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Has Obama Leveled The Economic Playing Field?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we get an update on developments in Mali in West Africa. That's a country known to many for its cultural heritage. French soldiers have started an assault to repel Islamist militants who have already taken northern territory. NPR's Ofeibea Quist Arcton is going to bring us up to date in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama is less than a week away from being sworn into his second term in office, so we've been looking at some of the unresolved issues from his first four years. Yesterday we talked about his often stated pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and why that hasn't happened yet.

Today we want to look at the president's record on creating economic opportunity, especially for those at the lower end of the ladder. Joining us to talk about this is Keli Goff. She is a political correspondent for That's an online publication. She's been writing about promises the president made in his first term.

Also with us is Ron Christie. He is a Republican strategist, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He's a regular contributor to our political conversations. Welcome back to both of you. A Happy New Year to you both.

RON CHRISTIE: Happy New Year.

KELI GOFF: Great to be back.

MARTIN: So Keli, at yesterday's press conference the president was mainly talking about the debt ceiling, which is another challenge, but he used a lot of the same themes he's been talking about for the last four years. And he said the American people agree with him. Let's listen.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They don't think it's fair, for example, to ask a senior to pay more for his or her healthcare or a scientist to shut down life-saving research so that a multi-millionaire investor can pay less in tax rates than a secretary.

MARTIN: So he talked a lot about fairness and he tied, you know, economic fairness to economic opportunity. So I'm going to ask you to assess his overall record in creating better economic conditions for Americans overall.

GOFF: Well, I don't think that anyone who's actually being a fair critic can say that this president hasn't gone to the mat for the middle class, right? I mean he fought to save auto jobs in Michigan when he fought to save GM. He fought for the tax rate, right?

And you know, I got in a little trouble when I made the point that for a number of Americans living in places like New York and other - even D.C., right, high cost urban areas, if they're making $250,000, they have four kids in private school, or they're paying for kids to go to college, those are upper middle class Americans.

Those are not, quote, rich one percenters, and you know, by the cost of living they're having to endure. So that case can certainly be made. The bigger question, though, Michel, is what has he really done in terms of poverty, right, because that's what ends up costing all of us a lot more. It hurts the lives of impoverished Americans. It hurts the future of children. Every study has shown that.

And that's where his record gets much more mixed. Some would say it's not mixed, it's negative. Because his record in terms of really doing what he talked about doing on the campaign trail, which was, for instance, replicating Geoffrey Canada's extremely successful work in Harlem for children, he said, you know, it's going to cost billions of dollars. That's what he said in 2008. And I'm looking to do that as president. That money has not materialized. His record even on addressing black unemployment, while the campaign was able to celebrate that just before the election the unemployment rate finally fell below eight percent nationwide, no president had been reelected since FDR with unemployment higher than eight percent.

So there was a lot of jubilation in Democratic circles, it finally cracked below eight just before the election. Except it didn't with one group - African-Americans. Rose to over 14 percent in October. So his record in terms of addressing poor communities, poor communities of color, is one that's led to a lot of critics, including former head of the CBC Emanuel Cleaver, you know, he said to me in an interview with The Root that if those numbers were the way they were for a white president in terms of black unemployment, they'd be marching around the White House. So there's no question that there's a lot more work for him to do in the second term.

MARTIN: You know, it's an interesting question, Ron Christie, you know, we wanted to obviously talk broadly but just focusing on African-American unemployment in particular, one of the president's - his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, one of his central arguments was you can - and he actually put this in an ad - you can say the president's tried.

You can say the president is a nice guy. You can say that he cares. But you can't say he's succeeded. But the public didn't agree with him. And one argument for why the public didn't agree with him - and this according to, say, the noted political scientist William Julius Wilson - is that the steps the president has taken have laid the groundwork, even if they haven't achieved the results in the short-term. What do you say to that?

CHRISTIE: Really? I say that this president came in and he said that he inherited a disaster from his predecessor and we immediately needed to pass a stimulus bill, that if we had passed the stimulus bill, the $1 trillion or more or less that was proposed to be for shovel-ready projects and bridges and road construction, that by this point that unemployment would be, of course, beneath six percent.

The reality of the matter is that unemployment has never been beneath 7.8 percent during his entire four years in office. I look at the president and I look at his press conference the other day and I see an individual - it's almost like he's never been president. Right? You know, if those Republicans would only go along with more spending, more taxes, you know, socking it to the wealthy, then the world would be a better place.

But when you look at his actual record - and I agree with Keli on this - I am so disappointed. What Geoffrey Canada has done with the Promise Academy in Harlem is nothing short of revolutionary. And the president originally called for the creation of said academies across the country, but then didn't go to fund it.

If you're going to actually take concrete steps to help those who need help the most, and I truly believe that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, then this president has failed. And I don't see anything - any willingness, any midcourse correction, other than to continue to tax the wealthy and to continue to deficit spend rather than to actually take concrete steps to help the economy.

GOFF: Well...

MARTIN: We're talking about - hold on. We're talking about unresolved issues from the president's first four years in office. We're talking with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Keli Goff of The Root. Keli?

GOFF: Well, this is one of the rare times where Ron and I are actually in agreement to some degree, because normally we never are.


