I was apprehensive when I learned that President Obama would give the commencement speech at Howard University this year. I feared a repeat of his Morehouse speech, his yammering and scolding of African Americans in a manner so objectionable as to repulse. The Morehouse speech was, charitably speaking, a misstep. Would Howard be a reset? I was reminded that Ivory Toldson, a Howard University professor, leads the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and understood that Dr. Toldson might have had an opportunity to review the President’s speech. I desperately wanted President Obama to knock his speech out of the park. Guess what? He did.
He hit all the right notes. He told students to celebrate their blackness their way. He offered sage, but not scolding advice and seemed nowhere as condescending as he did at Morehouse. I didn’t have the privilege of attending Howard’s commencement, but I had the opportunity to watch the president on television. He rocked. This was one of the moments when I wish I could give him a high five.
Perhaps President Obama’s last year will be his best year. Perhaps the work he is doing on offering clemency for nonviolent drug offenders will expand. While he has embraced the principle of pardons, he has offered fewer than 400 so far, even though more than 9000 may be eligible. The Justice Department says it is “red tape” and “bureaucracy” that hampers the process, but Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe managed to cut through a lot of red tape by restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons in his state. Let’s see if President Obama can be as creative as the Virginia governor in issuing a blanket order to pardon nonviolent drug offenders. That would be historic.
There have been several historic and transformative moments in these last months of the Obama presidency. Executive Order 13658 provided a minimum wage of $10.10 for federal contract workers, an important initiative given that federal contractors earn millions of dollars in profits but often pay their lowest-level workers little more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. When they bid on contracts, the contracts are often awarded based on minimum bid, but minimum bid means minimum wage. Absent an executive order setting a wage floor, the most exploitative employer is the one who gets the contract.
Similarly, Executive Order 13706 provides paid sick leave for those who work for federal contractors. Again, these contractors would not provide such leave unless they were mandated to do so by executive order. President Obama has pushed the envelope in determining that an employer or contractor has the right to include terms and conditions of work in a contract. A low-bid contract must now include adequate pay, not minimum pay. It is a step forward.
A recalcitrant Congress made it impossible for President Obama to change the terms and conditions of work for more workers, but the Executive Orders he issued set a tone for what one could consider an ideal workplace. Workers should have fair wages, sick leave, and other benefits that federal contractors are not likely to offer without incentives. All workers should have these benefits, but they cannot be mandated without the concurrence of Congress. In the same way that President Obama has spoke from his heart to Howard University students, he seems to have spoken from his principles to some workers. Kudos.
Still it is challenging for me to be satisfied by actions that come so late in this administration, a speech that comes after President Obama’s team has slashed the money available to HBCUs. The soaring rhetoric of the Howard University commencement speech must be balanced by the gritty reality that too many students are leaving school because they cannot afford to pay tuition, and that even as students were walking across the state during graduation, some fraction of them would not receive diplomas because of their unpaid bills.
President Obama recovered from his Morehouse misstep with a Howard reset, but he still has half a year to do more. If he would restore the dollars he took from HBCUs, he would leave a lasting legacy about being comfortable in his blackness.