Throughout the course of his all too brief life, Dr. Martin Luther King used the power of the spoken word to deliver both messages of warning and redemption for a nation that had not lived up to the true meaning of its creed. Now, as we fast forward nearly fifty years after he delivered his most famous speech on the national mall in Washington, America has its first president of color in Barack Obama.
But I firmly believe that King, operating under the guise of the universal Negro principle, “All my skin folk ain’t my kin folk," would not shy away from criticizing Obama where he found both our nation and our leader lacking.
To that end, let’s consider what Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed about the American experience and what he might be thinking about the state of our union today.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2010, Defense Department spending represented between 28 to 38 percent of the federal budget, growing at a rate of three percent annually. Over $685 billion is budgeted for war and other “overseas contingency operations,” as we have cleverly characterized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With other spending on counterterrorism, defense satellites and the interest incurred on the debts of past wars, this grows to nearly $1.35 trillion, between 42 to 57 percent of all estimated tax revenues in 2011 alone.
In comparison with other countries, the United States military budget represents over forty percent of all global arms spending and is more than six times larger than China, the world’s most populous nation. Today, however, while I am convinced that King would not be surprised at where our nation has clearly set its priorities, I do believe that he would be sorely disappointed in the gulf that continues to exist between “promises made” and “promise kept” by America’s 44th President, especially with regard to the issues of war and peace.
During his lifetime, Dr. King once said, “The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” When campaigning for the presidency of the United States, candidate Obama echoed Dr. King’s sentiments about war when he assured his Democratic base and legions of unaffiliated independents that he would bring home America’s troops. In fact, during a speech at DePaul University on October 3, 2007, Senator Obama declared, “I will end this war,” referring to the ill-advised quagmire in which the US finds itself in Iraq. To be sure, combat operations ended in Iraq in August, but at the midway point of Obama's presidency, the United States continues to spend more than $10 billion per month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to reporting in Politico last year, “President Barack Obama’s new budget…forecasts two consecutive years of near $160 billion in war funding, far more than he hoped when elected and only modestly less than the last years of the Bush Administration.” This has forced the President to give short shrift to some of America’s looming domestic challenges. “Obama has responded with a three-year domestic spending freeze impacting about $447 billion in annual appropriations,” the article continued.
For King, Obama’s version of the old “Potomac Two-Step” would be just another example of a politician saying what is necessary to get elected and then failing to “dance with the one who brung ya” to the big ball in the first place.
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
Since his days as a young community organizer whose goal was to listen carefully, appeal to reason and trust that others will do the right thing because it is the right thing to do is, President Obama has sought to govern our nation by first seeking consensus with Republicans and Democrats on the issues that matter most. In Washington, however, this approach has proven to be naïve, at best, and, at worst, detrimental to his own political future.
While America racked up debt and deficits as far as the eye could see, the most powerful leader on the planet fiddled and played footsies with those who would never support him anyway. For them, dating Obama in private and denying him in public gave them all of the lead time they would need to coalesce their forces and hand him his midterm “shellacking.”
When confronted with the same issues of political conscience and compromise, Dr. King knew all to well that consensus could only get you so far with those who mean you no good anyway. “Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'” King once said. “Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”
Today, as Obama licks his wounds and plots his political resurrection at the polls in 2012, I believe that King would counsel the President to lead from the front, lead by example, and to not allow his willingness to build bridges be the opening that others could use to erect roadblocks that keep him from doing what’s right for the American people.
“The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important.”
In the movie Traffic, actor James Brolin’s Drug Czar character shared a story with his successor that serves as an ominous foreboding for President Obama’s political future. “You know, when they forced Khruschev out, he sat down and wrote two letters to his successor,” Brolin deadpanned. “He said - 'When you get yourself into a situation you can't get out of, open the first letter, and you'll be safe. When you get yourself into another situation you can't get out of, open the second letter.'"
Well, soon enough, this guy found himself in a tight place, so he opened the first letter. It said, "Blame everything on me". So he blames the old man, and it worked like a charm. A little while later, he got himself into a second situation he couldn't get out of, so he opened up the second letter. "Sit down—and write two letters,” it said.
Throughout the entirety of the 2008 Presidential campaign, candidate Obama did not let a moment pass without reminding the American people of the damage done by the policies of George W. Bush. Today, however, as America continues to suffer from the malaise of an anemic economic “recovery," President Obama no longer has the luxury of “blaming it on the old man,” as the buck now stops with him.
As America begins to gear up for another “change election” in 2012, you can’t help but notice that the quality of life in America has plummeted precipitously since President Obama took office. Unemployment continues to hover near double digits, at 9.4 percent for all Americans (13.0% for Hispanics and 15.8% for blacks), and the American dream of homeownership continues to slip through the hands of hard working, middle class families. To paraphrase Reagan’s famous phrase, many Americans are not better off now than they were two years ago.
Today, were Martin Luther King, Jr. here to survey the American political landscape for himself, I believe that he would caution the president to do something, quickly, to address those who are suffering in America by a series of policies that have us all waiting in dreadful anticipation for the other shoe to drop. Failing to heed his warning, I am sure that King would strongly urge the “skinny kid with the funny name” to sit down in the solitude of the Oval Office and prepare to write two letters.
Elvin J. Dowling is the former Chief of Staff for the National Urban League. An independent who's been both a Republican and Democrat, he serves as Chairman of the Destined for Greatness Foundation. He also writes at his website ArchitectOfChange.com and on Twitter.