In her Vice Presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Gov. Sarah Palin implied that Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama had, despite writing two memoirs, not authored a single major law or reform while either in the Illinois or United States senate. Surely, this couldn’t be the case, we thought. And in fact it is not. Barack Obama’s website is filled with references to specific bills and laws he’s authored, passed and sponsored organized conveniently by theme.
The problem is, many of these bills seem immaterial to the lives of the middle class constituency whose economic woes he consistently laments. Bills on ethics reform and police interrogation are impressive and probably socially beneficial, but they don’t seem to address the concerns of the casual voter. An inhabitant of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or any other contested state that will determine the outcome of the election will most likely not cast a vote this November based on Barack Obama’s legislative history of defending the rights of the accused. That swing voter will most likely vote motivated by a single issue like abortion or gay marriage, since these battles of the culture war have come to define political discourse in the America of today. Voters, by and large, will not vote according to the Presidential nominees’ stances on the most important issue affecting their, your and my life because the nominees themselves are mute on the topic.
That issue is violence and the implosion of American cities due to drugs. It is the nexus issue of our time, the focal point through which many of our larger problems intersect, but it is completely absent as an issue on the 2008 campaign trail, particularly for Senator Obama. Why? Because he doesn’t have a plan.
It’s no big surprise that the American city has fallen from grace. The latter half of the twentieth century saw receeding tax bases in urban centers as American manufacturing lost to foreign competition and affluent residents retreated to the suburbs. What remained were economically anemic areas inhabited by low-income residents surrounded by dwindling prospects for employment.
Today, employment and economic revitalization are top priorities for any Presidential candidate. More jobs in cities will raise the median income of urban residents, which will translate to better schools and better lives for future generations. Right? Well, maybe. If that one fundamental issue is resolved first; that one fundamental issue that seems to throw a wrench in the plan for prosperity; that one fundamental issue that stops progress in its tracks – drugs.
Drugs are the number one most important issue affecting the fundamental quality of life for Americans. Energy, home ownership and health care are obviously monumentally important as well, but no issue affects so many Americans every minute of every single day like drugs and America’s policy toward them. Beyond the amount of time, money and resources spent on fighting the drug war abroad, the American policy toward drugs influences every other urban issue, urban issues that Barack Obama otherwise addresses superficially.
The reason cities are collapsing is because there are few businesses and residents whose taxes can be used to revitalize the community. There are few businesses not only because of prejudicial lending practices on the part of banks in urban centers but also because of an absence of an education system the purpose of which is to mold competent entrepreneurs and employees. But schools are failing because students refuse to learn, under-performing on standardized tests that determine the funding for districts. Uneducated students lead to truancy which leads to violence which leads to a lower quality of life which in turn alienates investment, prompting a repetition of the entire process in perpetuity.
This a top down analysis of cities and their ills. This is a conventional logic that has resulted in little reform. This is not the train of thought of change. Yet this is the exact perspective Barack Obama used when he assembled his manifesto on supporting urban prosperity. What Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge is that the fundamental problem driving this vicious cycle is drugs. The education system is crumbling because teachers and administrators cannot make school a compelling alternative to selling drugs on the street. Investment avoids crime-riddled areas because violence follows the sale and purchase of drugs like stench follows odor. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire and America’s cities are burning to the ground.
In his treatise on urban prosperity, Barack Obama mentions drugs a total of zero times. 11 pages on life in urban America and not once are drugs mentioned. Without specific reference to drugs and the complete influence they have on the fate of the city, Obama’s urban policy paper is a laundry list of empty promises that will throw money at problems without addressing first and foremost the primary importance of drugs as an originating source for those problems.
In a section entitled Job Creation, the Obama campaign writes:
As president, Obama will make long-term investments in education, language training, and workforce development so that Americans can leverage our strengths – our ingenuity and entrepreneurialism – to create new high-wage jobs and prosper in a global economy.
In a section entitled Create a National Network of Public-Private Business Incubators, the Obama campaign writes:
Business incubators will engage the expertise and resources of local institutions of higher education and successful private sector businesses to help ensure that small businesses have both a strong plan and the resources for long-term success. Obama will invest $250 million per year to increase the number and size of incubators in urban communities throughout the country.
Under Strengthen Core Infrastructure, they write:
As president, Obama will make strengthening our transportation systems, including our roads and bridges, a top priority.
Obama will “improve access to jobs;” Obama will “Combat Mortgage Fraud and Predatory Subprime Loans;” Obama will “invest $1 billion over five years in transitional jobs and career pathways programs that implement proven methods of helping low-income Americans succeed in the workforce.”
But how? By funneling federal money into bureaucratic programs meant to oversee urban revitalization. Apparently Obama didn’t listen to the radio in 1996. It’s more money, more problems; not the other way around.
Most glaringly insufficient are Obama’s words on education and youth violence.
To reduce the high school drop out rate,
“Obama will sign into law his ‘Success in the Middle Act,’ which
will provide federal support to improve the education of middle school students in low-performing schools by requiring states to develop a detailed plan to improve student achievement, develop and utilize early
identification data systems to identify those students most at-risk of dropping out and invest in strategies proven that reduce the number of drop outs.”
To curb youth violence,
“Barack Obama will support innovative local programs, such as the program in Chicago, CeaseFire that have been proven to work. Such programs implement a comprehensive public health approach that investigates the causes of youth violence and implements a community-based strategy to prevent youth violence by addressing both the symptoms and causes of neighborhood violence. He will also double funding for federal afterschool programs and invest in 20 Promise Neighborhoods across the country to ensure that urban youth have safe and meaningful opportunities to keep them off the streets after school.”
CeaseFire, the Chicago based program he references, aims to prevent urban violence by recruiting former gang members and convicts to talk kids out of committing crimes of passion and revenge. Literally, Barack Obama wants to use federal tax dollars to support community initiatives that aim to quell violence by having members of a community involve themselves in conflicts and mediate them peacefully. As a piece on the program in the NY Times Magazine stated, “CeaseFire doesn’t necessarily aim to get people out of gangs – nor interrupt the drug trade. It’s almost blindly focused on one thing: preventing shootings.”
Imagine that. The centerpiece program of Barack Obama’s urban policy initiative to reduce youth violence is, by its design, uninterested in the role drugs play in creating the power dynamics of life in a city on a daily basis. That’s fine for a non-profit that is choosing a radical, though reportedly effective, approach to reducing violence, but is that acceptable as a federal policy advocated by the President of the United States? Drugs are destroying American cities and it seems Barack Obama hopes to address that by throwing money at symptoms rather than channeling funds to root out, attack, cauterize and destroy the virus that causes the illness.
There are two months left in the campaign for President and without a doubt American drug policy will not emerge as a central issue of debate. As usual, the political dialogue will revolve around abortion, whether Obama is secretly a Muslim, and whether John McCain can recite the prices of 2%, whole, skim, and soy milk. The electorate will become impassioned and vote in historic droves for their partisan preference based on little more than a gut feeling. 2009 will come around, a new President will be sworn in and nothing immediately noticeable and pertinent to the daily lives of a majority of Americans will change.
The public education system will still be broken. Homicide will still be the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 18 and 34. A massive percentage of the population will be incarcerated, never be given the opportunity to reform and be denied the right to vote in future elections. Drugs will continue to be the most lucrative profession for minority men and violence the most salient form of currency in the trade. Gov. Palin was wrong when she implied Senator Obama never attached his name to any significant law or reform while serving in the Senate. Unfortunately, she’d be right if she said the same about his policy on urban America.