THANK YOU, PRESIDENT OBAMA: The Obama Legacy through the eyes of W-S

THANK YOU, PRESIDENT OBAMA: The Obama Legacy through the eyes of W-S
January 19
06:45 2017

Illustration ©2008 Ron Rogers collection



On Friday, Barack Obama will no longer be president. Last week, he gave a farewell speech in Chicago, outlining many of the things that have happened during his eight years in office, ranging from U.S. Navy Seals killing Osama Bin Laden to the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage.

Obama struck a hopeful tone, saying that even when the country takes steps back, it still tends to move forward toward embracing all Americans.

“So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional, not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow,” said Obama.

The last eight years have been a tumultuous time, with challenges and accomplishments felt nationally and locally.

The Economy

Obama became president during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which was also followed by the weakest economic recovery since that era. Soon after he took office, Congress passed a stimulus package that included tax breaks and infrastructure spending.

But after that, a Republican Congress blocked Obama’s further infrastructure initiatives. Due to Congress’s inability to agree on budget cuts in 2013, the across-the-board spending cuts of the sequester were triggered that are still in place today.

During the Great Recession, national unemployment reached a 10 percent peak in October 2009, but has fallen drastically to just 4.7  percent in December 2016. Locally, Winston-Salem has seen similar numbers, with a high of 11 percent employment during the recession that’s now down to just 4.6 percent.

“Our economy has bounced back and we’ve replaced the jobs we’ve lost, and I think we’ve seen a great resurgence in parts of our city: the downtown community, Innovation Quarter,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines.

During the recession, the city saw a drastic drop in revenue, especially from sales taxes. The city relied on eliminating vacant positions rather than layoffs to get through the period and city workers experienced a pay freeze for several years. But now the city is expanding its workforce again and is making strides to increase its wages for city employees, said Joines.

Issues of poverty and income inequality still persist nationally and locally. Winston-Salem has a 22.5 percent poverty rate. The poverty rate for residents over 18 years old in Forsyth County is 14.6 per-cent, which is down nearly 3 percent from last year.

Donald Trump, who will become president on Friday, campaigned on infrastructure spending, but has yet to release a detailed plan.

Health Care

The Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) was Obama’s major initiative to reform health insurance. It provides a variety of protections to consumers, such as ending the practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It set up a mandate, with a tax penalty, that citizens with enough income must have health insurance.

It also provides tax subsidies through an online marketplace to help consumers who earn between 100 percent and 400 per-cent of the poverty level buy health insurance.

Health insurance enrollment has continued to increase, as more than 11.5 million people signed up for marketplace coverage as of Dec. 24. Of the people who signed up, 534,293 are in North Carolina.

The ACA has been controversial, with harsh opposition from Republicans, who gave it the name Obamacare. Though the number of insured Americans has never been higher, there’re still millions who remain uninsured. Many of these people would’ve been helped by Medicaid expansion, paid for by the ACA, but many states, including North Carolina, have refused to do that. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who took office in January, wants to expand Medicaid, even though the Republican dominated N.C. General Assembly passed a law to prevent that.

Insurance rates continue to increase. Some insurers, like Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C., have considered pulling out of the marketplaces since they’re not making as much money covering costumers with pre-existing conditions.

The Republican-controlled Congress is taking actions to repeal the ACA, with Trump promising to sign the repeal. It’s unknown what Republicans will replace it with.

Beyond the ACA, the U.S. Health Department has played a major role in protecting public health by preventing outbreaks of diseases, including Ebola and Zika. It also helps fund county health departments, which provide numerous education and prevention services that increase public health, that don’t always make headlines.

“It’s one that people may not necessarily think about, but we’re out working to keep the community safe every day, and that’s why I describe it as the invisible profession,” said Marlon Hunter, director of the Forsyth County Department of Health.

Social Justice

The U.S. Justice Department under Obama regularly found itself allied with civil rights groups in court. This was the case with North Carolina’s controversial Voter ID law, which a court eventually overturned after finding its measures targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.” The Justice Department also opposed the state’s HB 2 law, that many consider to be discriminatory against trans-gender individuals.

“The Justice Department certainly affirmed its commitment to civil rights for everybody, not just a few,” said the Rev. Dr. John Mendez, a longtime activist and Emmanuel Baptist Church pastor.

Mendez was concerned how the Justice Department would be under Jeff Sessions, a Trump nominee who prosecuted three African-American voting advocates when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama.

Under Obama, the country still continues to be involved in multiple wars, but the protests against them aren’t as prominent as they were under President George W. Bush, who invaded and occupied Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.  The main war is currently against ISIS, which holds parts of Syria and Iraq and is an inspiration to extremists and terrorists globally. Obama has used air power to support allies in their fight against ISIS, instead of ground troops.

Obama has also made diplomatic strides, including lifting the travel ban to Cuba and reestablishing diplomatic ties to the Communist country.  The Obama State Department has also struck a deal with Iran to halt its nuclear program. Mendez praised those peaceful efforts, but was unsure if they’ll last. Trump opposes Obama’s Cuba policy and promised to do away with the Iran agreement.

Mendez said he wished Obama had dealt with and understood some of the particulars of the black community more, but said the black community benefited all the same from his economic and health care policies.

He said that he believes Obama’s opponents inflamed racial passions against him that eventually led to the election of Trump. He said he shared Obama’s optimism in the future because a new, more tolerant generation is creating multi-racial movements like Black Lives Matter that strive for equality.

Mendez said that Obama did an amazing job under difficult circumstances.

“We had a president and an administration that really tried to do the right thing,” said Mendez.

My Brother’s Keeper

In September 2014, Obama issued a challenge for cities and counties nationwide to help young people of color and all youth succeed through mentoring and support net-works. So far, 250 communities have accepted his My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) challenge. The Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity approached Mayor Allen Joines about adopting the challenge in 2015. It’s now under Winston-Salem State University and will be working to help local mentoring groups recruit volunteers.

The goals of My Brother’s Keeper include children being healthy, reading on grade level by the third grade, graduating from high school and college, successfully entering the workforce and being given second chances when needed.

Alvin Atkinson, director of WSSU’s Initiative for Just and Sustainable Communities, compared Obama’s commitment to MBK to Jimmy Carter’s work with Habitat for Humanity. He expects MBK to be helping youth for many years after Obama leaves the White House.

“My Brother’s Keeper is his legacy,” said Atkinson.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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