that the U.S. is not now, if it ever was, a racist society. The First Black President-elect seems to agree with them, having told us all a year before electing him that we were “90 percent of the way” to a non-racist society.
Will the First Black President be of any use cashing the check for real racial justice, not just for black faces in high places? The clock is already ticking, and every day is an opportunity to lead lost.
The day the First Black President is sworn in the U.S. economy will still be, in the words of economist Michael Hudson, a polite fiction, based on phantom assets, phony profits, inflated valuations, and outright fraud, a house of marked cards where even the bankers know not to trust each other. Millions of families will still face foreclosure, eviction and bankruptcy. Tens of millions more are in debt up to their necks, afflicted with ever-rising interest rates thanks to the tireless efforts of Obama’s running mate Joe Biden, sometimes known as the Senator from MasterCard.
In his first true test of presidential leadership, while still a candidate the First Black President lobbied reluctant Democrats and urged them to pass the Bush-Cheney trillion dollar no-strings-attached parting gift to Wall Street, money that could have been used to fund education, jobs, infrastructure, human needs, and debt relief for ordinary families.
Do we really expect Obama to help us cash the check on economic justice, to be an advocate of measures that lift up ordinary families? The outlook here is not bright either.
Dr. King told us more than forty years ago that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” On the day the First Black President, supposedly the fulfillment of King’s dream, takes office, the U.S. will be spending more on arms and the military than the rest of the planet combined. But by declaring that he would increase the Pentagon’s budget even over what Cheney and Bush spent at the expense of housing, education and whatever else, the First Black President has already stopped payment on this part of the check.
The day after the election, and the day the First Black President takes office, at least 44 million Americans will have no health insurance at all, and tens of millions more are underinsured. One third of every health care dollar spent in the U.S. goes to maintain private insurance companies, indisputable parasites on the process of health care delivery, making the U.S. health care system the most expensive in the world, even though it takes care of a smaller percentage of its population than any other advanced industrial country. But instead of single payer health care, the First Black President plans to borrow billions with which to pay the Obama Check directly to parasitic insurance companies, and call that “universal health care.”
The day the First Black President takes office there will be over 800 U.S. military bases spanning the globe, more troops in Iraq than were there in 2005 or 2006, U.S. fleets menacing Iran and intermittently bombing Somalia, and a war in Afghanistan. The First Black President will draw down troops in Iraq to send them to Afghanistan, his threats to Iran are identical to those of George Bush—though he hasn’t put them to song, as McCain did—and he does not speak of the ongoing U.S. military involvement in the Horn of Africa. Our First Black President, every bit as much as Dick Cheney, has embraced the phony “war on terror” as the organizing principle of American life.
The peace loving grandmothers who imagine they see God’s Hand on the First Black President will have time to take a longer and more careful look. There will be no peace dividend under an Obama administration. This is a debt our First Black President is unwilling even to acknowledge, much less help us collect on.
Many of the same voices who assured us that the First Black President would be a epoch-making breakthrough—who helped sell us the Obama Check—now caution us not to expect too much. He is after all, only a politician. He’s not president of the movement, he is President of All the People, including the very rich, and obliged to serve the interests of the Pentagon, of parasitic insurance companies, of soulless multinational corporations, and conniving investment bankers.
All indications are that the Obama Check is going to be a difficult one to cash. But it’s what the people voted for, and many of us do intend to collect. With the help of our First Black President, or without it.
Bruce Dixon, the managing editor at Black Agenda Report, is based in Atlanta GA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
—BlackAgendaReport.com, November 5, 2008