Obama’s legacy could be moral rather than political

May 24, 2013

Barack Obama had high hopes for his second term. In his lofty second inaugural address, he celebrated the virtues of activist government and pledged to redouble his efforts to fight climate change, among other causes dear to American liberals. Yet there is a growing perception that the president’s agenda has stalled. Congressional leaders continue to work toward comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but the Obama administration has mostly taken a hands-off approach. The president devoted several weeks to making the case for more stringent gun regulation, to no avail. Obama’s speech this week recasting the war on terror and drone policy may have been ambitious, but the goals remain thorny and controversial and therefore unlikely to define his presidency. And though he has continued to make the case for substantial tax increases on upper-income Americans, the House GOP remains staunchly opposed. Indeed, conservative anger over Benghazi and IRS targeting of conservative groups has led many Republicans to believe that the president is on the ropes and that they ought to press every advantage.

This raises the question of what kind of legacy President Obama will have. Even if Obama accomplishes nothing between now and the end of his second term, he will have been one of the most consequential presidents in modern American history, for better or for worse. During the 111th Congress, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed an unprecedented fiscal stimulus law; the Affordable Care Act; a sweeping student loan overhaul; and the biggest new round of financial regulations since the Great Depression. The president’s re-election victory made it far more likely that these legislative initiatives will endure, even in the face of determined Republican opposition.

But there is something unsatisfying about playing defense, and one imagines that the president, an ambitious and competitive man, longs to do more. One possibility, hinted at in a recent speech, is that Obama might take advantage of his prestige and moral authority to make the case for stronger American families. This need not entail any new legislation, though the president’s conservative critics might welcome that. Rather, it will require a series of firm and consistent moral arguments about what parents, and particularly fathers, owe to their children.

As a general rule, the politicians who’ve been most passionate about the cause of strengthening marriage have come from the right side of the political spectrum, where being a moralistic scold is no crime. Two Republican presidential candidates from last year – Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ‑ are classic examples. The trouble is that for all their good intentions, Santorum and Romney are, to put it mildly, culturally removed from the Americans most directly affected by the transformation of American family life. Romney’s family in particular read like a caricature of 1950s wholesomeness, and his own upbringing as the son of an auto industry executive and governor was not exactly relatable.

The same can’t be said of Barack Obama, who, like 33 percent of American children today, was raised by a single parent. During a moving commencement address on May 19 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the country’s most renowned historically black educational institutions, Obama briefly recalled his experiences as the son of a single mother. Having praised his mother and his grandparents for the sacrifices they had made on his behalf, he said, “I sure wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved.” And so, he explained, he endeavored to be the kind of father he wished he had as a youth, and “to break that cycle where a father is not at home.”

In “Wayward Sons,” a new report from the center-left think tank Third Way, the economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman suggest a number of ways in which changing family structure might influence economic and social inequalities. And in the course of doing so, they offer striking statistics on the transformation of African American family life.

From 1970 to 2010, for example, the share of black men with less than a high school diploma who were married fell from 69 percent to 17 percent. This is in part a reflection of the ravages of mass incarceration, as ex-offenders tend to have lower earnings once they leave prison. While fewer than 5 percent of black men ages 25 to 39 with less than a high school diploma were incarcerated in 1970, the number had increased to 26 percent four decades later. At the same time, the lives of black men and black women have been diverging along many dimensions. Among African American women with a high school education, 65 percent lived with biological children in 2010, a modest decline from 75 percent in 1970. Yet among black men with the same level of educational attainment, the share living with biological children had fallen from 65 percent in 1970 to 25 percent in 2010. Some fathers who choose not to live with their biological children undoubtedly make contributions, material or otherwise, to the families they’ve left behind. But their absence, as the president suggested in his Morehouse address, is keenly felt.

Autor and Wasserman demonstrate that changing family structure is far from an exclusively black phenomenon. As of 2010, 75 percent of children under 18 raised by black mothers who hadn’t completed high school lived in households in which their mother was the only adult, but the same was true of 45 percent of white mothers with the same level of educational attainment. This wouldn’t be a problem if outcomes for children raised by single mothers were identical to those for children raised in stable marriages. As Autor and Wasserman tentatively observe, however, there is reason to believe that while the female children of single mothers fare relatively well, the male children do not. And many of them grow up to become absent fathers. Having spent much of his adult life in Chicago’s South Side, the president is very familiar with this landscape.

