Sunday, August 17, 2008

Obama plays Clinton's race card ... and his own

Pastor Rick Warren and Senator Obama.

From the Presidential candidate forum at Saddleback megachurch last night according to AP:

Obama, asked his most significant policy shift in the last 10 years, cited welfare reform. As an Illinois state senator, he worked to mitigate what he thought could be "disastrous" effects of President Clinton's welfare reform effort. But over time he said he came to embrace Clinton's approach.

"We have to have work as a centerpiece of any social policy," Obama said.

So there we have it.

The so-called "welfare reform", actually welfare destruction, was Bill Clinton's ticket to his 1996 re-election. This Republican legislation, which Clinton had previously opposed, was also unequivocally a race issue. Oh, welfare advocates argued endlessly and for practical purposes inaudibly, that white women were the majority of recipients of Aid for Dependent Children. But in the public mind, "welfare" was about lazy Black mothers who lived off the taxpayers.

Ronald Reagan had played race card to the so-called "Reagan Democrats," campaigning against "welfare queens." He posed himself as the solution to what many U.S. whites really thought was the crime of the 1960s: extending government programs, under the impetus of that African American civil rights movement, to both Blacks and whites. The New Deal had been loved by the white working class, especially in the South, because, despite rhetoric to the contrary, its programs mostly supported poor whites. Tom Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie, explains bluntly what changed by the 1970s:

...the economic populism that worked before the Great Society was successful precisely because the beneficiaries of New Deal distributive and regulatory policies were almost exclusively white. This fact just cannot be massaged or punted or covered with a nice coat of blue paint. Post-civil rights and Great Society, redistribution took on new meaning because it had to be inclusive.

And many working class whites jumped ship from the Democrats to the Republicans rather than be in the same boat with Black Americans.

So "welfare reform" was Clinton's bone to white defectors from his own party. And this piece of triangulation served him well. He even won some quasi-Southern states in 1996: Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky and Florida. His "race card" served him well.

Welfare reform didn't serve poor women well, of course. Put 'em to work and cut 'em off the dole only works if:
  • jobs are plentiful,
  • pay a living wage,
  • are available to folks with little education or training,
  • and provide childcare or flexibility for parents.
Not too many jobs that fit those criteria. Reform did however serve employers of low wage workers well as they acquired a large new pool of desperate poor women to cycle through dead end jobs as the economy rose and fell. When the economy is strong, cutting public assistance to the bone doesn't show up much. As when stumbles, that is now, the pain shows more. In any case fully 39 percent of U.S. children live in poverty these days

Since trashing poor women on welfare is such an important symbolic way to announce that government will not go out of its way to be do right by both Blacks and whites, it was probably a given that Obama would have to swear allegiance to the punitive welfare-to-work gospel. He's got to do anything necessary to show white people he's not the scary kind of Black man. (And that will be an achievement if he pulls it off, since many of us think all Black men are scary.) In his willingness to do this by trashing poor Black women and kids he is not alone among African Americans; Michael Eric Dyson writes thoughtfully about this strain in bourgeois African American life in his book on Dr. King about which I wrote recently.

So yes, by disavowing welfare, Obama is playing his "race card" -- at the expense of poor women and children.
And yes, though I criticize Obama harshly here, I do think we need to try to elect the guy. He's a politician doing what he thinks he needs to do. It's amoral -- and electing a Black man would still be a progressive advance.

But we need to understand that Obama is giving lots of notice that he'll be exactly as good a president as we make him, and no better. The truism is still true: if the people lead, maybe the politicians will follow.
Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, John McCain had a hard time at Saddleback when Warren ask him to name an income figure that meant someone was rich.

McCain, whose wife's wealth has been estimated at more than $100 million, tried to dodge the question. But with a chuckle, he finally gave a figure: "I think if you're just talking about income, how about $5 million?"

Worth remembering when Obama disgusts us...

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