Obama talks of turning point for Indians, but which direction?

At a summit last week, the president stayed away from the kind of departure from traditional government programs that might build a stronger middle class in Indian Country.

Crosscut archive image.

President Obama at a 2011 gathering with Indian Country leaders.

At a summit last week, the president stayed away from the kind of departure from traditional government programs that might build a stronger middle class in Indian Country.

Politicians are required to be optimistic. It’s the first tool in their bag. And a president of the United States is even more optimistic than most politicians. It’s what we expect from our leader.

President Barack Obama beamed that message at the White House Tribal Nations conference last week. He told tribal leaders: “We’ve got a long road ahead. But I believe that one day, we’re going to be able to look back on these years and say that this was a turning point. This was the moment when we began to build a strong middle class in Indian Country … the moment when we stopped repeating the mistakes of the past, and began building a better future together, one that honors old traditions and welcomes every Native American into the American Dream.”

That’s a lofty goal — even in good times. But what does that idea mean in the era of contraction? How can the president have Indian Country’s back when so much of the federal government’s agenda is shaped by the times we live in?

One current debate that fits that promise exactly is the president’s campaign to extend the payroll tax cut. This doesn’t seem like a tribal issue, but it is because for most American Indians and Alaska Natives (on the reservation or living in cities) the payroll tax is far more important than income tax. (To see for yourself, try this White House calculator.) Payroll taxes are paid mostly by the bottom 90 percent of wage earners; this is a big deal to your paycheck.

But a payroll tax extension — as helpful as it is — is not the same as a “turning point” or a “moment” when we begin begin to build a strong middle class. What would make that so? Especially now.

During the week there were meetings by subject area and region between administration officials and tribal leaders. One regular theme was to try and “hold harmless” any major budget cuts. That might be possible in this fiscal year because much of the government will likely operate on a Continuing Resolution (the current one expires Dec. 16) and that does leave some flexibility. Last year, for example, other agencies in the Department of Interior took bigger budget cuts than the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But beginning in January 2013 all bets are off. The spending cuts required under law — the Budget Control Act — give the Obama administration far less flexibility. At least on the actual dollars.

But several officials, including Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Heather Higginbottom, said there might be another kind of flexibility. She said the administration would “maximize resources and minimize costs.” That could mean that tribes, villages and other grantees could be given more leeway in how money is spent. The government could find ways to limit mandated reports or other other processes that can be expensive. That could free up at least some money to manage through the cuts (which could amount to nearly 10 percent in 2013).

I think that spending flexibility would be a good thing. There’s a lot of bureaucracy that could go away (and we wouldn’t notice).

But that action would only prevent a total economic collapse. It would not stop the austerity that is our future. It would not change the paradigm, what the president described as turning point, building a strong middle class in Indian Country.

The turning point notion should be a matter of urgency. It’s a call to reframe the conversation about federal programs before January 2013 when the real budget cuts hit. In order to build a middle class, we have to build a new kind of economy in Indian Country. To do that, we need to build on our demographic advantage, our youthful population, and look for alternatives beyond traditional government programs.

But that kind of turning point was not on the agenda during the sessions last week. The president’s optimism was based on what is now; not what could be. So if Indian Country is at a turning point, it’s time to ask, in what direction?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.