One might argue that it is unfair or unreasonable to expect Obama to take up the role of moralizer-in-chief, and that may well be true. But he happens to be well suited to the role, and not just because of his by-all-accounts exemplary family life. While Santorum and Romney are seen as religiously devout, Obama is widely regarded as a more secular figure, and so his paeans to responsible fatherhood can’t be dismissed as somehow narrow or exclusive. Moreover, the president has been far more inclined to use moralistic language when addressing black audiences than non-black audiences. The implicit suggestion is that as one of the country’s most celebrated African Americans, he feels a special connection to the black community that allows him to make special claims. And there is something to this line of thinking.

In late May of last year, two weeks after the president announced his support for civil marriage rights to same-sex couples, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 59 percent of black Americans felt the same way, a dramatic increase of 18 percentage points when compared to a survey taken shortly before the president’s announcement. Many things could have changed the minds of African Americans on same-sex unions over a two-week period, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that many blacks hold the president in sufficiently high esteem that they are at least willing to give him a hearing. While the words of Santorum and Romney and various fire-and-brimstone evangelicals might fall on deaf ears, Obama is seen as a different kind of figure, one who is sincerely invested in African American uplift.

If Obama commits to making responsible fatherhood a central theme of his second term, he could have a deep and durable effect on American culture. Any legislative achievement would pale in comparison.

U.S. President Barack Obama gives the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of the class of 2013 at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia May 19, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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Don’t discount what single women of all races face in the US: under-employment, lower salaries, a court system that is weak and slow to enforce child support agreements, and age discrimination that comes earlier for women than for men in the American job market (or what’s left of it).

Single black women have it even harder. They try to survive in a system that, despite all claims to the contrary, has made little progress to combat race and social discrimination.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Boy, this article really stretched to find something Obungle could claim as his “legacy”. So far, I have seen nothing from him that he should be proud of.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

If we manage to survive Obama, our legacy is more likely to be as a third-world nation.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

The best way for President Obama to strengthen families is to:

1. Stop government entitlements/welfare.

2. Stop immigration completely.

Most poor Americans want to work and want to have jobs. For the past 20 years immigration has been roughly 3-4 million people per year. This is pouring excess labor into an economy that is see most of its factories closing, and jobs being offshored and outsourced abroad.

It President Obama wants to help poor black America, he must immediately stop immigration.

Immigration is destroying black America.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

@AdamSmith, but American corporations outsourcing jobs overseas isn’t the problem? That’s what started this economic decline in the first place.

Immigration isn’t “destroying black America”. Corporate America is destroying black America, right alongside white America, and every other middle-class American in their way.

Most “poor Americans” DO have jobs, they’re just still earning under the poverty line. Don’t confuse the unemployed with the poor.

Why do you want to blame everything on immigration? Run the numbers, you’ll find that’s absurd.

But you really think that immigration is the cause for so many deadbeat, absent parents? Oh, HEY! Now it all makes sense! The reason so many ex-spouses don’t pay their child support, or visit their children, stay involved in their lives, or stay married is because of Latino immigration! Hey, thank god you’re here, man! The seas have parted for me

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

@ Adam Smith —
@ JL4 —

As to these two points which you both address:

1. “Stop(ping) government entitlements/welfare” would be economically and socially devastating to large numbers of people in this country, most of whom have no other means of support, and would therefore be extremely counterprodictive in just about every way possible you can imagine. The truth is that the US has precious litte in terms of a “social safety net” compared to other OECD countries and we simply cannot afford to lose it or we will end up losing this country to chaos.

2. “Stop(ping) immigration completely” until we can stabilize this economy is somthing which must be done. It is totally unconscionable to allow massive numbers of immigrants to enter this country to compete with BOTH our working poor and unemployed/underemployed.

The problem in both instances is the growth of multinational corporations over the past 30+ years through liberal tax, trade and banking legislation that benefits ONLY the wealthy class.

In other words, the jobs that they have not been able to “outsource”, they now “insource”, both of which actions are destroying this nation.

You both may be interested in this “reality check” article from the UK Guardian.


What is the economic responsibility of corporate America?

Even Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is calling out the private sector for not doing its part to help the frail economy

Heidi Moore (updated)
Heidi Moore
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 May 2013 14.15 EDT
Jump to comments (130)

The best kind of Federal Reserve chairman is the one who doesn’t believe he owes anyone anything. That is when we start to hear the truth about the economy more directly.

Seven years into his term, and unlikely to renew his engagement in Washington, Ben Bernanke has reached this state. He started out as a diplomat and an able politician who avoided offending people and adopted the appropriate Washington plumage to survive. Now he is the truth-teller we need.

