What a terrible irony this Labor Day that under America's first African-American president, black unemployment has risen to its highest level since the early Reagan years, and decades of black progress on homeownership have been wiped out.
In the Labor Department's August jobs report, released Friday, overall unemployment was unchanged at a dismal 9.1 percent and the economy created no net new jobs -- but black unemployment soared to catastrophic 16.7 percent. For black men the rate jumped a whole percentage point to 18 percent, and for black youth the rate rose from 39.2 percent to 45.5 percent. Blacks now comprise 12 percent of the labor market, but 22 percent of the unemployed.
During the years of the housing bubble, blacks who qualified for standard mortgage loans were heavily targeted for bait-and-switch sub-prime loans. African-Americans now account for a disproportionate share of foreclosures, and the gap between black and white financial assets, always far higher than the income gap, is rising again.
President Obama has famously avoided emphasizing race. One can fairly debate how much of the higher black joblessness today is the result of persistent racial discrimination, and how much reflects gaps in education and the fact that blacks tend to be concentrated in vulnerable sectors of the economy.
But either way, it is calamitous for the black community and what matters is that Obama has let all this fester.
A rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats, but African-Americans made great economic progress in the late 1990s, when overall unemployment was low. In those years, the black-white wage gap and unemployment gap narrowed. Full employment and tight labor markets are always good medicine.
Bill Clinton was facetiously said to be the first black president, not just because of his comfort level with the black community and his appointment of African Americans to senior positions, but because of this very real material progress -- now largely reversed.
By failing to remedy the larger calamity of unemployment and mortgage foreclosure, Obama does a special disservice to fellow African-Americans. But it is unreasonable to expect Obama to focus on race per se. As Randall Kennedy, author of the important new book on race in the Obama era, The Persistence of the Color Line, recently wrote in The American Prospect,
Audacious in terms of personal ambition -- it took real boldness for a black man to capture the White House -- Obama is deeply, perhaps excessively, cautious when it comes to propounding public policy. His avoidance of race is also due in part to the constraints that would impinge upon any person serving as the nation's first black chief executive.
The problem is less Obama's failure to target black unemployment per se than his weakness on the jobs issue generally. Race comes into the equation because of an almost pathological aversion to conflict on Obama's part, which has been widely attributed to his wish to bridge racial and ideological gaps.
But, as events keep proving, conciliation is a suicidal strategy when the other side is trying to destroy you.
Obama's advisers and -- let's not diffuse the responsibility --- Obama himself make two politically fatal mistakes.
The first is to assume that presidential leadership entails proposing only legislation that can be passed by Congress. Political adviser David Axelrod told me that last year in so many words. By that test, Obama should cut to the chase and just propose the Republican program, because the GOP will cynically block nearly everything else.
It has become fashionable for critics such as Jonathan Alter, author of a very kind book on Obama's first year, and the New Republic's Jonathan Chait to flay liberals for criticizing Obama on the premise that Republicans were determined to block whatever he sent Congress. The liberal critique, writes Chait in Sunday's New York Times, "wishes away any constraints on his power." But this is a hopelessly static understanding of power.
As effective presidents, including Lincoln, FDR, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson (and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush for that matter) demonstrated, the challenge of a president is to move public sentiment, win over the voters, and thus make it harder for the opposition to block. There is more to leadership than legislative compromise.
Obama needed to remind voters just how extreme and perverse Republicans have been, rather than continuing to extend bipartisan olive branches. If Obama were politically serious, he would send Congress a jobs program adequate to the task, dare Republicans to block it, and then make this the major issue for the 2012 campaign.
We will find out, yet again, when he addresses Congress and the nation next Thursday on the jobs crisis, whether this lesson has begun to sink in -- or whether he will propose more weak tea that he hopes the Republicans will support.
The other dire mistake Team Obama makes is their electoral calculus. They assume independent voters will appreciate Obama's efforts to compromise, and that he can count on the support of the Democratic base next year because Republicans are so reactionary and the liberal base has nowhere else to go.
But independent voters are more worried about the state of the economy. This past week, in a new Rasmussen poll, Obama loses to Texas Governor Rick Perry 44 to 41 in a match-up. His approval rating is at a new low according to Gallup, hovering around 40 percent, and his rating for his handling of the economy even worse.
As for the base voters, they will certainly not vote Republican, but there is also the imponderable factor of energy and enthusiasm. Caving in on everything from the budget deal to the ozone standard to even the date of his address to the joint session of Congress has the Democratic base in a state of disillusion and despair. People who went all out to knock on doors and organize their neighbors are in no mood to repeat the all-out effort.
Which brings us back to the paradox of Obama and the black community. Obama is still the pride of black America, but more for what he represents than what he has achieved or fought for. Black critics, such as Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, are becoming more outspoken. "Tim Geithner," West recently told The American Prospect, "does not represent the legacy of Martin Luther King." Black voters will still support Obama by overwhelming margins, but black turnout could well be down.
So in an odd way, Obama's original impulse was right. He needs to help the African-American community by bringing new hope and leadership to all of America, black and white, red states and blue. So far, he has done neither. Sometimes, it takes a fighter to produce unity.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.