As the US president prepares to make his final State of the Union address, Bette Browne says the widespread optimism that greeted his election has given way to division and acrimony.
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address tomorrow, bringing to a close a stirring chapter in America’s history that saw his election as the country’s first black president.
But much has changed eight years later and an ugly national mood now threatens to erode such progress.
Obama reached back to the historical experience of Irish immigrants to illustrate his fears recently about what is happening to America today.
“A century ago New York City shops displayed signs, ‘No Irish Need Apply’,” he told a group of immigrants from 25 countries at a naturalisation ceremony that made them US citizens.
“Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1960s when JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy] ran [for the presidency] he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.”
The president told the new Americans how dangerous it is when a country forgets its history and fails to learn from it. Now it’s the loyalty of Muslims or Syrian refugees that’s being questioned by a number of candidates running to succeed Obama.
There have been 38 anti-Muslim attacks across a number of states since the Isis-linked massacre of 130 people in Paris last November.
Eighteen of the attacks came after the California killings of 14 people a month later by two radicalised Muslims living in the US.
But instead of calming the country’s fears, as Obama has sought to do, many political heavyweights are fuelling hysteria and seizing on it to boost their standing in presidential polls.
“The biggest irony of course,” the president told the new US citizens, “is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.”
He didn’t name names but his analogy was clear. Today’s White House hopefuls, led by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, conveniently forget their own immigrant lineage when they vilify vulnerable minorities for the actions of a few fanatics.
Trump’s mother emigrated from Scotland and his wife is an immigrant from Slovenia. Two other candidates, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, were born of Cuban immigrants, while former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s wife was born in Mexico.
“How quickly we forget. One generation passes, two generations pass, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from. And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them’,” not remembering we used to be ‘them’,” Obama told the new citizens.
“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes and were, for a time, even banned from entering America. During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained and Japanese immigrants, and even Japanese-American citizens, were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.
“We succumbed to fear. We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but also our deepest values. It’s happened before.” And now it’s happening again.
Obama’s election caught the world’s imagination in 2008 and again in 2012. But the world is looking on in horror now at the sight of America’s ugly underbelly, and the politics of anger and xenophobia that’s emerged in this presidential race.
But there was also a time in another odious era when other powerful politicians refused to take a stand against the racism and hatred that pervaded much of the country and led to the lynching of African-Americans.
These lynchings continued well into the 1930s, with 20 reported in 1935, but in those years, the US senate refused to pass a federal law against such barbarism.
Yet, over a number of generations, the country changed. In 2005, I was present in the senate when it approved a formal apology to African-Americans for the inaction of its previous leaders.
Three years later, in a historic turnaround for the country, enough black and white voters united to make Obama president.
“What makes America great is our capacity to change for the better,” Obama said in a White House preview of his state of the union address a few days ago, “our ability to come together as one American family and pull ourselves closer to the America we believe in.”
The kind of America that many of Obama’s supporters hoped for when he entered the White House was laudable. It was an America in which almost all things would be made possible for as many people as possible.
But it was also, to a great extent, naive, because politics is never like that. It’s about the harsh realties of compromise and pragmatism and small steps towards slow progress.
Obama was never going to have an easy ride, especially in a Congress determined to block his agenda. Guantanamo prison wasn’t closed, immigration reform failed, along with other pledges.
Nevertheless, he steered the country successfully though a global financial crisis and brought stability and growth back to the economy, as well as achieving a historically low unemployment rate of 5% — though the impact of many of these measures has yet to be felt fully by the middle class.
He has also managed, through his landmark Affordable Care Act of 2014, to make health insurance affordable for 17 million more Americans, even in the face of congressional and court challenges to the law.
And, while he failed to secure congressional passage of comprehensive gun control laws, he bypassed Congress last week and introduced limited measures by using his executive powers — though these measures can be reversed by an incoming president.
Indeed, reversing his agenda, from healthcare reform to gun control, is what many of the current White House candidates have said they are aiming to do.
They are also aiming to construct a very different kind of America, one in which their version of “greatness” seems to be attainable only by turning the clock back to the days when xenophobia and racism powered political ambition.
Instead of turning the pages of history back, however, it might be wise for them to learn from that history as they listen to Obama’s state of the union address because as an African-American he especially knows how far the country has come and the price generations have paid to get it there.
It might be wise for them, too, to remember something that happens on the day immigrants, like those to whom the president spoke recently, become US citizens.
After their swearing in, they receive a folder of welcoming documents. One in particular may prove very powerful for these new Americans this election year.
It is an invitation to register to vote.
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