He has spent seven years dealing with a do-nothing Congress with little more than perhaps quiet exasperation. Now that his term is nearly over, he is a bolder man. In his testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of Washington, he pulled no punches. He declared:

“Monetary policy is not omnipotent. We are pushing pretty hard at this point.”

Bernanke has chided Congress before, subtly, on its refusal to take action with the budget and revise fiscal policy. He was not so subtle this time. Bernanke noted that long-term health of the economy is “not the Fed’s job” – “that’s the private sector’s job and Congress’s job.”

Congress, we can leave aside. We know that austerity is painful and counterproductive, as the travails of Europe have shown us. If we didn’t know it, Bernanke made it clear. Bernanke’s mention of the private sector, however, is important. While Congress and the Fed discuss what to do about the slow economy, there are a few voices notably absent: those of any important CEOs willing to do their part to increase hiring.

The corporate and financial side of America – the private sector – is not doing its part to help the economy. Congress, as utterly useless as it has been in producing decent legislation, can only do that – legislation. Companies and banks actually hold the purse strings and hiring power, and they are not loosening them to help the economy.

Take a bill introduced by Democratic Representative John K Delaney of Maryland this week. The bipartisan bill – with 13 co-sponsors from the Republican and Democratic ranks – is devoted to improving the country’s weakening infrastructure by luring corporations to contribute to the effort.

Many of these corporations, in protest of “high corporate taxes” that they rarely actually pay, hire expensive lawyers to avoid the entirety of their tax bills. Yet they use the nation’s roads for trucking, our waterways for shipping, our bridges and city streets and airports. In small towns, one big corporation can make the entire economy, as FedEx is in its Tennessee headquarters. But how about the towns and the states that these companies just pass through on their way to making money? They don’t get the same economic benefit to help with their maintenance.

While major corporations are happy to use infrastructure, they contribute very little to its maintenance as long as they don’t pay their full compliment of taxes. Yet convincing these corporations to pay their full tax burden is a lost cause, as was evident yesterday when Apple CEO Tim Cook smilingly explained openly to Congress how Apple uses Irish subsidiaries to lessen its US tax bill. The lawmakers mostly met Cook’s testimony with adoration. The message of his appearance on behalf of corporations everywhere was: allow us to pay lower taxes, and we will stop avoiding them.

As this ego-fed debate continues, the nation’s infrastructure needs repair – hundreds of billions of dollars in repair, according to many studies – and that money isn’t coming from the government. So Washington has to think carefully: how can it persuade corporations to do their duty and pick up part of the tab for the services they use?

The answer is in Congressman Delaney’s bill, which proposes that companies be allowed to repatriate their foreign earnings at a lower tax rate – as low as 8%, probably – if they use some of the money to buy new infrastructure bonds. The bonds, of which only $50bn will be sold, will raise about $750bn for infrastructure investment.

With its bipartisan support and solid negotiation technique – a simple quid pro quo – the Delaney bill is likely to be successful, or at least should be. It is perhaps the first constructive answer to both a government and a corporate problem.

Still, there remains a question of whether the offshore tax holiday was ever really a plausible corporate problem, or one hyped by CEOs as an excuse to inflate their company’s coffers and their stockholders’ wallets rather than invest in new initiatives. Once the offshore-profits issue is out of the way, what excuse will companies have left for not investing money in the American economy and American workers?

The issue of offshore profits and a tax holiday was a red herring: US companies have not been hurting for cash. The stock market is at record highs overall, and particularly so for big companies. The stock market riches are flooding corporations in inflated stock options and paper wealth. Corporate profits, as a percentage of US GDP, are higher than ever, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The 2004 tax holiday showed that the companies that took advantage actually fired workers, and that was during a good economy. There is no reason to believe they would be any more eager to hire as long as there is the excuse of a weak economy.

The truth is, the weak economy is not out of the hands of corporations. They don’t have a tax problem. They don’t have an economic problem. They don’t have a problem of an unskilled workforce. Instead, they have an innovation problem. These companies could, for instance, invest in new initiatives or expand their business models. Very few, if any, companies are doing that. In fact, a recent study from Accenture raised the question of whether CEOs even believe in innovation as a solution any more. The survey of 512 companies found 51% said they were investing more in innovation but 46% said their companies were becoming risk-averse anyway.

This is fearful thinking, and it’s the same plague that infects Congress. Just as fear has paralyzed Congress, it has scared CEOs. Yet fear is no excuse. Taxes are no excuse. Caution is no excuse.

The excuses have run out. The corporate side of America is not pulling its weight. It is not paying the fair price in economic boosterism or in taxes for all the advantages it enjoys. Instead of hearing Ben Bernanke testifying, or Congress and the Fed trading blame, maybe it’s time to ask some CEOs why they have taken themselves out of the equation of getting America back on its feet.

