Holding the President (and Everybody Else) Accountable

07/13/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Vice President Joe Biden has been hustling to plug the Recovery Act. On Thursday he went to Pennsylvania and Kansas, for the groundbreakings of bridge and highway projects funded by federal stimulus money, and Friday it was Kalamazoo, Michigan, for a ceremony marking interchange reconstruction.

The trips are the beginning of Biden's national "Road to Recovery" tour, on which he'll highlight infrastructure projects made possible by the Recovery Act. About four months into the passing of the $787 million stimulus, there's been much grumbling about not seeing substantial changes from it--particularly in African-American communities--so the administration is making moves to show where it's at work.

According to the White House's "100 Days, 100 Projects" report, Recovery Act-funded projects that have taken flight in Black communities include a job training program for teens and young adults in Macon County, Alabama, and expanded services at health centers in Stewart Country, Tennessee, such as diabetes treatment and dental care.

But with some African-Americans holding President Obama to a race-specific policy (since Black unemployment, at 14.9 percent, is far higher than the general population's), these efforts aren't doing much to stem misgivings about the equity of the economic stimulus plan. Commentators, such as Michael Eric Dyson and Tavis Smiley, aren't impressed by the President's "a rising tide lifts all boats" approach, which claims that policies designed to help all people will benefit African-Americans too. While administration officials repeatedly push taking advantage of stimulus dollars by engaging with local elected officials, and contacting local Recovery Act directors through mayor or governors' offices, the counterargument has been that it's the White House's responsibility to direct money to the areas most in need.

I talked to Jehmu Greene, political commentator and strategist, former president of Rock the Vote, and all-around advocate for democracy, about her take on this divide. "I can understand some of the angst that pundits have put out there, but the reality is, calling on the President to target his efforts to the African-American community is not going to have the impact that we're looking for," Greene said. "If we only focus our activism and criticism at the federal government, we're not going to see the immediate impact of policy. You can see a lot more by engaging at the local level, and holding all elected officials accountable for lifting African Americans out of this economic crisis. We can't put all of our eggs in the President Obama basket."

As for myself, I know the importance of holding the President accountable, and wanting him to ensure that the benefits of the Recovery Act don't pass us by. But he also stressed during his campaign that he couldn't do it alone. So much in our lives is decided in our backyards--with city councils, school boards, state representatives, senators--and yet that's where folks are most apathetic.

"We have this incredible opportunity with President Obama in the White House, but we have to do a lot more work than just call on him to fix our problems," said Greene. "It's our job to be the soldiers."