GOFF: But I will say that - but there is a yin and yang here, right? Because if you do want to replicate these programs, you have to fund them. The funding has to come from somewhere. That brings up controversial things like taxing the wealthy. But I think actually the bigger issue, Michel, in terms of - we are in somewhat agreement that I don't think the president succeeded, certainly not the way that people had hoped, and that he would even want - say that he wanted to. But the question in terms of why is where we're probably not going to agree. And here's what I mean. When you look at the work that William Julius Wilson has done in terms of how poverty in urban areas is different in its function, the way that it sort of spreads like a disease differently than it does in rural America and other parts of the country, because it's so concentrated, right, but part of those issues are all intertwined, which is what his research has shown. So you can't, for instance, talk about how do we solve the dropout rate in these communities, how do we solve feeding these kids, and not talk about the role that race, cultural issues, all these factors come into play together. And that's what I actually would argue has stymied the president the most.

Because as a black president facing a reelection who is struggling with white males, he didn't want to hold press conferences or issue policy papers that say, hey, there's a Princeton study from 2005 that showed that a white male with a prison conviction is still more likely to get a callback for a job interview than a black guy without one if the one doing the hiring is white. Which is what that studied showed.

MARTIN: So what does that suggest, though? I mean does it suggest he should have done more job owning? Does it suggest that he should have done more in the way of policy? Ron seems to be saying there are just simply policies that he could have pursued that he did not pursue. Including fighting employment discrimination, which is something that we have hear zero about.

GOFF: That's - well, I agree with you. I totally agree with you. And the point that I'm making is I agree that he should have done more on that. If he had, though, I don't know that he would have been reelected. Because I simply don't think that a black president saying, you know, here's a policy solution that's specific to African-Americans because they have a tougher time because of race, would have been popular - even though it's true.

Even though it's a hundred percent true. So I think the question becomes in the second term, are we going to see him more comfortable and confident saying things like that out loud and then working up a policy framework from that end, because he's not worried about reelection?

One of the things - I'm not trying to ramble here - but one of the things I did mention in my piece, Michel, is an example of cities like Philadelphia, where Michael Nutter has seen tremendous success in offering tax breaks to those who are willing to hire former felons who are trying to go the right way. He calls it one of the best prison recidivism programs against making that happen.

That matters when one in six black men has been to prison. But you've never heard the president endorse a program like that because of all the political and racial landmines there.

MARTIN: Well, one thing we have to talk about, though, is the student loan issue, because the administration has consistently argued that access to higher education is the best way to address economic opportunity overall, even though it's a long term investment.

Earlier this year he said that Congress shouldn't let interest rates double on student loans.

OBAMA: For many working families, the idea of owing that much money means that higher education is simply out of reach for their children. Now, in America higher education cannot be a luxury. It's an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford.

MARTIN: Ron, can you bring yourself to say that the president has followed through on promises to ease the student loan burden, and is that, in fact, a relevant issue, something we should be worried about?

CHRISTIE: Yes, he did. But again, I am so disappointed in the way that he did it. He consolidated the student loan industry and put it under the federal government. I as a free market capitalist say it is far better to have the free market, banks and institutions, that are lending money to students as opposed to the federal government. It almost becomes another entitlement.

The president - and Keli and I would agree with this - absolutely, college has to be within reach of every American child who wants to go. We also need to look at reforming our colleges and universities. The tuition is exploding at much higher than the rate of inflation and there's runaway spending that's going on at these universities and these colleges. And frankly, you need to ask yourself - and I was an English major and I'm happily employed - but you need to ask yourself, if students who are going to college and doing fine arts and they're doing dance and they're doing anthropology, are these types of majors and these areas of concentrations preparing them for a job in a very highly technical workforce?

GOFF: Well, but the president has actually said that. Right? He has offered criticism that says that, you know, if you're going to take out $40,000 in debt, you should really rethink what you're majoring in. But student loans are actually right up there, I'd say, with gay rights, one of the issues he's done more on than president - than anything else. And actually even his critics would have to agree with that. I mean the laundry list of things he's done, which you can see in my column in, is pretty extraordinary, not just defending the interest rates, but pushing for the IBR to lower it from 15 percent of your income to 10 percent of your minimum income and fighting the fast track that once you've been a responsible payer for 20 years, you're no longer on the hook.

The most important thing, though, Michel, I would argue that he's actually done is fought to make it a consumer rights issue by getting the consumer rights agency involved to fight to ensure that colleges are actually printing accurate information when they're trying to lure parents and families into taking out this debt.

And you know, really quickly, an example is when they say to a student in their brochures, we have 100 percent employment rate from our alumni, and then a student takes out $25,000, goes to this college, finds out that that employment rate actually includes a bunch of kids with Master's degrees who are working as waitresses and bartenders.


GOFF: He's fighting against that kind of stuff.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. We'll have to look ahead to both the inaugural address and the State of the Union to see whether there is more to say about the issues that we've talked about here, and we'll come back and talk about that.

Keli Goff is a political correspondent for The Root. Ron Christie is a Republican strategist, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and a reformed English major, something we have just learned today. They both joined us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Thank you both.

CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.