Obama’s backdrop of economic success has a flip side in Omaha

President Obama chose Omaha as his first stop after his State of the Union address. (Photo by Robyn Murray, NET News)
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January 14, 2016 - 10:29am

The atmosphere at Baxter Arena was electric. Close to 11,000 people packed into the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s brand new home for hockey and basketball. “It still has that new arena smell,” the president joked. To cheers, applause and shouts of “We love you!” Obama thanked the crowd and told them, “I love you back, Omaha!”

The president may have a soft spot for Omaha after the city split from the rest of the state and sent him one congressional vote in 2008. But he likely picked this backdrop because Omaha makes a good case for a strong economy, particularly when unemployment is below 3 percent.

“We now have the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” Obama said. “We are in the midst of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history. 14 million new jobs. Around 40,000 in Omaha and the surrounding areas.”

The president pointed to Omaha’s low unemployment rate as an example of the strengthening jobs market during his tenure. The city – and state – has seen steady job growth since unemployment swelled in the Great Recession, but the 3 percent number hides a great disparity. Omaha has regularly ranked in the top five of America’s cities for unemployment and poverty in its African-American communities. Concentrated in parts of North and South Omaha, joblessness is in double digits by most estimates.

“I think the president's message generically is that he's brought the economy back and the job market back and that Nebraska, we are the quintessential poster child for that success,” said Preston Love, Jr., founder of the non-partisan North Omaha Voter Participation Project and a long-time political organizer.

“As much as I support the president, I take exception to that, big time.”

Love was instrumental in increasing voter turnout and turning Omaha blue in 2008. But he says people who live in North and South Omaha want the whole story told. “People feel as if stories about how great things are in Nebraska or the United States are irrelevant if they're having trouble feeding their families,” he said. “They're not excited about the country's performance or Nebraska's performance if they're struggling to find a job.”

Outside Baxter Arena, community activist Willie Hamilton echoed Love’s concerns. “We talk about the good life,” Hamilton said. “The good life for who?”

Hamilton, who is active in standing up against violence in North Omaha, says he wants the president to know there’s a flip side to the good that Omaha represents. “I call it the tale of two cities,” he said. “I love my president man, but I’m hoping that people really address that flip side.”

The president didn’t specifically address the disparity in his speech. But – as he did in the State of the Union – he pointed to wage stagnation and said workers feel squeezed even when they do have jobs. Mostly, he struck an upbeat tone and urged citizens to reject predictions of America’s decline and rediscover the spirit of optimism that defines the country. “Big-hearted optimistic people, they’re everywhere, in coffee shops and churches all across Nebraska and in Louisiana and New York and Arizona and everyplace else, folks whose spirit built America,” Obama said. “That’s why I’m optimistic about our future. Because of you, the American people.”

The president’s positive message resonated with Love whose critique was tempered by appreciation for what Obama has stood for as the nation’s first black president. Love says he stepped up and tackled difficult issues and led the nation by example.

“Once the dust settles on his presidency and reflections are done, I think his legacy will be tremendous,” Love said. “He's been exemplary as a man leading our country. Great family man in every way, great intellect, command of the job in spite of criticism.”

“It’s really a great presidency for eight years in a very complex world.”



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