Obama’s “Yes We Can” a Year Later – Are We?

Barack Obama’s campaign slogan while running for President was “Yes we can.” After a year in office, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Are we?”  And if we aren’t, what will each of us do to push for change?

The New War President
President Obama’s December 10 acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony seemed eerily ironic. The previous week, he’d announced adding 30,000 military personnel to the ongoing occupation of  Afghanistan. He was dragging his feet on withdrawal from Iraq. He’d even refused to sign the international treaty banning the most problematic land mines. That same president was not only accepting the most prestigious (if tarnished) award of its kind, but a substantial portion of the speech involved a rhetorical defense of waging war to solve problems and a rallying cry for international participation in US wars.

On Afghanistan, Obama is just fulfilling a campaign promise to shift the Pentagon’s focus from Iraq (still in ruins thanks to two decades of US policy) to Afghanistan (in even worse shape). And while many believed setbacks in Afghanistan during 2009 should have jarred Obama into questioning his campaign promise, his commitment to escalation barely wavered. His liberal use of drones against Pakistanis was also no surprise, since he’d pledged willingness to ignore that border.

Still, there had been reason to hope Obama would make more than nominal efforts to halt some of the most egregious military and intelligence practices, like extraordinary rendition, torture, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the employment of mercenary firms. But even on those fronts, Obama has largely failed. He continues to permit the kidnapping of foreign nationals while doing his best to shield former officials and military or intelligence personnel from prosecution for brutal interrogations. He has moved slowly on migrating the Gitmo detainees to US soil. And brutal war profiteers continue to get big-ticket contracts to use private forces in place of more-accountable US personnel overseas.

The president deserves kudos for taking steps to curb some of the Pentagon’s craziest weapons programs. He is also scaling down the National Missile Defense project. And speaking of ICBMs, Obama has made some under-recognized efforts to curb nuclear proliferation and reduce massive stockpiles. Furthermore, as the Nobel Committee noted, Obama has at least verbally reemphasized the primacy of negotiations over brinkmanship and war-making in world affairs. Over the next three years, it’s our job to pressure him to walk that talk.

- Brian Dominick is a news analyst based in Syracuse.

Health Care Reform 2009:  Oxymoron or the Road to Health Care for All?
During his run for the White House, Barack Obama committed to fixing America’s broken health system declaring, “The question isn’t how we can afford to focus on healthcare.  The question is how we can afford not to.” In March 2009, the President convened a Health Care Reform Forum in Washington. Citing the threat of skyrocketing health costs to the US economy, 46 million uninsured Americans and large numbers of bankruptcies caused by health care costs causing Americans to lose their homes, he urged enactment of comprehensive health care reform by the end of 2009.

There was hope for a strong public option (and advocacy for a single payer system) as the debate started; Obama himself supported a public option. However, after several months of debate in five Congressional committees and demonizing untruths in the media, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. Acknowledging extreme positions on the Left and Right, he urged Congress to enact reform legislation built on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system. Obama in effect turned the debate over to Congress, letting them battle it out, and did not seem to actively push an agenda himself.

As 2009 closes, the House of Representatives passed their version of health care reform, HR 3962, and the Senate is aiming to pass its own before the holiday break. Both bills will leave millions uninsured; reforms to increase coverage don’t take effect for 3-4 years after a bill is signed into law; women’s reproductive rights are restricted; and high premiums and inadequate subsidies will price many out of the market, despite a requirement to purchase health insurance and a financial penalty for not doing so.

Meanwhile, thousands of advocates of a single-payer system, displeased with being excluded from the Congressional deliberations, have taken to the streets, as well as the lobbies and the offices of health insurance corporations, in protest. 
Will this latest health care reform effort result in real reform, or is health care reform an oxymoron in America?

- Barb Humphrey is a former member of SPC’s Steering Committee and active with health care issues.