Even more importantly, it’s worth asking why we have let them.


As to her question of “What is the economic responsibility of corporate America?”, it is a rhetorical question that should not even have to be asked.

The answer should be obvious to everyone that corporate America’s responsibility is to make profits for its stockholders. It is their legal responsiblity under their corporate charters to do this and can be sued by the shareholders for any other actions on their part.

We tend to forget that corporations, by their very nature, have NO economic or moral responsibility to ANY nation, which is why they will ALWAYS act in their own self-interest, even if it means breaking the law.

The problem as I see it is that Congress — who has been entrusted by the American people to pass laws to control these corporations — has instead been totally corrupted by these large corporations, and is now taking order from them, heedless of the consequences to their own nation.

The American people must break that connection between Congress and the corporations who have a “death grip” on this nation.

If that can be done, for example, through strict term limits on ALL members of Congress, and making lobbying (which is nothing more than “legalized bribery” of our public officials) an illegal activity, severely punishable by law it would be a good start. That alone is likely to break the deadlock in Congress and force them to be accountable to the American people once again instead of corporate America as they are now.

A peaceful solution would be preferable, but time has virtually run out for that option. Without an immediate, massive demonstration of dissatisfaction from the American people on the scale of the protest of Black Americans and against the Vietnamese War it will not happen.

Given the state of the US economy, there is precious little time left for a peaceful solution, and I personally think we will end up with the “default” option of violence.


As a side note, it is quite interesting that the author advocates cutting a deal with these tax cheats, and presenting it as a win-win situation when in reality it is not.

First of all, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance and corporate America will not comply unless it is forced to do so.

Secondly, why should Congress negotiate with those who deliberately commit tax fraud?

This is nothing more than a “scam” of collusion by Congress and corporate Ameria to bring their profits home, which will then be invested in capital projects in the third world countries, as they have been doing for the past 30+ years.

What is not being said in these articles is the real reason these corporations want access to their funds.

Simply put, it is for investment and they are offering a bribe to Congress to allow them to do that. This will NOT benefit our country any more than the last time we did this. This is a fact.


What no one seems to understand is that what is happening to this nation is EXACTLY the same thing that has happened already in countries like Greece, for example, where the government has been totally corrupted by the wealthy class and is unable to collect taxes in a fair and equitable manner. Soon the US will become just like the PIGS, whose very survival is at stake because of their own wealthy-contolled governments.

ALL of this is so obvious, that I don’t understand why the American people do not see what is happening and take action to stop it.

Mere dissatisfaction with Congress will NOT do anything but make things much worse. What is needed is immediate action.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

A president that knows what matters. one may recall “it takes a village”.

Posted by DbPolk | Report as abusive

It’s frankly amazing how LITTLE Americans know about their own country, as evidenced by the above comments and the author. You argue in political talking points and have no idea the substance of any issue. Obama isn’t black Jesus or anything, but he’s saved your skins in more ways than you can count up to. All Americans can conjure is self-pity and anecdotal extrapolations and the worst is always believed while good news is always discredited. You don’t deserve Obama honestly – you deserve a religious nut-bar, empty suit like Mitt Romney to be PotUS and finish driving your empire to the ground in a blaze of glory.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Obama’s legacy will be that of a totally failed President. His one “triumph”, ObamaCare, is a financial disaster. He has accomplished nothing else. In the meantime, he is lying about the Fast/Furious cover-up, lying about Benghazi, lying about the IRS, lying about government stealing phone records, and basically lying about everything else.

He will simply be remembered for his lies.

Posted by Dragos111 | Report as abusive

I think his presidency will be of redefining the American identity that despite it being as scary as it is everyone will still be able to call themselves an American

Posted by Quilla | Report as abusive

Student loans? The interest is almost certain to double on those loans. Obamacare? Not implemented and who knows what kind of a mess it will be. Immigration reform? Another amnesty be a different name and it will not help the millions of unemployed and under-employed citizens and legal immigrants.

On the other side we have drones, NDAA, the expansion of the Patriot Act, scandals involving the State Department and the IRS and the Department of IN-Justice.

Moral legacy? Puhlease –

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

What brought Obama into office? A public juiced up on change – change wanted due to a financial system and economy that were in chaos. What brought on this screwed-up economy? A criminally corrupt financial system enabled by a corrupt federal reserve. Many have suffered at the hands of this bunch of scum; yet where has leadership directly from Obama been to address the criminal activity at the heart of the system? Where is the change?

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive