Stand with me back in January 2009. Affirmative action is in decline, 50 percent of inner-city kids are not graduating from high school and joblessness in the inner city has become an epidemic.
This bleak picture reminds me of a poem called Casey at the Bat. The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day. The score stood 4-2, with but one inning more to play, Black America was Mudville in 2008. We were at the bottom of our ninth inning. But Barack Obama had now stepped up to the plate of history. And he was black.
The poet talked about how, when their hero came up to the plate, from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell; it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell.
In black America, there were 25 million throats that cheered, “Obama in office!” We thought finally “our Mighty Casey” was advancing to the bat.
We expected a ripsnorter, someone who would swing for the fences. But there was no fire. Obama sought cooperation rather than confrontation. Like a community organizer that he had been, he tried to build consensus. He seemed to say to Republicans, “We are all on the same team.” This attitude was strike one.
Obama gave Wall Street $700 billion in bailout funds. He had a clear opportunity to ask for something in return. He could have asked – no, demanded — that banks restructure massive numbers of home loans. But, for fear of being called a socialist, he didn’t ask. Letting that opportunity for change go past him was like not even swinging at the ball.
Close by the sturdy batsman, the ball unheeded sped. Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
In America the working families who vote are the umpire. No one gave them a bailout. The umpire said strike two.
In politics, as in baseball, you have to keep your eye on the ball. The crowning achievement of Obama’s presidency was a health-care bill. Why did he choose that as a priority? The Democratic Party was deeply divided. Obama chose health care as a priority because it was the one thing the Democratic Party still agreed on. But what does having health benefits mean if you don’t have a job? There are over 14 million people out of work. It has been that way for months. And for blacks the unemployment rate is 16 percent, almost double that of whites.
When Obama focused on health care instead of jobs he took his eye off the ball. The umpire said strike three.
Like the wave of disappointment that spread over the baseball crowd in the poem, a wave of disappointment and anger swept over America’s middle class. Candidate Obama said, “Yes we can.” But President Obama – on the issues that mattered most – said, by his actions, “No I cannot.” Even in Black America, the cheers have begun to die down.
In the mid-term elections, the votes for Republicans were really votes against Obama. That’s why the Democrats lost. People spoke with their votes: “Obama, you have struck out.”
Even the greatest fail. That’s the lesson we learn from “Mighty Casey.”
But, unlike Casey, Obama’s failure does not have to be permanent. He, Obama, has two years left on his “contract.” How does Obama get his mojo back ? In sports when the coach does not get results, he is fired. Ask Miami Hurricanes’ Randy Shannon. Obama should fire his coaches. Timothy Geithner and Paul Voelker gave Obama bad advice on the bailout. They should clean out their desk.
More than anything else, Obama needs to keep his eye on the ball. He needs to put the 14 million people out of work back to work.
Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, especially in the cities, might be a good place to start. Of course, Congress will not help him. Republicans, the party of no, will be pitching against him now that they control the U.S. House of Representatives. Like a team needs the crowd, Obama needs the people. He must take whatever vision of change he has directly to the grassroots, perhaps in a 21st century version of Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
Then Obama can find the redemption that Mighty Casey could not. Then he can hit the home run on jobs and housing that America so desperately needs.
Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami.