The 2012 Democratic National Convention was an exuberant celebration of President Obama, his accomplishments, and the many ways his presidency has made us better off than we were four years ago. Between a stirring and incandescent speech by First Lady Michelle Obama and an impassioned charge by former President Bill Clinton, the delegates were roused and the pressure was high for President Obama to deliver an inspiring charge to those who have already spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to participate in the convention.
Truly, he delivered with a tone that was alternately exuberant, defiant, humorous, and apologetic. Most importantly, he spoke of our country as being at a fork in the road, with choices to be made. Forward with Obama, backward with Romney. He challenged the delegates to move forward and embrace his accomplishments. Spirits were certainly high as thousands of delegates left the Time Warner Cable Arena chanting, “Fired up, ready to go.”
Why are political conventions held, anyway? Some are convinced they could’ve easily collapsed their three or four day schedule to just one or two days, because they are so scripted. Yet, one or two days might not be enough to engender the excitement that was present on Thursday night – the chanting, the hugging, the notion that, despite significant challenges, hard work will bring Democrats a victory in November. The convention is a tool to bring delegates, who are local leaders, into focused campaign activity. The convention is a tool to get the delegates out to organize and mobilize people.
After the euphoria, though, reality sets in. In other words, on Friday morning, the reality of unemployment rates sets in. While the unemployment rate dropped just a bit, from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, the level of job creation does not meet expectations. In other words, with only 96,000 jobs created, the Republicans have hay to make about the employment situation. On the other hand, Democrats can clearly say that that President Obama’s policies are holding the line, and that absent cooperation on the American Jobs Act, our president is doing the best that he or anyone else can do. Is holding the line good enough? The African American unemployment rate is 14.1 percent. With the underutilization index, Black unemployment rates were nearly 26 percent, which means that one in four African Americans do not have work. Some say this is an underestimate. There are 5 million people who are part of the long term unemployed, people who were out of work for half a year or more. These folks represent 40 percent of the unemployed. The data can be spun either way. Not enough? Holding the line? Failure? On the road to progress?
As much as I was fired up by President Obama’s speech, and the ones that preceded it, I also listened it through the lens of Leroy, the brother who has been unemployed, or even out of the labor force, for half a year or more. Leroy listened, and Leroy applauded, and maybe Leroy even agreed that we are at a fork in the road. But when Leroy is asked if he is better off than he was four years ago, he is only thinking about his unemployment. He is thinking that he can’t pay his rent. He is thinking that he is worse off, and a great speech won’t make him feel better. The Democratic challenge is to meet Leroy where he lives, to explain to him that his job prospects might be even more restricted under a Romney-Ryan administration than an Obama one. The challenge is to move Leroy past his angst and indifference to the same enthusiasm that delegates felt on Thursday night. The speeches are over and the work now begins. Speeches won’t bring electoral victory. A solid ground operation and lots of elbow grease will.
After the speech, as people filed out of the Time Warner Cable Arena, I spent some time with the Pacifica team from Los Angeles, Margaret Prescod, Davey D, and others. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Ralph Nader, and I talked about the speech and next steps. Nader is most critical, indicating that President Obama spoke neither of poverty nor increasing the minimum wage. While he is right, one wonders if, at a fork in the road, these are appropriate criticisms. Nader is a critic of the two-party political system, but that’s all we have now, so we have to work it. When President Obama wins this election, there will be more euphoria, which is a good thing. Then, reality must set in, with advocacy for the poor, as well as the middle class, with revisions to the tax code that eliminate corporate welfare, and with a greater commitment to quality education. From my perspective, too many people enjoy the euphoria and avoid the work.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.