The Economy - Be Bold
SPC activists staged a tableau outside the NY State Fair calling on Congress and the President to fund human needs not war. Photo: Mike Miller
In assessing President Obama’s first year, we have to understand where we were when he took office.  Not only did we face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but we had just finished eight years of unbridled crony capitalism, where war was used as economic development for politically connected companies and deregulation was accelerated from the go-go Clinton Presidency.  It was a Presidency that nakedly and brazenly benefited corporate interests over the interests of working families.
So what has the Obama administration done to alleviate the effects of the worst Presidency that working families have ever faced?  What we have found is a cautious, go slow President who has made some good efforts, but needs to go much further in order to create an economy that works for everyone.

His administration started with the stimulus package, also known as the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided over $790 billion dollars in aid to communities, states and infrastructure.   Though necessary to avoid a complete economic disaster, the stimulus did not go far enough. Hence, you now have the President at the end of this year asking for another stimulus package under the guise of a “jobs” package.

Focusing only on short-term and emergency job creation, year after year, ignores the long-term investments we need to get our economy back on track. A combination of short- and long-term strategies will begin to ease the burden on the 16 million people now out of work and on our economy, and will allow this country to move forward on a more stable and sustainable economic path. We need to see a President not cautious or overly concerned with working with the other side of the political aisle.  It is time for bold leadership – be bold Mr. President!

- Mark Spadafore is an organizer for the Healthcare Education Project, which is a project of 1199 SEIU.

Obama on Immigration: Year One
President Obama’s record on immigration is not great, but shows signs of promise. There were some concrete improvements.  Within the first hundred days of his inauguration, Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation, which repealed the 5-year waiting period for legal immigrant children.

However, progress has been more one of tone than of legislative change. Under Janet Napolitano, the Department of Homeland Security has started to question the usefulness of “287 g” programs which mandate local law enforcement to participate in federal immigration enforcement. In practice, these laws have often encouraged racial profiling, xenophobia, and the needless prosecution of undocumented workers, as opposed to dangerous criminals. However, to immigrants’ rights advocates’ great dismay, Homeland Security has renewed most of these programs with weak language that “suggests” that law enforcement only pursue actual criminals, instead of workers.

As for immigration raids, it seems like the administration is trying to walk a fine line. Previous workplace raids focused on low-level workers and were followed up by deportation, causing tremendous hardship and dislocation.  Now, however, raids have slowed down and have emphasized the firing of workers (without deportation) and slapping employers with fines. This is still painful and far from recognizing the injustice of punishing low-wage workers, but it is a small sign that the administration recognizes that until there is humane, comprehensive immigration reform, deporting individuals is not a holistic solution. Let’s hope that Obama will not give in to the Conservative pressure which doomed immigration reform in the Bush administration.

- Aly Wane is an immigrant rights activist and long-term intern at SPC.

Higher Education in America-A State of Crisis
It is safe to say that all of us situated somewhere on the Left had high expectations of what Obama’s “Change” campaign promised. With the overwhelming majority of the student vote, Obama cradled our trust. Over a year has passed since the election and higher education in this country is still a privilege rather than a right. Like most Americans, students are in debt. On average, a student attending a four-year private university will graduate with $22,000 to pay back in student loans. And with a 10.6% unemployment rate for people between the ages of 20-24, graduation is less appealing than ever. This debt puts us at a preemptive disadvantage before we even enter the workplace, or lack thereof. Students in college are feeling the sting of an economic recession that they had no part in creating, yet college tuition—in both private and public institutions—is steadily on the rise.

We understand the current higher education system as a marketplace—not for ideas, but for corporate profit. Why else would JP Morgan Chase and IBM have a presence on our campus at Syracuse University? We should not have to compromise our right to an affordable higher education—this right extends to all citizens of the state. 

Barack Obama campaigned for change but like a true politician he has not delivered to the student populace. Recent protests and demonstrations on college campuses around the country are expressions of the contestation of current domestic policy that holds individual citizens fiscally responsible for a governmental failure. As students, and citizens, we are calling on our government for a reallocation of our federal tax dollars: more money for books, not bombs.

- Mackenzie Studebaker and Ryan Hickey wrote this for Students for a Democratic Society at Syracuse University.