President Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress Thursday will be measured in a number of ways, but for the millions of unemployed and underemployed people in America only one measurement counts: the specific proposals Obama places before the country to get them back to work—not later, but now.
Leading progressive organizations have joined us in making a united push for a bold jobs agenda, such as the one we laid out in our “Big Ideas To Get America Working,” and we will be listening for how many of the common-sense proposals that progressives in Congress, labor groups and progressive advocacy organizations have put forward are embraced by the president.
We will also listen for whether Obama acts to rewrite the narrative on economic recovery that has to disastrous effect been dominated by conservatives in both parties, with the result that the country is locked into a cycle of government spending cuts that are actually costing the nation jobs and slowing economic growth. Unfortunately, Obama has embraced some of the conservative austerity rhetoric, and his political popularity is suffering as a result of its failures. His challenge—and given the rhetorical trench he has dug for himself, it will be a big one—will be to draw a bright line between the disastrous conservative austerity program and the path prescribed by hundreds of leading economists and economic experts: focus on jobs and rebuilding the economy first, and tackle deficit reduction when the unemployment crisis is over.
Here is a checklist of what we will be looking for in President Obama’s speech:
Fix our transportation system for future economic growth — As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, there are literally trillions of dollars of work to be done to shore up America’s roads and public transportation systems. Overcapacity and often in poor condition, they are a drag on our economic efficiency. Yet Congress has been deadlocked for more than two years on a six-year transportation reauthorization bill. House conservatives want to slash spending on our roads, bridges and public transportation systems. And neither party is adequately grappling with the antiquated gasoline tax, which is stuck in the pre-hybrid 1990s. Instead, some conservative lawmakers are seriously considering allowing the tax to expire at the end of this month. President Obama correctly identified the problem in his Labor Day speech in Detroit; the substance that he can put behind his words includes directing Congress to continue the gasoline tax beyond September 30 so the projects funded by the tax can continue, complete a six-year reauthorization bill by the end of this year, create an infrastructure bank to help get private funding to support infrastructure projects, and come up with a long-term solution for funding the nation’s transportation needs.
Repair our public schools — The average school building is more than 40 years old, and both the Government Accountability Office and the American Society of Civil Engineers agree there is a maintenance backlog of at least $227 billion. Much of this backlog is in poorer school districts where unemployment is high. A proposal by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute and Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund says that a program that addressed only 10 percent of the need “could immediately create half a million jobs.” Addressing half of this backlog would employ as many as 2 million people. Giving our children decent and energy-efficient buildings to learn in should be a no-brainer. President Obama should dare conservatives to explain why they would deny children decent learning facilities and deny unemployed construction workers and craftspeople the opportunities to work on providing these facilities.
Reverse the layoffs of public servants and engage in direct job creation — Since August 2008, state and local governments have slashed 671,000 jobs. That’s 671,000 fewer teachers, first responders, social service workers, public maintenance workers—real people doing real work to meet needs in our communities. The Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream bill by Rep. Jan Schakowsky would use $227 billion over two years to create a total of more than 2 million jobs, including 300,000 teachers, 40,000 police officers, 12,000 firefighters, 40,000 health care providers, and 100,000 early childhood care and education workers. Aid to state and local governments to end the continuing hemorrhaging of public workers has been rendered politically off the table by the radical right. It shouldn’t be, and Obama should take this on.
Revive manufacturing in America — The recent spate of bankruptcies by solar manufacturers that have been touted by the Obama administration is being used by the right to suggest that the federal government should not be in the business of boosting new American industries. That’s exactly the wrong lesson. Instead, the lesson should be that the right-wing so-called “free trade” orthodoxy that kowtows to the whims of multinational corporations does not work in a world of mercantilist nations such as China that are actively working to dominate the industries of the future. President Obama can start to take the offensive by pushing for a new trade strategy, insisting that every major nation play by the same set of rules, taking direct action against mercantilist nations like China that protect their markets, rig their currencies and steal our technology. Buy America should be a mandate on all federal, state and local government purchases, consistent with our trade laws. Plus, acting to regain dominance in the growing markets in solar, wind, fast trains and electric cars should be the centerpiece of our manufacturing strategy. Obama should call for increasing our investments in research and innovation, provide investment incentives, and aid the construction of key infrastructure such as a smart electric grid. Many of the elements that Obama should be advocating are in the House Democrats’ “Make It In America” suite of proposals.
Fix the housing crisis to help stimulate Main Street — A report by the New Bottom Line in August found that 1 million jobs would be created if banks were required to write down the principal on underwater mortgages. That would pump $70 billion a year into the Main Street economy. If high-rate mortgages were refinanced at today’s low rates, that would put billions more into the pockets of working-class and middle-class households. That money would be poured into the economy, eliminating the lack of consumer demand that businesses have said is the number one problem they face. President Obama can use his pulpit to spur action by Congress and by the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage agencies.
In order to move this agenda, President Obama has to hammer home this essential message: If we put millions of people back to work, our deficits won’t be the problem they appear to be today. But the real deficit problem the nation will face in the future will not be addressed by the conservative agenda of slashing government; it will have to be addressed with continued health care reform. Fixing the deficit will also require progressive taxes and new priorities, ending the wars abroad, reducing our commitment to policing the world, and cutting the Pentagon budget, even as we maintain the strongest military in the world.
Let’s measure President Obama’s speech to Congress by this standard.