01/24/2008 01:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A False Brand of Hope: Obama's Chicago Approach

From a Barack Obama campaign mailer sent to Chicago supporters this week:

"We know the battle ahead will be long. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation "false hope." But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we faced down impossible odds; when we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores, and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can -- it was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a President who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal the nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can."

Take something as horrendous as slavery, sprinkle in the words and deeds of great Americans like Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK and who can argue with that? Most people in their right mind would agree the abolition of slavery, the enactment of civil rights legislation and uniting the country around a common cause are inspiring events in U.S. history.

But because we agree with Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK is not reason enough to elect Barack Obama. This fact should remain entirely separate from what Obama says he will do for this country if elected.

I'm not the only one offended by candidates frivolously tossing around historical references to benefit their political campaigns. John Clingman writes in this month's Chicago Defender, the well-known black newspaper, about Obama and Clinton's use of MLK as a campaign strategy,

"The notion that King is being inserted into this political race is insulting to his work and his legacy, but I am sure it will continue. They are going to get all the mileage they can from "the dream" this year."

Of course, Obama has every right to use these references even if it may be unwisely. But, what's more important to notice about Obama's words is his take on several key issues that actually proliferate the very racism and inequality he so frequently references in his campaign: key issues such as the meager minimum wage, the current Family and Medical Leave Act and the lack of healthy food in poor, black and urban neighborhoods. All factors Obama has failed to create aggressive policy strategies to counter.

Take for example raising the minimum wage. To his credit, Obama favors raising it and indexing it to inflation, so it would continue to increase on its own. But unfortunately his plan offers no specific goals on how this might be accomplished.

However, John Edwards' plan specifically calls for increasing the minimum wage to at least $9.50 an hour by 2012 in addition to indexing it.

Again to his credit, Obama supports requiring employers to offer workers seven paid sick days per year. However, on the paltry Family and Medical Leave Act (which Hillary Clinton so proudly claims to have championed), Obama's lack of a concrete goal could continue to leave families at the mercy of 12 unpaid weeks of leave, thereby putting struggling families in the position of choosing between caring for their children and loved ones or having enough money to subsist.

Currently, the FMLA forces families without extra income to turn to credit cards and tap into their savings to make up the missed weeks of pay. With new mothers urged by their doctors and midwives to spend at least the first 6 weeks recovering physically from birth, (longer if they've had a C-section), the weeks spent recuperating and caring for a child are often spent racking up debt or depleting a family's savings, if a family is lucky to have any to begin with.

Like Obama, Edwards would also require all businesses to offer workers a minimum of seven paid sick days a year. But, unlike Obama, Edwards' plan goes further faster "by setting a national goal of eight weeks of paid leave by 2014" and provides more federal resources than the Clinton plan, $2 billion a year to help states meet that goal. Clinton's paid leave plan is targeted a full two years later and fails to specify how many weeks of leave would actually be paid.

Failure to target food access disparities in poor urban areas, such as those documented by Mari Gallagher research, in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit is another area where Obama fails to demonstrate understanding. A lack of nutrition has been proven to prevent children from acheiving and adults from living longer, healthy lives with less risk of disease. According to the study findings, both of these consequences directly affect African-Americans in urban areas.

With regard to this issue, Edwards proposes a "public-private partnership" to bring nutritious food to new neighborhoods. He proposes creating a national food access map to identify neighborhoods lacking grocery stores, emergency food banks and regular access to fresh produce. His "Healthy Neighborhoods Seed Fund" would offer needy communities challenge grants for projects like full-service supermarkets, community gardens and food stamp-friendly farmers' markets.

Neither Clinton nor Obama make any mention of food access in the policy pages of their websites.

So it appears that with his latest Chicago pitch, Obama expects voters to readily conjure a connection between the words and deeds of admired historical figures and his own mere candidacy as instinctive proof of his lead on issues affecting the poor and struggling families, including many African-American families.

However, after taking a long hard look at his policy plans, what's revealed is a vastly different picture of Obama's grand idea of hope.